Monday, February 8, 2021

Alisha Rankin's "The Poison Trials"

Alisha Rankin is associate professor of history at Tufts University. She is coeditor, with Elaine Leong, of Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800 and author of Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany, which won the 2014 Gerald Strauss Prize for Reformation History.

Rankin applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Poison Trials: Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Poison Trials throws the reader into the middle of a gruesome scene at Prague Castle in 1561. It portrays a test of poison and antidote on a prisoner condemned to be hanged. This anecdote was related by the surgeon Claudius Richardus, who worked at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. The very top of page 99 explains that the prisoner was given nothing but bread and water a few days before the test, so that his body would be more accessible to the poison (powdered root of an aconite known as napellus). I then describe Richardus’ excruciatingly detailed account of the poison’s painful effects on the prisoner, followed by the man’s fight for his life once he took the antidote (bezoar). In this case, the man survived, was set free, and was given a small payment for his participation. The page ends by noting Richardus’ interest in creating a “more certain” test than a previous, failed poison trial described earlier in the chapter, and it begins a description of a second trial overseen by Richardus along the same lines.

The Page 99 test works fairly well for my book. It is an important part of Chapter Three, which shows how physicians and surgeons at European princely courts recorded and shared detailed accounts of poison trials, in both private documents and printed books (Richardus’s text was a letter that ended up in print). I argue that these accounts deliberately depicted poison trials as learned, scholarly medical experiments, in contrast to dramatic poison demonstrations conducted in the marketplace by lower-class empirical practitioners. Page 99 also touches on themes that are important in other chapters. For instance, this prisoner was set free and given a payment – a small sign that humans used for potentially fatal tests required special treatment, the main theme of chapter 4 (on early medical ethics). The antidote, bezoar, is a focus in Chapter 5, which places poison trials within the global drug trade and the princely drive to collect exotic naturalia.

At the same time Page 99 misses some important aspects of the book. It makes no mention of the empirical practitioners who play a big role in the book, or of the ancient and medieval precedents to these tests. I also don’t want to reduce the book to the horrifying descriptions of what happens when you give poisons and antidotes to humans. These anecdotes are one of the most striking and sensational aspects of the book, but they only appear in a few chapters, and I am more interested in the questions they raise about experiment, authority, and ethics. The poison trials themselves feel very distant, but the “big questions” of the book are things we are still grappling with today.
Learn more about The Poison Trials at the University of Chicago Press website.

Follow Alisha Rankin on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue