The Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

9 Other Things That Happened on July 4

iStock/LPETTET
iStock/LPETTET

Of course we know that July 4 is Independence Day in the U.S. But lots of other things have happened on that date as well. Here are just a few of them:

1. Three former presidents died.

On July 4, 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—America's second and third presidents, respectively—both passed away. The two politicians had a love-hate relationship, and Adams's last words were supposedly, "Thomas Jefferson survives." (He didn't know that Jefferson had passed away a few hours earlier.) Exactly five years later, on July 4, 1831, fifth U.S. President James Monroe died in New York City.

2. Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond.

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau began his two-year living experiment at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts.

3. Alice Liddell first heard the story of Alice in Wonderland.

On July 4, 1862, little Alice Liddell listened to a story told by Lewis Carroll during a boat trip on the Thames ... it would later become, of course, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It was published exactly three years later—on July 4, 1865.

4. Two famous advice columnists were born.

On July 4, 1918, twin sisters Esther Pauline and Pauline Esther Friedman were born. Today they're better known as Ann Landers and Dear Abby.

5. George Steinbrenner came into the world.

On July 4, 1930, future Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was born (and presumably fired the doctor immediately).

6. Lou Gehrig delivered his retirement speech.

On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig gave his famous retirement speech at Yankee Stadium after being diagnosed with ALS. He tells the crowd that he considers himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

7. The Zodiac Killer killed for the first time. (As far as we know.)

On July 4, 1968, the Zodiac Killer murdered his first victims (that we know of) at Lake Herman Road in Benicia, California.

8. Koko was born.

On July 4, 1971, Koko, the sign-language gorilla, was born.

9. Bob Ross passed away.

On July 4, 1995, Bob Ross died, and all over the world, Happy Little Trees were a little less happy.

This list first ran in 2008 and was updated for 2019.

16 Savage Teddy Roosevelt Insults

George C. Beresford, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
George C. Beresford, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Theodore Roosevelt had a way with words. Over his lifetime, the eminently quotable president and author popularized many witty turns of phrase. And though he wasn’t fond of swearing, Roosevelt didn't always speak softly, either—he was capable of delivering a savage insult when he felt it was appropriate (though usually he saved his irritation for letters and didn't deliver the insult to his enemy’s face). Here are just a few of them.

1. “An amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains.”

This insult was leveled at an anonymous Supreme Court Justice who dared to cross Roosevelt.

2. “A well-meaning, pin-headed, anarchistic crank, of hirsute and slab-sided aspect.”

Said of the Populist Senator from Kansas William Alfred Peffer, who was indeed hairy, tall, and lean.

3. “The shifty, adroit, and selfish logothete in the White House.”

According to historian Edmund Morris, in 1915 Edith Wharton had asked Roosevelt to visit Europe and report on what was happening to the French in World War I. But Roosevelt proclaimed that he would only go when he could fight, which he considered unlikely under President Woodrow Wilson, who Roosevelt said "cannot be kicked into war." The former president didn't have kind words for Wilson's supporters, either; he called them "flubdubs and mollycoddles."

4. “A cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.”

When he wrote this, Roosevelt was insulting President Benjamin Harrison, who had appointed Roosevelt as a reform commissioner because he owed TR a favor. Harrison quickly came to regret it: Soon after Roosevelt was appointed, he investigated Indianapolis Postmaster William Wallace … Harrison’s best friend. 

5. “[A] little emasculated mass of inanity.”

Roosevelt said this of novelist Henry James. James, for his part, said that Roosevelt was “dangerous,” and “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding Noise.”

6. “The most intolerably slow of all men who ever adored red tape.”

This isn’t the nicest thing to say about one of your colleagues—in this case, one of TR’s fellow Civil Service Commissioners (and Civil War veteran), Charles Lyman. According to Lyman’s Men of Mark in America entry, published in 1906, “While Mr. Roosevelt's work and attention were largely given to the investigation of abuses and violations of the law and rules, and to the education of public opinion in favor of the reform, through public addresses and the press, Mr. Lyman's work was almost wholly administrative and constructive, his purpose and effort being to establish the reform on a sound and conservative basis and to develop it according to the more obvious and pressing needs of the public service.”

7. “A professional yodeler, a human trombone.”

Said of William Jennings Bryan, then Secretary of State to Woodrow Wilson.

8. “That leprous spot upon our civilization.”

Roosevelt didn’t have kind words for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, who dared “[portray] me as attacking labor when I enforce the law as regards Miller in the Printing Office,” Roosevelt wrote to Harrison Gray Otis in 1903. Earlier, the paper had published an interview in which Roosevelt supposedly called the paper’s coverage of the lead up to the Spanish-American War “most commendable and accurate.” The paper’s coverage was actually full of inaccuracies, and according to Roosevelt, he never gave that interview—and loudly denied those words of praise.

9. “Puzzlewit,” “Fathead,” “Brains less than a guinea pig.”

Roosevelt reserved some of his harshest words for his hand-picked successor. Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had a falling out; eventually, after challenging Taft for the Republican nomination (saying, "I'll name the compromise candidate. He'll be me. I'll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform”) Roosevelt ran against Taft in 1912 as a member of the Progressive party, a.k.a. the Bull Moose Party, and that’s when the gloves came off.

And in case the guinea pig reference seems random, Roosevelt once explained that “Just as machinery can be expressed in terms of horsepower, so some intellect can be expressed in terms of guinea pig power,” and that certain accusations against him “can only be heeded by men with brains of about three-guinea-pig power.” After which the St. Louis Dispatch opined, "Col. Theodore Roosevelt has further enriched the language which so many of his phrases now adorn by producing the following conjunctive description: ‘Three-guinea-pig-power brain.’ This is considered vastly superior to Woodrow Wilson’s ‘single track mind’ phrase, which had a brief vogue.”

10. “A flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him."

Another insult aimed at Taft.

11. “The true old-style Jeffersonian of the barbaric blatherskite variety.”

According to Merriam-Webster, a blatherskite is “a person who blathers a lot.” In this case, Roosevelt was referring to Mississippi Congressman John Sharp Williams, who served as the Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives from 1903 until 1908.

12. “He is evidently a maniac, morally no less than mentally.”

TR was a man of morals, and he used these harsh words in reference to his brother, Elliott Roosevelt, who had an affair out of wedlock that resulted in a pregnancy. In his autobiography, Teddy wrote, “Moreover, public opinion and the law should combine to hunt down the ‘flagrant man swine’ who himself hunts down poor or silly or unprotected girls.”

13. “[A] hypocritical haberdasher … An ill-constitutioned creature, oily, but with bristles sticking up through the oil.”

Said of Postmaster General John Wanamaker, after Wanamaker refused to intervene when Milwaukee Postmaster George H. Paul (more on him in a bit!) had “dismissed Hamilton Shidy for treachery and insubordination,” according to Edmund Morris. Shidy had testified against Paul in corruption proceedings.

14. “About as thorough-paced a scoundrel as I ever saw. An oily-Gammon, church-going specimen.”

Here, Roosevelt was calling Milwaukee Postmaster George H. Paul a fatty ham in addition to a scoundrel. (Paul would eventually resign in 1889.)

15. "Too small game to shoot twice."

Roosevelt leveled this dig at William J. Long, after the Wilderness Ways author attacked the president for giving an interview in which Roosevelt had accused Long of being a “nature faker.”

16. “He seems to have a brain of about eight-guinea-pig-power ... it is useless to have a worthy creature of mutton-suet consistency like the good Sir Mortimer.”

Written in a letter to Whitelaw Reid. Sir Mortimer Durand was a shy and formal British Ambassador to the United States from 1903-1906 (he also lent his name to the Durand line between Pakistan and Afghanistan). The diplomat was a huge fan of Roosevelt; Cecil Spring Rice wrote that “My chief (Durand) thinks Teddy R. the greatest man in the world and has treated me with immense respect since I let on that I correspond with Teddy. I tell him stories and he listens open-mouthed.” But Durand couldn’t keep up with Roosevelt, either in conversation or physically. Once, when the two went for a walk, Durand recounted in his diary that Roosevelt “made me struggle through bushes and over rocks for two hours and a half, at an impossible speed, till I was so done that I could hardly stand.” Yup, that sounds like Teddy!

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