The Renaissance was a time of enlightenment, opulence, and all-around cultural rebirth. However, that’s not all it was. It was also a time of poisonous murders, toxic cosmetics, and hygienic horrors bad enough to make your hair stand on end…or maybe...
The Renaissance was a time of enlightenment, opulence, and all-around cultural rebirth. However, that’s not all it was. It was also a time of poisonous murders, toxic cosmetics, and hygienic horrors bad enough to make your hair stand on end…or maybe that was just all the grease.
You might not want to time travel to this era no matter how big of a Renaissance royalty fan you were…because you would be faced with possible death from poisoning, lead and mercury based makeup, or just the general disgusting atmosphere of palaces full to the brim with gold, jewels, and human dookie.
Instead of hopping in your Delorean, join Carrie as she recounts for Sean the poisons and hygienic horrors that made the Renaissance one of the deadliest times to be alive - even and maybe especially if you were wealthy, powerful, and royal.
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Sean, as you know, I have a bit of a fascination with royalty and old-timey life - it feels so far removed from our own lives nowadays that it’s almost like looking at an alien race. But, as we’ve come to realize this past year, the concerns that were paramount hundreds of years ago may not be all that different from ours now...we just know more about them. Take the Black Plague, for example. Sometimes this COVID crisis has felt like that in miniature. But Sean, this is not about the Black Plague or COVID, because I wanted to do a bit of a lighter show on this, the week of my birthday.
This episode will be all about Renaissance Poisons & Hygienic Horrors - because I think now more than ever, appreciating the incredible leaps and bounds we’ve made in the fields of medicine, makeup, and overall hygiene is truly necessary and may even give us a little gratitude that it hasn’t been so much worse. I’m not going into full medical quackery today, but let’s just say a lot of this episode has to do with the ways we used to poison ourselves without knowing it - and the ways we’d make ourselves sick before we understood germ theory.
Just wanted to say at the outset that I will be taking the bulk of my information from one of my FAVORITE non fiction books, The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman. I HIGHLY recommend getting this book to read if you want more of this craziness, as I will only be able to lightly scratch the surface in this episode. You can also, as I did, get this book on Audible - use our link www.audibletrial.com/aintitscary for a free trial! It’s a great listen too, though perhaps not while eating...for reasons you’ll discover soon. Yes, a bit of a warning - when we get into the hygienic horrors of the Renaissance, things are GONNA get gross.
Let’s begin with POISONS. Poison was a BIG thing back in the day. Like, using it to kill your enemies. Nowadays people might favor a gun or a knife, but royals and aristocracy centuries ago needed to be sneakier while also playing on the advantage they had that modern day forensics and pathology wasn’t a thing yet. That means if someone was poisoned, it was a LOT harder to trace the culprit - or even diagnose a poisoning at all.
It may make you uncomfortable to know, Sean, that the center of the poison trade was the land of my forefathers, Italy. Both the ruling de Medici family of Tuscany and the Venitian republic itself set up whole poison factories dedicated to churning out both toxins and antidotes, testing them on animals and condemned prisoners. The Romans had been famous for their plant based poisons - like hemlock, which Socrates died from - but the Renaissance poisoners were more into heavy metal poisons (GUITAR RIFF) like arsenic, mercury, and lead.
My favorite poisonous personality from Italy is Giulia Tofana, listed on wikipedia as an “Italian professional poisoner”, and happens to be one of the most prolific killers of all time. Tofana was born in Palermo in 1620 to a mother that was executed 13 years later for having murdered her husband. It seems this interest would run in the family. You see, at this time in history, it was pretty much impossible for women to escape abusive situations in their households - many were trapped in dangerous marriages without a choice, and they had negligible rights. Divorce certainly wasn’t an option. If a man beat a woman, it was mostly shrugged off as her having deserved it. If a woman was raped by her husband - well, she was his property, he could do as he pleased. No one deserves to be in this situation...and some of these victims, well, they turned to Giulia Tofana.
See, Giulia was very sympathetic to women dealing with domestic violence and spousal cruelty. So much so that she began making poison, called Aqua Tofana, that she would sell to women looking to escape abusive marriages. Aqua Tofana was disguised as a beauty product or religious oil, which was appropriate, as Giulia’s original business and eventual front was that she created cosmetics. Women would be able to stick it with their lotions and perfumes, right out in the open, and would never be suspected. Aqua Tofana was made up of lead, arsenic, and belladonna, and the recipe may have even come from Giulia’s mother, which she had used to kill Giulia’s father. It’s claim to fame was that 4-6 drops of the clear, innocuous-looking poison was “sufficient to destroy a man”. You would discretely purchase Aqua Tofana from Giulia or her daughter, secretly add a few drops to your abusive husband’s soup or wine, and sit back to wait. The poison had no taste, and symptoms appeared slowly and like a flu or other illness that progressed severely, but not so fast that the dying men wouldn’t have time to finalize his will or repent for his sins. A murderous wife could be comforted by the fact that the men would be able to gain entry to heaven...and provide for them after death, now that their affairs were in order. And, of course, the guy would stop beating or raping or abusing her, because he was dead. It was a good time all around, especially since suspicion usually wouldn’t fall on them, since it looked like natural causes. And there were a LOT of natural causes in the 1600s.
Giulia’s clients were very secretive, understandably, because you didn’t want to implicate yourself after poisoning your husband. She worked on a referral system, and if a former client sent someone her way, it was because that prospective buyer could be trusted and really did need help. And it was a good system, because Giulia was able to get away with this for almost 50 YEARS. That’s half a century with no snitches! Pretty remarkable, and also why yall should respect a strong, smart, powerful lady.
But, as there are no perfect crimes - especially the more and more people get involved - Giulia Tofana’s poisoning empire came crashing down with one woman getting cold feet. This woman was vetted by Giulia and bought the product to eliminate her husband - but just when the man was going to eat his tainted soup, the wife stopped him in a panic. As the story goes the husband, who wasn’t a good dude, beat the wife until she confessed that she’d poisoned the soup. He brought her to the authorities in Rome, where she was further tortured until, finally, she gave up Giulia and her whole racket. Giulia, however, was super popular, and was able to escape arrest initially under the protection of some locals to hide in a church, where she was granted sanctuary. Word started to spread, though, and rumors began to circulate that Giulia had poisoned the water supply throughout Rome. This, understandably, freaked people out - even those that were originally pro-Giulia. A mob overtakes the church, and they’re forced to give Giulia over to the authorities, who torture her until she eventually confesses to the deaths of around 600 men between the years of 1633 and 1651. They also tortured the names of some of her clients out of her.
Giulia Tofana, along with her daughter and 3 employees, was executed in July 1659. Her body was then thrown over the wall of the church that had given her sanctuary. Some users and purveyors of the Aqua Tofana were also executed, with other accomplices being bricked into the dungeons of the Palazzo Pucci, where presumably their remains lie to this day.
As a little epilogue to this story, the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart became convinced near the end of his life that he had been poisoned with Aqua Tofana, stating “I feel definitely that I will not last much longer; I am sure that I have been poisoned. Someone has given me acqua tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.” This was in 1791, though; more than a century after Giulia had lived to make her last bottle of Aqua Tofana - and, as we theorize now, Mozart probably died from natural illness or disease, though the legend of Aqua Tofana, like his music, lives on.
Now, to go on a little further in the Renaissance poisoning world, let’s move back a bit from Giulia Tofana to the time of Henry the 8th. Kings especially were incredibly paranoid about having their food poisoned, which is understandable, because at Henry’s Hampton Court he had over 200 people employed in the kitchens from cooks to carvers to bakers to butlers and so on. One cranky employee could bring down an empire. So what could you do if you wanted to eat but didn’t want to risk dying? You employ tasters to try everything you eat or drink before you do. That way, if it’s poisoned, they drop dead instead of you. Genius!
The men who made Henry the 8th’s bed every morning had to kiss EVERY PART of his sheets, pillows, and blankets to prove they had not smeared poison on them. The same caution was taken with new clothing, especially gifts - Queen Elizabeth the 1st was not allowed to accept traditional queenly gifts like perfumed gloves and sleeves because these, too, could be poisoned. This isn’t without precedent, though - in 1587 the French ambassador to England, Baron Chateauneuf sur Cher, plotted to have one of Elizabeth’s gowns poisoned, though clearly this wasn’t successful. 10 years later the Spanish Jesuits hired a worker in the Queen’s stables, Edward Squire, to smear poison on her saddle pommel. To their chagrin, the Queen always wore leather riding gloves, and the poison had no affect on her. He also tried smearing poison on the chair of the Queen’s favorite, the Earl of Essex, but apparently it didn’t poison his butt or whatever, because nothing happened. The Spanish started to believe that Squire was so inept that he MUST be a double agent, so they literally tattled on him (and themselves) to the British, who had Squire hanged, drawn, and quartered.
So as a constantly-suspicious royal in Renaissance times, what else was there to do to try and prevent poisonings? Well, get some poison detectors or antidotes, of course!
First up we have a unicorn horn, apparently a rare item you could maybe find in Asia or Africa. Royals would wave the horn over their food and sometimes dip it into food or drink. It was believed that the horn would sweat, change color, and shake if poison was detected. Some even thought these horns would render poison harmless if it WAS in the meal. Some threw unicorn horns into the palace well so the water could never be tainted. These things were VALUABLE, worth around eleven times its weight in gold. Charles IX of France received an offer of 100,000 crowns for his unicorn horn, but refused. I wasn’t able to find a way to convert old French crowns to US dollars, but it’s a lot. Queen Elizabeth had one valued at 10,000 pounds, at that time enough to buy a castle. She also drank from a unicorn horn cup that was promised to explode if it ever came into contact with poison.
Sadly for these royals, the unicorn horns were really usually the tusks of a narwhal, which wasn’t officially discovered until the 1700s. Til then, unicorns were more believable. And no, a narwhal horn has no poison-detecting or healing properties.
But hey, if you weren’t rich enough to afford a unicorn horn but still worried that you were important enough to poison, you could wave some emerald, aquamarine, or amethyst over your food and drink to be extra cautious. If you’ve read the Harry Potter you might recognize bezoars as another antidote. Bezoars are, disgustingly, gallstones or hairballs expelled from animals’ digestive tracts. They would be ground up and ingested, or set into rings, or dropped into goblets like a barfy Jagerbomb.
A lot of the Renaissance poison paranoia culminated in the infamous AFFAIR OF THE POISONS at the French court. In 1676 Marie Madeliene Marguerite d’Aubray was executed in Paris for using - you guessed it - Aqua Tofana to kill her father and brothers to inherit their estates. During her execution she stated, “Half the people of quality are involved in this sort of thing, and I could ruin them if I were to talk.” This sparked a hysteria in the noble circles that would see up to 367 people in the next 3 years arrested in and around Paris, with 36 being sentenced to death for poisoning.
A sorceress-poisoner named La Voisin was burned at the stake in 1680 for witchcraft with her daughter, Marie, being kept for questioning. Marie revealed that noblewomen angling for the position of king’s mistress had poisoned or planned to poison others who held that role so they could replace them. Among those implicated by Marie was the Countess of Soissons, the Duchess of Bouillon, the Duke of Luxembourg and one of the King’s current mistresses, the older Madame de Montespan. The Madame wanted to kill her rival for the King’s affections, Mademoiselle de Fontages, as well as the King - hell hath no fury as a woman scorned. Marie stated the plan was to give the Mademoiselle a poisoned gown or gloves, and the King would be poisoned by a tainted petition for a prisoner’s release that, when opened, would consume the King with fumes and kill him on the spot.
Neither of these worked out, and when Louis found out about the plot, he panicked. He would have to allow the police to question his long-time mistress, who by the way was mother to several of his children. So he shut down the whole investigation, and anyone else who mentioned Madame de Montespan’s name in connection with the Affair of the Poisons would be executed or locked in solitary confinement.
While it seems that the Madame had given the King various kinds of love potions over the years to try and keep his interest, it’s less clear whether she ever tried to actually have him or the Mademoiselle killed. Though Mademoiselle de Fontages did indeed become sick in 1680, those imprisoned for the Affair of the Poisons had been in jail for almost a year at that point. She died in June 1681, and the King requested no autopsy be performed, in case Madame de Montespan really had poisoned her. However, it seems probable that the Mademoiselle actually died from complications relating to a miscarriage, and her illness coinciding with the frenzy caused by the Affair of the Poisons was what caused the suspicion that the poisoning had been successfully carried out.
Now that we’ve discussed intentional poisoning, let’s get into poisonous cosmetics and horrifying hygiene practices...after the break.
So now that we’ve gone over some legit poisons, let’s talk about some that people used and didn’t even know were bad for them. There are...a LOT of these.
Let’s talk cosmetics. We all remember Queen Elizabeth the 1st - in every portrait she has an extremely pale white complexion. She wanted to show her skin was as pure as her soul, as a flawless complexion was proof of God’s favor. So she used a pasty foundation comprised of egg whites, white lead ore, vinegar, arsenic, hydroxide, and carbonate. She pulled this trend from Italian noblewomen and it became the fashion in England - much to everyone’s detriment. Unfortunately, lead absorbed through the skin caused hair loss, paralysis, skin corrosion, dementia, and more. Maria, the Countess of Coventry, was known as a great beauty and wore layers of the thick lead-based foundation and bright red rouge - then died at the young age of 28 after suffering migraines, receding gums, loose teeth, and tremors. The press at the time even called her “A victim of cosmetics”.
Not in the mood for lead-based foundation? No worries- use a mercury based one instead! Mercury was great at filling in wrinkles and concealing blemishes and freckles, but when absorbed through the skin it too caused health problems like birth defects, fatigue, black teeth, paranoia, depression, and of course, death. And if you used arsenic face powder over your mercury paint, you’d end up with scaly skin, tingling in the extremities, headaches, anemia, and increased risk of all different kinds of cancer. It really puts the phrase “dying to be beautiful” into perspective.
Remember how I mentioned that belladonna was used in Aqua Tofana, the husband-killing poison disguised as cosmetics? That’s because, while being deadly, belladonna really WAS commonly used in cosmetics of the day. Women would put drops of belladonna in their eyes to make them sparkle and look bigger and brighter….and over time this would cause visual problems, increased heart rate, and sometimes blindness. Want to cleanse the skin? Use your own pee! Yup, you too can combine your own urine with honey, water, vinegar, and milk for that fresh-faced look. And want to remove some unsightly warts? To quote The Accomplisht Ladys Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery: “Take earth and knead it with dogs pisse, and laie it upon the warts and they will drie up and consume awaie.” Bonus - you also smell like dog piss!
Transitioning perfectly from this, we can move on to the truly horrifying hygienic practices of the day. Let’s keep in mind a couple of things here: first, we had absolutely no concept of what bacteria was before it was discovered in 1676 by Antonie van Leeuwenkoek. And even for a long while after that point, people at large didn’t really associate cleanliness with preventing bacteria, with the germ theory of disease really being advocated much later in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. So people really weren’t concerned about cleanliness, especially in cooking and cleaning. Secondly, we didn’t have indoor plumbing as a common thing in even palaces until at least the 1800s. This will become...important.
For instance: Henry the 8th’s Great House of Easement, a luxury two-story toilet facility at Hampton Court, would have the human waste beneath the latrines pile up head-high before it was cleaned out. And imagine cleaning up this, well, shit?
Does the idea of watching a play or opera in the luxurious European theaters sound incredibly appearing? Well, if you time traveled back to experience these performances, you may be too overcome by the SMELL in the place to enjoy the acting or singing. There were chamber pots in the private boxes so the aristocracy could enjoy the hours-long shows without missing a minute, casually taking a pee or a number two in the middle of the performance. One Parisian evening, the Comte de Bussy reported, two noblewomen named Madame de Saulx and Madame de Tremouille each took giant dumps in their respective chamber pots and, wanting to get rid of the foul smell they had just expended from their bodies, dropped the contents into the audience below, who then chased the ladies out of the theater. I really enjoy how even back then, this kind of stuff was WORTH WRITING DOWN because, oh my god, could you believe?
You may be saying Carrie, this is gross. This isn’t scary. I dunno man. Imagine watching, like, Romeo & Juliet and getting some rich lady’s poop dropped on your head? That’s pretty terrifying to me.
But being serious here, the frightening thing about any of this is that there were just SO MANY WAYS to get sick and/or die in the Renaissance. Aside from the obvious, you had to be worried about poison, and you could be poisoning YOURSELF without even knowing it thanks to toxic makeup. But the hygiene practices of the time just...really take the cake.
You might think that palace life would be much less hideous and stinky than a night at the theater, and you would be so, so very wrong. Does the French palace of Versailles seem like the high of opulence? Visually, perhaps, but bacterially - and aromatically - it probably was closer to an overflowing Porta-Potty at Coachella on a hot day. Male courtiers tended to relieve themselves wherever, in corners and on stairwells, with the servants having to clean up after them. This kind of thing was such a problem that Edward VI had to make an official edict in 1547 forbidding anyone to “make water or cast any nuisance within the precinct of the court.” Elizabeth Charlotte, sister-in-law to Louis XIV, reported of Versailles that “the people stationed in the galleries in front of our room piss in all the corners. It is impossible to leave one’s apartments without seeing somebody pissing.” Women tended to be more private about their bodily functions, but not always. A lady in waiting to Caroline, Princess of Wales, was attending to her royal mistress for hours and was forbidden to ask to be excused to relieve herself. So, eventually, she just had to pee on the floor. The English and French monarchies would move from palace to palace many times a year mostly to give servants an opportunity to scrub the place clean of all the accumulated number 1’s and 2’s. While this fact is very underreported and very hilarious, it’s also incredibly disgusting.
Speaking of disgusting! Let’s get into some other hygiene beliefs and superstitions that plagued Renaissance nobles. You may be aware that the Romans were very into bathing, having almost 1000 public bathhouses in Rome alone. The Church, however, declared in its infinite wisdom that bathing was a form of sinful hedonism practiced by pagans, and that a thick coating of dirt on the skin showed Christian humility and kept illness from entering the body. Presumably because the pores were so gunked up with grime that illness had nowhere to go. Physicians themselves began to believe bathing was dangerous, with one health manual stating “Use not baths or stews, nor sweat too much, for all openeth the pores of a man’s body and maketh the venomous air to enter and to infect the blood.” Royalty took this to heart in varying degrees. While Queen Elizabeth bathed the unusually high amount of once a month, Queen Isabella of Spain bragged that she had only bathed twice in her entire life, and Elizabeth’s successor King James never bathed at all. Louis the 14th stank “like a wild animal”, reported the ambassador from Russia, so much so that his mistress was forced to douse herself in perfumes to mask HIS smell rather than her own. This next story is gross but so bizarre I had to include it, so if you have a weak stomach, maybe skip ahead a couple minutes. Louis the 14th had such terrible personal hygiene that an abscess formed in, well, his anus, which became a fistula. These are...in so many words, a starting point for serious infection that can spread throughout the body. It became so painful for him that he couldn’t ride his horse, walk, or sit on the throne without discomfort. You want the scary part about this? Well, a brave barber-surgeon named Charles Francois Felix agreed to operate on the King - which, if it went wrong, would probably result in his execution - but only if he could test out the surgery on human guinea pigs first. So he got 75 “volunteers”, mostly prisoners, and practiced on them. Some died, of course, but at least the KING’S operation was a success. And so, because of this, 1686 became the “Year of the Fistula” at court. No, I’m not making a joke here. Because anything the King did became all the rage, courtiers were desperate to have fistulas of their own, with many male noblemen draping swaths of bandages over their butts to emulate the King. People were literally pretending to have anal fissures because it was TRENDY. It’s absolutely wild.
Before we wrap up this truly gross bit of history, let’s discuss another kind of hygiene - dental. Dental hygiene itself is really a modern thing. And America is really the most intensive about it, especially about the whiteness of teeth. But back in the day? No one really knew anything about dental hygiene.
By the end of the 16th century sugar was very popular with the nobles and even the middle class. Because of this, dental problems increased in abundance. It may seem hard to believe, but the skulls of medieval people have often been found to have great dental health, while those from the Renaissance era suffered several abscesses resulting in lost teeth. Unlike the stereotype of the medieval peasant with rotten teeth, tooth decay was actually much less prevalent in the Middle Ages than later...because of sugar. Guys, sugar was used for EVERYTHING. On veggies, to preserve fruit, and even in medicinal remedies. Acqua gli denti, aka Water for Teeth, was a mouthwash made primarily of sugar and water that was said to improve dental health and “sweeten the breath”. The wealthier you were, the more sugar you tended to consume, due to the cost, and therefore the more rotten your teeth tended to be. It was said that Queen Elizabeth loved sugar so much that her consumption of it eventually turned her teeth black. This may be an overstatement, but sugar wasn’t the only thing that could’ve done this. Pulverized stones like powdered pearls or the teeth of dogs were crushed and rubbed onto teeth and gums to remove plaque. It also would, unfortunately, remove tooth enamel, and wear down the teeth altogether. Fancy metal toothpicks would be worn around the neck and were favored to clean teeth - another item that would end up harming them even further.
If you had a toothache or needed dental surgery? HAH. They yanked the tooth out, getting you drunk beforehand if you were lucky. Unless you were noble and could afford a surgeon, this would usually be done by your local barber with no stronger anesthetic than the house whiskey. Being a royal didn’t help much - King Charles the 7th starved to death in 1461 after an infection in his jaw from a rotten tooth made it impossible to eat or drink.
All I can say after all of this is, be grateful your cosmetics aren’t slowly poisoning you to death, that people no longer just relieve themselves in the hallways right in front of you, and brushing your teeth is a common thing. Even after this hellish year, it could be a whole, whole lot worse.
Let’s take a trip to the BIZARRE BAZAAR!
A series of strange events that have occurred in Egypt over the last week has sparked speculation among residents, who say that the country may have been struck by a pharaohs' curse ahead of a forthcoming parade of ancient royal mummies.
Plans over the coming days to move 22 royal mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir to a permanent exhibition space in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization have coincided with a string of bizarre and/or tragic major incidents in the country. We all know by now about the giant cargo ship that ran aground and blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week, blocking billions of dollars worth of trade for days on end. Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem plaguing Egypt recently. There has also been a tragic fatal train crash in Sohag, which killed 39 people, the collapse of a 10-story apartment building at Suez Bridge which killed 18, a massive fire at Zagazig railway station, the collapse of a concrete pillar on a bridge under construction in Mariotia, and fires at the Maadi Tower and a house in Minya.
Former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, who listeners may remember from our Curse of King Tut’s Tomb episode, declared that "the occurrence of these accidents is just fate and there is no connection between them and the mummies at all." Hawass pointed out that he had supervised the discovery of some of the tombs of ancient Egyptians and had not been harmed himself.
This Saturday the 'Pharaohs’ Golden Parade' and will see the ancient remains of the former Egyptian rulers transported through the streets of Cairo complete with celebrity guests, musical performances, and more. Among those museum exhibits to be transferred in the parade are the mummies of kings Ramesses II, Seqenenre Tao, Thutmose III, and Seti I, and queens Hatshepsut, Meritamen, the wife of King Amenhotep I, and Ahmose-Nefertari, wife of King Ahmose.
We will see what else this week brings, but our thoughts are with the people of Egypt dealing with the very real reality of these recent events.
That’s it for this episode of Ain’t It Scary with Sean and Carrie! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @aintitscary, and check out our website at aintitscary.com. You can support the show by supporting our sponsors, and becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/aintitscary. And please, subscribe to the show and throw us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts...we’ll be forever grateful.
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