the Tournament of the Golden Swan
One of the enduring legends attached to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine is that she poisoned her rival, Rosamund Clifford. The first written version of the legend appears in an anonymous fourteenth century chronicle, wherein the Queen is identified as Eleanor of Provence, but it was a popular theme readily taken up by later writers. There is no physical or historical evidence that Eleanor was in the least responsible for the death of Henry II’s mistress, yet the stories make it quite clear that poison was the Queen’s weapon of choice.
as now, toxins abounded in the natural world. Women were well versed in herb
lore, as they were often responsible for the healing of persons in their
households, keeping a garden and stillroom for the production of tinctures,
ointments and salves. Also known as wolfsbane and Friar’s Cap, aconitum
napellus was among the best known of medieval poisons. It is a member of the
buttercup family, of which the clematis is an example and is named for its
hooded blue flowers. Monkshood is a hardy perennial, and grows in alpine meadows
and wooded areas such as those found through Europe, especially the Pyrenees and
Alps. As such, ladies wishing to avail themselves of the plant’s deadly
properties would find it ready to hand in several areas outside urban centres.
Monkshood (Aconitum napellus)
addition to one of the best known of medieval poisons, monkshood is also one of
the most toxic. The Roman naturalist, Plinius, referred to it as “plant
arsenic”. It was commonly believed that the Greek gods distilled the poison
from the saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the underworld.
Ancient and medieval armies preferred monkshood as the toxin for poisoned arrows
and spears, and retreating forces would sabotage their own water supply with it,
as a parting gift for the invaders.
The active poison in monkshood is aconitine, one of the strongest plant toxins in the world. It is extremely dangerous in even the smallest doses; death has been reported in cases of children who have held the tubers in their hands for periods of time. Doses of 2-5 mg can kill an adult.
a stimulant when ingested, aconitine attacks the nervous system. Victims first
notice a burning sensation in the mouth and tingling throughout their body.
Sweating, abundant salivation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea follow. The skin
cools, the limbs become numb and the pulse accelerates. Breathing becomes
shallow and slow. Death results from respiratory failure and cardiac arrest, and
can occur within twenty minutes of ingesting the toxin. Since aconitine does not
affect the brain, the victim is alert during the process of the body’s systems
failing, a particularly gruesome prospect.
It appears from historical accounts that poisoners of the Middle Ages preferred to administer monkshood in liquid form, dipping arrows and spears into a solution, or pouring it into well water. Aconitine is not soluble in water, and so a tincture would have to be prepared.
parts of the plant are toxic, but the tuber is especially so. After harvesting
the tuber where it is naturally found, in mountain meadows and wooded areas with
open shade, the plant is left to dry. Then using a mortar and pestle (and a pair
of gloves), the tuber is ground up. Using a rough ratio of one part dried herb
to two parts water and two parts alcohol (i.e. wine), the monkshood is left to
steep in a jar or container for two weeks, being stirred daily. After that, the
tincture is strained and decanted into another container, possibly a smaller one
that can be discreetly carried on one’s person.
this time, the real work begins. Although the chronicle of Queen Eleanor
describes her offering Rosamund the choice between a dagger in the heart or a
cup of poison, most would-be assassins had to effect a much sneakier method of
applying their wares, usually by slipping the tincture into the victim’s wine,
or applying it to their meat at table.
Meade, Marion Eleanor of Aquitaine New York: Hawthorn/Dutton, 1977
The Munchkin Nursery
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