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.

7 Terrifying Historical Remedies for Migraine Headaches

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Migraines are more than just splitting headaches. Migraine symptoms, which affect about one in seven people worldwide, can include throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances called auras. Today, several classes of drugs are prescribed to either prevent migraine headaches from happening or halt them once they’ve started. But in previous centuries, migraine treatments weren’t so convenient—or effective.

1. Bloodletting

Whether by scalpel or by leeches, bloodletting was the most common remedy for migraine headaches (and many other ailments) before the advent of modern medicine. Throughout most of history, Western physicians subscribed to the humoral theory, in which human health was governed by four fluids (humors) that must be kept in balance. Sickness was explained as an imbalance of humors, and bloodletting was thought to rebalance the system. The methods varied, though. In the case of migraine headaches, the Greek physician Aretaeus suggested sticking a barbed goose feather up the unfortunate patient’s nose and prodding around until blood flowed.

Even as late as the 18th century, bloodletting was still believed to help migraines. Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot, who was the first to describe migraines as a discrete medical condition in the 1770s, recommended bleeding, better hygiene and diet, and drugs including infusions of orange leaves and valerian.

2. Garlic

The 11th-century physician Abu al-Qasim suggested sticking a clove of garlic into the migraine headache sufferer’s temple. He offered a handy recipe:

“Take a garlic; peel and cut at both extremities. Make an incision with a large scalpel in the temple and keep under the skin a cavity wide enough to introduce the garlic and to conceal it completely. Apply compresses and tighten, let it remain about 15 hours, then remove the device. Extract the garlic, leave the wound for two or three days, then apply cotton soaked in butter until it suppurates.”

Once the wound started oozing—which was considered a good sign—the physician would cauterize the incision with a hot iron. Cauterization was meant to prevent infection, although modern research has shown that it actually lowers the threshold for bacterial infections.

3. Cupping

Cupping—inverting hot glass vessels on the patients’ body—was thought to perform the same function as bloodletting. Prominent Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, treated a migraine sufferer by cupping. She soon recovered.

A substance called cantharidin, a potent blistering agent secreted by the Meloidae family of beetles, was also applied as part of the cupping and blistering process to draw out bad humors. Unfortunately, if the cantharidin was left on too long, it could be absorbed into the body and cause painful urination, gastrointestinal and renal dysfunction, and organ failure. (Perhaps unrelatedly, cantharidin was also used as an aphrodisiac.)

4. Trepanation

One of the oldest types of surgery, trepanation is the practice of cutting away part of the cranium and exposing brain tissue to treat injuries or chronic conditions like migraine headaches. The 16th-century Dutch physician Petrus Forestus, who meticulously recorded the ailments and treatments of his patients, performed trepanation on a person with incurable migraines. In the brain tissue he found something he called a “black worm.” According to a 2010 study by neurologist Peter J. Koehler, the mass may have been a chronic subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the surface of the brain and its outermost covering—and a possible cause of the patient’s agony.

5. Dead Moles

Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal, the leading ophthalmologist of the medieval Muslim world, described more than 130 eye diseases and treatments in his groundbreaking monograph Tadhkirat al-kaḥḥālīn (The Notebook of the Oculists). While his descriptions of ocular anatomy were sound, he also touched on remedies for headaches, and here his prescriptions seem more suspect. To treat migraines, he suggested tying a dead mole to one’s head.

6. Electric Fish

Long before scientists fully understood the principles of electricity, ancient doctors recommended it as a remedy for migraines. Scribonius Largus, the court physician for the Roman emperor Claudius, saw that the torpedo fish—also known as the electric ray, native to the Mediterranean Sea among other areas—had the power to shock anyone who touched it. Largus and other doctors prescribed the shocks as cures for headache, gout, and prolapsed anus.

In the mid-18th century, a Dutch journal reported that the electric eel, found in South America, emitted even stronger shocks than the Mediterranean fish and were used for head pain. One observer wrote that headache sufferers “put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.”

7. Mud Foot-Baths

Compared to expired rodents, warm foot-baths must have sounded positively decadent to those afflicted with extreme pain. Nineteenth-century physicians suggested that migraine sufferers take the waters at Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně) and Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), two spa towns in what is now the Czech Republic. While the mineral waters were useful for alleviating congestive headaches, mud foot-baths were believed to draw blood toward the feet and away from the head, calming the nervous system. “The foot-bath ought not to be taken too hot, and the feet should be rubbed one over the other while washing the mud off, and afterwards with a coarse towel. A brisk walk may be used to keep up the circulation,” suggested Prussian Army physician Apollinaris Victor Jagielski, M.D. in 1873.

Who Stole My Cheese? Archivists Are Cataloging 200 Years of Criminal Records From the Isle of Ely

Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

And you thought your parents were strict. In 16th century England, the same courts that tried murderers were also tasked with getting to the bottom of cheese thefts.

As The Guardian reports, archivists from the University of Cambridge have begun cataloging close to 270 court documents from the Isle of Ely, a historic region of England known for its magnificent, gothic-style cathedral as well as being the home of Oliver Cromwell for more than a decade (Cromwell was appointed governor of the isle in 1643).

Some of the documents, which are dated from 1557 to 1775, relate to matters that may seem macabre—or even ridiculous—in the modern world. But they offer a keen insight into the area's past. "This project enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds ... long dead and forgotten, and for whom there is no other surviving record," archivist Sian Collins told The Guardian.

One such person was yeoman John Webbe, who was charged with defamation by one William Tyler after Tyler's wife, Joan, overheard Webbe tell someone that: "Tyler thy husband is a knave, a rascall & a thief for he stole my goodes thefyshely [thievishly] in the night."

Then there was poor William Sturns, whose only crime was a hunger that led him to steal three cheeses; ultimately, he was deemed not guilty. "Unfortunately we don’t know what type of cheese it was," Collins told Atlas Obscura. "But cheesemaking was fairly common in the area at the time."

Not all of Ely's court cases were about backtalk and dairy products, though. The university’s website details how in 1577, Margaret Cotte was accused of using witchcraft to kill Martha Johnson, the daughter of a local blacksmith. Margaret was eventually found not guilty, which is part of what makes this project so important.

"Martha and Margaret may not appear in any other records," Collins said. "This is all we know about them."

[h/t The Guardian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER