Book Review: “The Royal Art of Poison” by Eleanor Herman

Eleanor Herman, who earlier this year posted a guest post here on The Seventeenth Century Lady (“A Glorious Poison: The Deadly Toxins of Palace Life”), is a popular historian whose past book titles include Sex With Kings and Sex with the Queen.

In The Royal Art of Poison: Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Poisons, and Murder Most Foul, published this year (2018), Herman explores a variety of historical deaths rumoured to have been caused by poison. Using contemporary sources as well as modern forensic analysis, she is able to give a pretty convincing account of the probable cause of death.

Particularly of interest to me and to those who follow this blog, are the chapters dedicated to persons of the seventeenth century including the Baroque painter Caravaggio, the Danish mathematician Tycho Brahe (and if your opinion of Johannes Kepler isn’t changed forever by this book, I’ll be surprised!), English courtier Sir Thomas Overbury, the lost prince Henry Stuart, the ill-fated Henrietta Stuart (Minette), and Louis XIV’s mistress, Mademoiselle de Fontanges. I also enjoyed the chapter dedicated to the rumours surrounding Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s rather revolting death at the age of 35.

Herman’s style is delightful (does she know how funny she is?) and, despite the often foul descriptions and situations discussed, I often found myself smiling due to her witty turn of phrase. That being said, there were some things that I wasn’t too sure about, such as stating that Thomas Overbury was Robert Carr’s lover – this is the first time I’ve ever encountered this. I’ve looked into this more and still don’t think they were anything more than close friends – I could be wrong, of course, as it’s impossible to know this sort of thing unless there is evidence. What is not debatable, however, was that Carr was James VI/I’s favourite until he was replaced by George Villiers.

This book doesn’t stop at historical poisonings but shows us that even in this modern age, political poisonings still take place (Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko). It was very interesting to learn more about things that were briefly mentioned in the news.

The book ends with a list of poisons and their symptoms. It’s clear that Herman really did her medical research as well as the historical.

In short, I found this book utterly disgusting and entertaining, and so certainly recommend it.

TSCL rating: 4/5

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