Launch of The Colour of Murder, the latest book in the popular ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series of medieval murder mysteries by author and historian Toni Mount.
A Big thank you to Toni Mount for writing this interesting article about poisonous plants used in the Middle Ages and letting us host the 1st day The Colour of Murder blog tour. The Colour of Murder is the latest whodunit in the popular ‘Sebastian Foxley’ series of medieval murder mysteries by author and historian Toni Mount and was released a few days ago.
540 years ago, on the 18th February 1478 the Duke of Clarence was, famously, drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. Did he jump or was he pushed? The question has never been answered, so this was an opportunity for the intrepid investigator Seb Foxley – to finally solve the mystery.
Digitalis & Other Plant Poisons used in Medieval Times
In The Colour of Murder I feature the use of digitalis, a toxin present in all parts of the foxglove plant, though different species are poisonous to varying degrees. Foxgloves are such attractive flowers that they have been grown in gardens for centuries, despite the danger. Today, digitalis is still used in medicine for the treatment of certain heart conditions in the form of the drug digoxin. Digitalis causes slower, more intense contractions of the heart and may make it beat irregularly – it is these accentuated effects which are the causes of death. Nausea and loss of appetite are other side effects but all these symptoms could be attributed to ‘natural causes’ rather than poisoning. The side effect that was most noticeable for Seb Foxley in The Colour of Murder was that of visual distortion. Digitalis causes colour-vision changes, making everything appear greenish yellow, sometimes with mistiness or ‘snow’. Lights may seem to flicker or have haloes. I took liberties in having Seb suffer these visual problems after a single dose: patients on digoxin treatment don’t usually notice such aberrations until a few weeks after they begin to take the pills.
It is possible that Vincent van Gogh may have been taking digitalis in his later years, perhaps as a treatment for his epilepsy, although it wouldn’t have helped this condition. It would certainly explain his ‘yellow period’ and the haloes around the stars in his famous ‘Starry Night’ painting. His two portraits of his doctor both include foxglove flowers which might be another clue.
In case of an overdose of digitalis, another equally toxic substance provided the antidote: atropine from the deadly nightshade plant. Atropine causes the heart rate to increase so counters the effect of digitalis but, administered alone in a high dose, the accelerated heart rate and resultant high blood pressure can kill. Atropine was used as a cosmetic product in medieval Italy because, as a side effect, it causes the pupils to dilate, making the eyes appear larger and more striking – hence its other name ‘belladonna’ or ‘beautiful lady’. Unfortunately, even quite small doses administered as drops into the eye can cause hallucinations for up to twelve hours as well as a sense of disorientation. I wonder if it was worth it just to enhance a lady’s eyes.
Deadly nightshade belongs to the plant family Solanaceae as does the infamous mandrake and also woody nightshade. Their flowers with back-curving petals are quite distinctive and were well known to be avoided by medieval folk. This led to a great reluctance to eat any part of a plant which bore the tell-tale flowers of this family. So it comes as no surprise that when potatoes and tomatoes – also Solanaceae – were brought to Europe from the Americas, the English were too suspicious of them and it took decades before either food caught on here.
Perhaps the most notorious plant of all in the medieval period was hemlock. The Ancient Greeks used it as a means of execution, forcing the philosopher Socrates to drink it after he was found guilty of ‘corrupting the minds’ of young Athenians. He gradually experienced numbness that began in his feet and legs and paralysis. He would have died of asphyxia as he could no longer draw breath and his heart stopped. Other side effects could be excess salivation and convulsions but the Greeks knew enough of herbal medicine to have added belladonna to Socrates’ last drink to dry up any excess secretions such as saliva, and opium to ease any distress from convulsions by inducing sleep.
But the big problem with hemlock was always that it was easily mistaken for other perfectly edible wild plants, all belonging to the carrot family. The leaves of hemlock look like parsley; its roots are much the same as wild parsnip and carrot – in the days when carrots were pale or purplish, rather than orange – and its seeds look like those of wild aniseed. There are a number of species of hemlock, similar to look at but containing different poisons. Various water hemlocks are all deadly but it was the spotted hemlock, Conium maculatum with its dark splotches on the stem that ended Socrates’ life. Accidental hemlock poisoning could have been more frequent than we know in the days when people made full use of the ‘free food’ to be gathered in the countryside. Mistaking water hemlock for wild parsnip could prove fatal for the entire family. Anyone gathering wild plants for food really had to know what they were doing. Wild birds were often caught in nets and popped into the pot and they too could be toxic because although they can eat hemlock seeds without ill effect, it makes their flesh poisonous to humans. In the days before diagnostic tests were available, it is impossible to say how many deaths from ‘feebleness’, ‘paralysis’, ‘breathing troubles’ or the convulsive form of ‘falling sickness’ [epilepsy] might have been due to an accidental dose of hemlock.
Monkshood, aconite or wolf’s bane Aconitum napellus is another deadly plant but at least its appearance is usually unmistakeable, unless the root is thought to be that of horseradish. It’s a member of the buttercup family – all of which are poisonous to some degree – but is closely related to the beautiful, stately delphinium. Both these plants have spires of blue flowers but monkshood blossoms have what looks like a helmet or hood – hence its ancient name devil’s helmet. It is so deadly – much more so than the delphinium – that in Roman times it was a capital crime to grow it. However, in medieval times, a salve made with the root was occasionally used to treat gout as it numbed the pain; numbness can occur in the hands if gardeners touch it without wearing gloves.
The poison acts swiftly, causing a rapid but irregular heartbeat, numbness in the throat and mouth, although the tongue may feel as if its burning – a unique symptom of poisoning by aconitine: the most active ingredient in monkshood. Giddiness, chills and laboured breathing are suffered but when the numbness and paralysis reach the heart, death rapidly follows. A large dose can kill almost immediately, within minutes and, even today, there is no certain antidote and no chemical test to identify aconitine in body tissues after death. Only the burning sensation in the tongue identifies it – if the victim has time to note it. As little as a milligram or two can be fatal but, if the victim survives for 24 hours, there is a good chance of recovery without lasting ill effects.
Much of the information for this Blog came from A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup [Bloomsbury, 2015] but if you purchase a copy, I suggest you wrap it in a plain dust jacket. With so many intriguing ways of dispatching relatives described in detail, you don‘t want to give your family nightmares, do you?
The beautiful cover is juxtaposed to the horror of murder as Seb Foxley unravels the story of the death of The Duke of Clarence in the Tower of London in February 1478. See the cover created by Dmitry Yakhovsky here :
The paperback release 22 January and Kindle release 1 February 2018
In February 1478, London is not a safe haven, whether for princes or commoners. A wealthy merchant is killed by an intruder; a royal duke dies at the Tower but in neither case is the matter quite as it seems. Seb Foxley, an intrepid young artist, finds himself in the darkest of places, fleeing for his life. With foul deeds afoot at the king’s court, his wife Emily pregnant and his brother Jude’s hope of marrying Rose thwarted, can Seb unearth the secrets which others would prefer to keep hidden? Join Seb and Jude, their lives at hazard in the dangerous streets of the city, as they struggle to solve crimes and keep their business flourishing in this new Sebastian Foxley medieval murder mystery: The Colour of Murder.
The Foxley Letters - An exclusive collection of letters …
This unique e-book in the bestselling Sebastian Foxley Medieval Murder Mystery Series is free to download. With personal letters from all the main characters, including Seb, Emily, Jude and even the wonderful Jack, this collection of letters will add to the lives and stories of those involved in the intrigue, drama and excitement of these historical thrillers set in Medieval London. You can find them HERE
Join Toni further on her blog tour next month for more great articles
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