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.

New Book Provides an Intimate Look at the Handwriting of Freud, Marie Antoinette, and Other Historical Figures

TASCHEN
TASCHEN

Handwriting analysts would have a field day with TASCHEN's latest book. Titled The Magic of Handwriting, the 464-page tome offers a rare glimpse into the intimate lives and correspondences of some of the most well-known names in history.

In modern times, handwriting is a dying art, which makes it all the more meaningful to see nearly 900 years' worth of writing preserved in vivid detail in the book. A letter penned a year before the French Revolution shows Marie Antoinette’s neat signature written in small letters. In contrast, French writer Marcel Proust’s handwritten manuscripts were frantically scrawled on whatever scraps of paper he could find. Charlie Chaplin sometimes included a sketch of his signature hat and cane while signing autographs, and Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota leader who was known for his courage in battle, dotted his i’s with what look like hearts or v's.

A signed picture of Sitting Bull
TASCHEN

A letter signed by Marie Antoinette
A letter signed by Marie Antoinette
TASCHEN

A manuscript handwritten by Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust's writing
TASCHEN

These artifacts come from the collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago, a Brazilian art historian and curator who has acquired thousands of handwritten letters, manuscripts, autographed photos, and musical compositions over the years. The book features over 100 items from his collection, which also went on display last year at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

In addition to displaying different styles of handwriting, the book also highlights little-known facts about historical figures and insight into their personality. There’s a handwritten invoice from Sigmund Freud, who charged one client 2000 schillings (nearly $500 in 1934, or roughly $9400 today) for 20 hours of psychoanalysis. When his patient tried to negotiate a lower price, Freud reportedly replied, “I am still forced to make a living. I cannot do more than five hours of analysis daily; and I do not know how much longer I shall work at it.”

An invoice signed by Sigmund Freud
An invoice signed by Sigmund Freud
TASCHEN

Ernest Hemingway’s snark is on full display in a “Who’s Who” questionnaire he filled out for the publishing firm Scribner’s in 1930. Under the career section, he merely replied “yes." Under "hobbies," he listed skiing, fishing, shooting, and drinking.

For more stories like these, order a copy of The Magic of Handwriting from TASCHEN’s website or Amazon.

A cover of the book 'The Magic of Handwriting'
TASCHEN

15 Fascinating Facts About Victoria

Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE
Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE

While The Crown may nab the bigger headlines, Victoria—the Masterpiece series that similarly follows a young-and-not-quite-ready royal’s ascension to England’s throne—beat Netflix’s pricey TV series to the air by more than two months. Though it was originally intended as a one-off miniseries, the show—about the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign—just kicked off its third season. To celebrate, we've gathered up some behind-the-scenes facts about the gorgeous, Buckingham Palace-set period piece.

1. Jenna Coleman left Doctor Who to take the lead in Victoria.

In 2015, Jenna Coleman surprised Whovians everywhere when she announced that she was leaving Doctor Who after three years on the series, where she served as a companion to both the Eleventh (Matt Smith) and Twelfth (Peter Capaldi) Doctors. Almost as soon as her departure from Doctor Who was confirmed, her casting as the lead in Victoria was announced. Not long after Coleman made her debut as Queen Victoria, her former Doctor Who co-star, Matt Smith, began his two-year stint as Prince Philip on The Crown.

2. Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke was among the actresses rumored to be vying for the lead role.

Victoria was originally meant to air as a single eight-part miniseries (its popularity is what led to a second season … and then a third). Because the time commitment wasn’t so intense, a number of well-known actors’ names were being tossed around as potential stars for the project. Among them? Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke and Downton Abbey’s Lily James.

3. Coleman was given access to Queen Victoria’s personal diaries.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

In order to better help her get into the mindset of her character, Coleman was given access to Victoria’s private diaries. “I’ve read so many biographies, but I’m always looking for certain details which give me access to her character and her psychology,” Coleman told Vulture in 2017. “Her diaries are so methodological in a lot of ways. You can find out what she ate for breakfast and what time she did this and what time she rose and what time she did everything. The detail is crazy.”

4. Queen Victoria was an avid sketcher, which was enormously helpful to Coleman.

In addition to writing down even the most mundane details of her day, Victoria was an avid sketcher. Gaining access to the Queen's doodles gave Coleman an even deeper insight into Victoria's mind. “She sketched and had done watercolors since she was about five or six years old,” Coleman told Vulture. “You can see what she used to draw and what interested her from a really young age, and that probably gave me the best sense of her psyche. It’s been totally untouched. Nobody has been able to distort her views with her own eyes and her hands. It’s unfiltered in every way so they’re really, really interesting.” (You can see some of those sketches for yourself here.)

5. Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne's relationship was complicated.

Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne (played by Rufus Sewell) is one of the series’ most dynamic and touching. And while it plays out as somewhat of one-sided love affair in season one, the truth wasn’t quite as romantic. Though she was sometimes referred to as “Mrs. Melbourne” in a mocking manner because of the prime minister's influence over the young queen, their relationship was more like a parental one.

“What’s so wonderful about Lord M and Victoria’s relationship is that it was the prime minister and the queen. It was dear friends,” Coleman told Vulture. “She was 18; he was technically 56 at the time. They made each other laugh. They were like father and daughter in many, many ways. You really can’t quite put a label on it, other than it’s two people who really connect and charm each other through mutual likes and interests. They had a really profound love, but what that love technically was is unclear … I think he was the first person who didn’t try to manipulate her and didn’t try to control her. He really gave her a voice so the trust between them was genuine and two-way. They went through a lot together. He was the person who guided her and shaped her and trained her for the first couple of years on the throne."

6. Keeping the child actors entertained can be a challenge.

Over the course of their marriage, Victoria and Albert had nine children together. So as the series has gone on, the number of babies and children on set has grown. Writing for Marie Claire, series creator Daisy Goodwin admitted that keeping the youngsters entertained can require some creative solutions:

"One of the tricks we use is to dress their mothers up as nursemaids to keep them right at their side—but sometimes the kids just won’t play ball. In one episode, Victoria comes home after a trip to Scotland and rushes in all excited to see the children, but they didn’t even turn round to look at her. A bag of sweets later, we got them at least to look up when their 'Mother' walked in."

7. Coleman likes playing a pregnant Queen best.

Queen Victoria famously loathed being pregnant, which we witness in the series. She “absolutely hated it,” Coleman told Town & Country. “She called it ‘being caught’ … [E]very time she gave birth to a child, it took her out of being able to be Queen. Each time that happened, she was being more and more and more removed. And she’s an impatient person; she doesn’t like being told to lie down. She just wanted to do her job. She had this exhilaration and love for her independence, I suppose. And she hated breastfeeding; she thought it was for cows, not for humans. So a lot of the things that came with her being a mother, she found pretty vile, I think."

Coleman feels quite differently about Victoria’s pregnancies—or at least about playing a pregnant Queen. “I think I enjoy playing her most when she’s pregnant because one, I don’t have to wear a corset, but then two, I get to kind of waddle around, and I feel like she can just be foul-tempered and rude,” Coleman said. “I relish playing her when she’s like that because she doesn’t really care what anybody thinks, in a way. She does when it comes to the public and her people, but ultimately, you get free reign to play Victoria irritable and in a bad mood, and I really love playing her when she’s like that."

8. The child actors have “no respect” for Victoria, according to Coleman.

JENNA COLEMAN as Victoria and TOM HUGHES as Albert in 'Victoria'
GARETH GATTRELL/ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

When asked about what it’s like working with a handful of kids on a regular basis, Coleman described it as both “absolutely crazy” and “hilarious.” Especially because the children are too young to understand what it means to stay in character. “Imagine toddlers, and you put them on set, and you kind of just have to get what you can,” Coleman said of shooting with her onscreen kids. “It's unpredictable, and incredibly funny because kids do say the funniest things, and they say the funniest things during takes. They ask Queen Victoria for some Doritos. It just becomes chaos, and I just absolutely get the giggles. They should release some footage of what really happens when the kids come to set. There’s no respect to Victoria. They completely rule me."

9. Buckingham Palace is actually an old airplane hangar.

Much of the series takes place at Buckingham Palace, and the show’s production team has done an amazing job of recreating the splendor of the property and what it would have looked like during Victoria’s reign. The location of their set, however, is not quite so glamorous. “The set where we film the Buckingham Palace scenes is in an old aircraft hangar, and is home to all kinds of wildlife,” according to Goodwin. “We had to stop shooting a very tender scene between Victoria and Albert because an owl kept flying through the frame, attracted by the jewels in Victoria’s hair."

10. Lighting all those candles is no easy task.

Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at about the same time that candlelight was being replaced with gas light in some of London’s most stately properties. While the switch to gas lighting has its own storyline in the series (there are rats involved), there were still a lot of candles to be lit on the set—about 300 in total. According to Goodwin, the process of lighting all those candles took an hour each time they shot.

11. The dog that plays Dash is no stranger to playing Dash.

Dash, Queen Victoria's prized dog, in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE

The adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that plays the Queen’s most trusted BFF Dash has some experience with the role. “The dog who played Dash is actually called Tory, and she made her screen debut playing the same role in the film Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt,” Goodwin wrote for Marie Claire.

12. A bird played an unanticipated role in Victoria and Albert’s proposal scene.

Much like Victoria herself, some viewers were surprised to learn that when a Queen decides it’s time to tie the knot, she must be the one who proposes. Making the scene in which Victoria proposes to Albert even more awkward and difficult was the fact that an uninvited bird kept interrupting the production.

"The proposal, on paper it looked like a great scene but to film it was a nightmare,” Tom Hughes, who plays Prince Albert, admitted at a screening of the episode. “[It took] about 50 [takes] because there was a stray bird upstairs in the roof. Every time I got to the point where I say, ‘I have to kiss you first’, [the bird] thought that it was the most hilarious line it had ever heard. It was making a variety of all different noises, so that was the tough scene to film."

13. Prince Albert could be the next James Bond.

At this point, there are a handful of actors who have been rumored to be “the next James Bond,” and Hughes is one of them. The actor reportedly caught the attention of James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli after playing an MI5 operative in 2014 BBC miniseries The Game. When asked about his thoughts on taking on the iconic 007 role, Hughes responded: “Would I like to be James Bond? There’s not many people who wouldn’t want to be James Bond.” Though he made it clear that he had not been approached about the role, he stated that “I’d love them to ask."

14. The Duchess of Buccleuch was not so outspoken in real life.

In season two, the legendary Diana Rigg (who played Emma Peel in The Avengers TV series back in the day, and Game of Thrones’s Olenna Tyrell more recently) joined the cast of Victoria as the Duchess of Buccleuch, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Though audiences love the character for her outspokenness, the real-life Duchess—who served as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes from 1841 to 1846—was not quite so frank. “The real Duchess of Buccleuch was younger and not quite as cantankerous as Diana Rigg’s portrayal,” Goodwin said. “[But] when you’ve got Diana Rigg, you go with that!"

15. Albert’s imminent death is coming, and it’s a bit of dark cloud.

Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of Gareth Gatrell/ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

Prince Albert died in 1861 at the age of 42. While the official cause of death was typhoid fever, modern scholars believe that he may have been suffering from Crohn’s disease or abdominal cancer. Knowing that Victoria and Albert’s time is limited is a fact that the cast can’t ignore. When asked whether knowing how this story ends ever affects her performance or how she approaches the character, Coleman admitted that it does. “I think everyone knows it’s coming, and it’s really interesting because Tom [Hughes] and I look a bit older in this series, and we’re so many children in,” she told Town & Country. "You kind of have that creeping feeling, but we still have an amazing part of the story to tell."

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