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.

14 Revolutionary Facts About Bastille Day

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 14, 1789, Parisian revolutionaries stormed the Bastille fortress, where Louis XVI had imprisoned many of his enemies—or those whom he perceived to be enemies of the state. For many, the place had come to represent nothing short of royal tyranny. Its sudden fall foretold the French revolution—along with a holiday that’s now celebrated throughout France and the world at large with cries of “Vive le 14 Juillet!

1. In France, nobody calls it "Bastille Day."

The day is referred to as la Fête Nationale, or “the National Holiday.” In more informal settings, French people also call it le Quatorze Juillet (“14 July”). "Bastille Day" is an English term that’s seldom used within French borders—at least by non-tourists.

2. Originally, the Bastille wasn't designed to be a prison.

The name “Bastille” comes from the word bastide, which means “fortification,” a generic term for a certain type of tower in southern France until it was eventually restricted to one particular Bastille. When construction began on the building in 1357, its main purpose was not to keep prisoners in, but to keep invading armies out: At the time, France and England were engaged in the Hundred Years’ War. The Bastille, known formally as the Bastille Saint-Antoinewas conceived as a fortress whose strategic location could help stall an attack on Paris from the east.

Over the course of the Hundred Years' War, the structure of the building changed quite a bit. The Bastille started out as a massive gate consisting of a thick wall and two 75-foot towers. By the end of 1383, it had evolved into a rectangular fortress complete with eight towers and a moat.

Such attributes would later turn the Bastille into an effective state prison—but it wasn’t actually used as one until the 17th century. Under King Louis XIII, the powerful Cardinal de Richelieu began the practice of jailing his monarch’s enemies (without a trial) inside; at any given time, the cardinal would hold up to 55 captives there.

3. The Bastille was loaded with gunpowder. 

In July 1789, France was primed for a revolt. Bad weather had driven food prices through the roof, and the public resented King Louis XVI’s extravagant lifestyle. To implement financial reforms and quell rebellion, Louis was forced to call a meeting of the Estates-General, a national assembly representing the three estates of France. The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate held the nobility, and all other royal subjects comprised the Third Estate. Each estate had a single vote, meaning two estates could defeat the other estate every time.

The Estates-General met in Versailles on May 5, 1789. Arguments between the Third Estate and the other two boiled over on June 20. King Louis responded by physically locking the common people’s representatives out of the room. The third estate, now calling themselves the National Assembly, reconvened on an indoor tennis court and pledged to remain active until a French constitution was established.

The King sanctioned the National Assembly on June 27, but then sent troops into Paris to deal with growing unrest. He made his problems worse by dismissing finance official Jacques Necker, who supported the Third Estate. The National Assembly and everyday citizens began to take up arms. On July 14, 1789, revolutionaries burst into a soldiers’ hospital in Paris and seized 3000 guns and five cannons. Then, they broke into the Bastille where a stockpile of gunpowder lay. 

4. The July 14 "storming" freed only a handful of prisoners ...

The French revolutionaries who broke into the Bastille expected to find numerous inmates. In reality, the prison was almost empty except for seven captives who seemed to be in relatively good health. We may never be certain of their identities. Some accounts claim that four of the prisoners had committed forgery, two were regarded as lunatics, and one was a disgraced nobleman. Other sources are less specific. A report penned on July 24 agrees that four were forgers and another came from an aristocratic family—but that the other two vanished before anyone could definitively identify them.

5. ... and the Marquis de Sade was almost among them.

You probably know him as the man whose conduct and erotic writings gave rise to the word sadism. In 1784, the aristocrat was transferred from another prison to the Bastille, where he languished for the next five years. Within those walls, de Sade penned several books—including his notorious novel One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom.

He surely would have been freed when the Bastille was stormed. But on June 2, de Sade started yelling at the passersby beneath his window, claiming that people were being maimed and killed inside and begging the people to save him. The episode got de Sade transferred once again—this time to an insane asylum outside Paris. His removal from the Bastille took place on July 4, 1789. Ten days later, rebels stormed inside.

6. Thomas Jefferson donated money to the families of the revolutionaries.

As America’s minister to France (and a big fan of revolution), Jefferson took a lively interest in the Bastille incident—which broke out while he was living abroad in Paris. Although Long Tom didn’t witness the event firsthand, he eloquently summarized everything he’d learned about the siege in a detailed letter to John Jay. On August 1, 1789, Jefferson wrote in his diary, “Gave for widows of those killed in taking Bastille, 60 francs.”

7. A huge festival was held exactly one year after the Bastille was stormed. 

By July 14, 1790, the Bastille had been destroyed, its pieces scattered across the globe by souvenir collectors. France now operated under a constitutional monarchy, an arrangement that divided power between King Louis XVI and the National Assembly. Meanwhile, hereditary nobility was outlawed.

To honor these advances, the government organized a huge event called the “Festival of the Federation,” which was to take place on the first anniversary of the Bastille showdown. As July 14 approached, French citizens from all walks of life came together and set up some 40,000 seats in preparation. When the big day finally arrived, King Louis arrived with 200 priests and swore to maintain the constitution. The Marquis de Lafayette—who’d famously helped orchestrate America’s revolution—stood by the monarch’s side. Later on, Queen Marie Antoinette got a huge cheer when she proudly showed off the heir apparent. Among the spectators was dramatist Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who later said, “I saw 50,000 citizens of all classes, of all ages, of all sexes, forming the most superb portrait of unity." 

8. Several different dates were considered for the French national holiday.

Here’s a trick question: What historical event does Bastille Day commemorate? If you answered “the storming of the Bastille prison,” you’re both right and wrong. In 1880, France’s senate decided that their homeland needed a national holiday. What the French statesmen had in mind was an annual, patriotic celebration dedicated to the country and her citizens. But the matter of choosing a date turned into an extremely partisan ordeal: Every available option irked somebody in the senate on ideological grounds. For instance, conservatives were dead-set against July 14 (at least at first) because they felt that the 1789 Bastille incident was too bloody to merit celebration.

Alternatives were numerous. To some, September 21 looked attractive, since the original French Republic was created on that day in 1792. Others favored February 24, which marked the birth of France’s second republic. Another option was August 4, the anniversary of the feudal system’s abolishment.

Ultimately, though, July 14 managed to win out. After all, the date marks not one but two very important anniversaries: 1789’s attack on the Bastille and 1790’s peaceful, unifying Festival of the Federation. So by choosing July 14, the senate invited all citizens to decide for themselves which of these events they’d rather celebrate. As Senator Henri Martell argued, anyone who had reservations about the first July 14 could still embrace the second. Personally, he revered the latter. In his own words, July 14, 1790 was “the most beautiful day in the history of France, possibly in the history of mankind. It was on that day that national unity was finally accomplished.”

9. Bastille Day features the oldest and largest regular military parade in Western Europe.

This beloved Paris tradition dates all the way back to 1880. In its first 38 years, the parade’s route varied wildly, but since 1918, the procession has more or less consistently marched down the Champs-Elysées, the most famous avenue in Paris. Those who watch the event in person are always in for a real spectacle—2015’s parade boasted some 31 helicopters, 55 planes, 208 military vehicles, and 3501 soldiers. It’s also fairly common to see troops from other nations marching alongside their French counterparts. Two years ago, for example, 150 Mexican soldiers came to Paris and participated.

10. In France, firemen throw public dances.

On the night of July 13 or 14, people throughout France live it up at their local fire departments. Most stations will throw large dance parties that are open to the entire neighborhood (kids are sometimes welcome). Please note, however, that some fire departments charge an admission fee. Should you find one that doesn’t, be sure to leave a donation behind instead. It’s just common courtesy.

11. The Louvre celebrates by offering free admission.

If you’re in Paris on Bastille Day and don’t mind large crowds, go say bonjour to the Mona Lisa. Her measurements might surprise you: The world’s most famous painting is only 30 inches tall by 21 inches wide.

12. Bastille Day has become a truly international holiday.

Can’t get to France on Bastille Day? Not a problem. People all over the world honor and embrace the holiday. In eastern India, the scenic Puducherry district was under French rule as recently as 1954. Every July 14, fireworks go off in celebration and a local band usually plays both the French and Indian national anthems. Thousands of miles away, Franschhoek, South Africa, throws an annual, two-day Bastille celebration—complete with a parade and all the gourmet French cuisine you could ask for.

Then there’s the United States, where dozens of cities organize huge festivals on this most French of holidays. New Orleans hosts a doggie costume contest in which pet owners are encouraged to dress up their pooches in handsome French garb. Or maybe you’d like to visit Philadelphia, where, at the Eastern State Penitentiary museum and historic site, Philly citizens re-enact the storming of the Bastille while guards keep the rebels at bay by hurling Tastykakes at them.

13. A huge solar flare once took place on Bastille Day.

NASA won’t be forgetting July 14, 2000 anytime soon. On that particular day, one of the largest solar storms in recent memory caught scientists off guard. An explosion caused by twisted magnetic fields sent a flurry of particles racing toward Earth. These created some gorgeous aurora light shows that were visible as far south as El Paso, Texas. Unfortunately, the particles also caused a few radio blackouts and short-circuited some satellites. Astronomers now refer to this incident as “The Bastille Day Event.”

14. You can find a key to the Bastille at Mount Vernon.

The Marquis de Lafayette, 19, arrived in the new world to join America’s revolutionary cause in 1777. Right off the bat, he made a powerful friend: George Washington instantly took a liking to the Frenchman and within a month, Lafayette had effectively become the general’s adopted son. Their affection was mutual; when the younger man had a son of his own in 1779, he named him Georges Washington de Lafayette.

The day after the storming of the Bastille, the Marquis de Lafayette became the commander of the Paris National Guard. In the aftermath of the Bastille siege, he was given the key to the building. As a thank-you—and to symbolize the new revolution—Lafayette sent it to Washington’s Mount Vernon home, where the relic still resides today

This story originally ran in 2016.

The Washington Monument Is Transforming Into a Full-Scale Saturn V Rocket for the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

The Saturn V rocket takes off on July 16, 1969.
The Saturn V rocket takes off on July 16, 1969.

Where better to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing than in front of a revered national monument that also happens to resemble a giant rocket?

Next week, DCist reports, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum will project an image of the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket that launched Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins into space on July 16, 1969, onto the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument. Underneath the monument, flanked by screens playing a 17-minute program about the Moon landing, will be a 40-foot-wide replica of the iconic Kennedy Space Center countdown clock that NASA has called “one of the most-watched timepieces in the world.”

Illustration of the Saturn V rocket projected onto the Washington Monument
An illustration of what the Saturn V projection will look like on the Washington Monument.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Projecting an image onto an irregular object is a little more complicated than doing so on a run-of-the-mill, rectangular movie screen. The process is called projection mapping, which uses augmented reality to conform the projection to the object, making it seem like the projection is actually just part of the object. 59 Productions, the company behind this program, also created the video design for London’s 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony and won a 2015 Tony Award for the video design of Christopher Wheeldon’s stage revival of An American in Paris.

So who exactly has to approve transforming one of our nation’s most famous monuments into a really tall, skinny optical illusion? In this case, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the secretary of the interior, and the president himself. Both houses of Congress unanimously passed the bipartisan resolution, H.J. Res. 60 [PDF], in mid-June, and the president signed it on July 5.

According to Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the larger-than-life nature of the setting befits the occasion. “The Washington Monument is a symbol of our collective national achievements and what we can and will achieve in the future,” she told DCist. “It took 400,000 people from across the 50 states to make Apollo a reality. This program celebrates them, and we hope it inspires generations too young to have experienced Apollo firsthand to define their own moonshot.”

You can see the Saturn V projection from 9:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. on July 16, 17, and 18. The best view is on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as the “Castle”) between 9th and 12th streets. The entire program, titled “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon,” will run at 9:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m., and 11:30 p.m. on Friday, July 19, and Saturday, July 20.

[h/t DCist]

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