A Glorious Poison: The Deadly Toxins of Palace Life by Eleanor Herman, exclusively on The Seventeenth Century Lady.
The royal lifestyle of yesteryear used to make me swoon. I imagined myself living in a gilded palace, wearing gorgeous gowns, and dancing with Baroque studs at candlelight balls. I thought of the past as a time of romance, grandeur, and incomparable beauty. My most cherished daydream was to time travel back to a royal court.
Recently, however, I discovered that there was a downside to palace life that doesn’t occur to us as we tour Versailles or gaze in awe at ravishing portraits. For one thing, we can’t smell the odors of the time. For another, many of those sophisticated courtiers had lice devouring their scalps and private parts and worms laying eggs in their intestines. The wealthy of centuries past poisoned themselves on a daily basis with their cosmetics and medications. Even the palaces themselves were unhealthy, befouled by parasites, bacteria, viruses, and environmental poisons that carried countless young and healthy people to the grave.
Let’s look at some of the terrifying toxins of upper-crust life in centuries past.
Dying to be Beautiful: Deadly Cosmetics
In the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, high-society women wore makeup containing white lead ore, vinegar, arsenic, hydroxide, and carbonate, sometimes applied to the face over egg whites. It resulted in a seemingly flawless complexion, paralysis, madness, and death. They also used mercury foundation, topped off with a liberal dusting of arsenic face powder. These cosmetics gave the skin a desirable natural pallor as they killed red blood cells.
Many women seeking to look younger drank a potion of liquid gold. Such was the case of Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), mistress of King Henri II of France. The strawberry blond beauty was nineteen years older than her royal lover and took desperate measures to retain a youthful appearance. Unfortunately, consuming gold killed red blood cells, caused brittle bones and poor digestion, and eventually death. When French scientists dug up Diane in 2008, they were horrified to find the ground around her coffin saturated with gold from her decomposed body.
Wealthy courtiers used gold and silver foil in a kind toothpaste containing ground-up grain, pumice stone, aloe, vinegar, honey, pearls, scrapings of ivory, quinces, and walnuts, which was rubbed over the teeth with a cloth. Not only was the gold and silver foil poisonous, but the abrasive powder, in taking away the stains, also removed tooth enamel.
A popular sixteenth-century face mask was made of mercury and turpentine, left on the skin for eight days, and rubbed off with steam and bread. To remove hair from the legs and armpits, women mixed up arsenic sulfide, eggs, and lye, and left it on eight minutes. Sometimes the skin came off with the hair.
To obtain a fresh complexion, many women washed their faces in the urine of humans or animals. Those with blemishes were advised to slather on ox dung to dry them up. Both male and female courtiers rubbed goat dung mixed with oil on their scalps for thicker hair.
Many courtiers—even royals—suffered from lice. King James I of England trailed the little blood-suckers in his wake. One court lady complained that she and her friends got
“lousy by sitting in a councillor’s chamber that James frequented.”
A popular lice remedy was to smear a mixture of arsenic, quicksilver and butter onto the head, armpits and private parts to kill the critters. The cream was effective as it poisoned them.
Smallpox was common and disfigured those it did not kill. One solution to the pits and craters left by the disease was to fill them with human fat, obtained fresh from the town executioner. Ladies hoping for soft, white hands thrust them into the pulsating entrails of a just-killed animal, either on the hunt or in the kitchen yard when the butcher was slaughtering something for dinner.
No one likes going to the doctor, but we should all thank our lucky stars for modern medical treatments. Past medical practices were often either deadly, gross, or a horrifying combination of the two. Ironically, the wealthy stood a greater chance of death by doctor, as fatal physicians were expensive. Those too poor to summon a doctor relied on bed rest and chicken soup and had better odds of recovery.
The most common fatal remedy was bleeding. For almost any illness, doctors would slice a vein in the patient’s foot or arm, removing several ounces of blood at a time in the belief that they were removing the body’s “evil humors” that supposedly caused disease. Instead, they weakened the patient’s immune system and, in some cases, actually bled the patient to death. In 1685, when King Charles II of England had an attack of some kind, his doctors drained twenty-four ounces of blood in a few hours, and ten ounces more the following day, which likely contributed to his death. In 1799, George Washington was murdered outright by his doctor who took 80 ounces—that’s 35 percent of his blood—in twelve hours to cure his cold.
For rashes and other skin disorders, physicians prescribed ointments of mercury, which absorbed easily through the skin and caused birth defects, kidney and liver problems, fatigue, irritability, tremors, depression, paranoia, mood swings, excess salivation, black teeth, loss of jaw bone, and death.
Doctors often used feces—bursting with bacteria, parasites, and infection—in medications. Horse feces was ingested by those with lung ailments. Rat droppings were eaten to ease constipation. Those suffering from nose bleeds were advised to thrust hog’s dung—still warm—up the nose. Human excrement—dried and powdered, was blown into the eye to cure ailments.
To cure constipation, doctors recommended giving a pound of quick-silver at a time to a puppy, collecting it when it came out the other end, boiling it in vinegar, and drinking it. Being poisonous, it had the desired effect.
Dead pigeons, roosters, and other birds, cut in half, were applied still bleeding to the heads and feet of sick people to draw out their evil humors, and sometimes left there putrefying for days.
A cure for any serious illness was to put the patient into the hollowed-out belly of a freshly slaughtered ox, horse, or mule, as the heat from the carcass was believed to draw out the evil humors. When that carcass cooled, the patient was dragged into another one still hot. An odd treatment, but then again, if he survived that, he could probably survive anything.
With thousands of courtiers and servants, and hundreds of animals, living cheek by jowl in a palace, and no running water, hygiene was messy and smelly, to say the least. Chamber pots were placed throughout the palace for convenience, often inside gorgeous lacquered cabinets, resulting in a stinking stew of human waste in the most elegant rooms. They were emptied daily into cesspits that often busted through walls, either into the ground, leaching into groundwater and ending up in the nearest well, or into other rooms.
Courtiers didn’t always bother to search for a chamber pot. When the pious princess, Catherine of Braganza, arrived in England to marry King Charles II in 1661, she and her ladies were shocked at finding men blithely urinating throughout the palace. They complained:
“that they cannot stir abroad without seeing in every corner great beastly English pricks battering against every wall.”
A 1675 report on the Louvre in Paris claimed that:
“on the grand staircases…behind the doors and almost everywhere one sees there a mass of excrement, one smells a thousand unbearable stenches caused by calls of nature which everyone goes to do there every day.”
Those dazzling Baroque theaters, where Molière and Dryden debuted their witty plays, were also bursting with human waste. Each of the sumptuous private boxes had a chamber pot for its highborn guests. One evening in a Paris theater, according to Roger de Rabutin, comte de Bussy, two noblewomen—their names shall go down in eternal infamy as Madame de Saulx and Madame de Tremouille—each did a huge number two in their pot, “and then, to remove the evil smell, threw everything” onto the dismayed audience below, who shrieked their protest and chased the women out of the theater. Even by the lax standards of the seventeenth century that was going a bit far.
The ever-present human waste in a palace often spread worms to its high-born residents. Excavations of Louvre sites used as latrines from the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries revealed that court residents suffered horribly from worms. English King Richard III suffered intestinal worms that grew up to a foot long, as did Agnes Sorel, mistress of King Charles VII of France. Those with worms would periodically spit them up…alive. The only way to reduce their number was to ingest mercury.
Nor were most of the courtiers any cleaner than the palaces. Doctors advised against bathing as water:
“openeth the pores of a man’s body and maketh the venomous air to enter and for to infect the blood.”
Queen Isabella of Spain bragged that she had only bathed twice in her whole life. Queen Elizabeth bathed once a month, “whether she needed it or no.” The Russian ambassador to France wrote that Louis XIV “stank like a wild animal,” and his mistress, Madame de Montespan, doused herself in perfume not to hide her own odors but those of her royal lover. Some courtiers, however, had a notion of cleanliness more akin to our own. Louis XIV’s German sister-in-law, Elisabeth Charlotte, insisted on taking a sponge bath every morning despite the dire warnings of her physicians.
One of the most dangerous substances at court was water. Both river and well water were highly contaminated with sewage and animal carcasses thrown in or buried nearby. Water was left in a bucket for several days for the solids to settle, then skimmed off, boiled, and mixed with alcohol, which killed the germs. Mozart’s mother died from drinking untreated Seine River water in Paris. But wine, too, was dangerous, as it was often poisoned by lead leached into the liquid from lead pitchers or was added as a sweetener.
Nor was food immune from danger. Without refrigerators, food often spoiled. And cooking over an open fire was challenging; often half the meat was overcooked, the other half somewhat raw. Without an IV drip, food poisoning can lead to rapid dehydration and death in a few hours. And the presence of horses, cows, and pigs on palace grounds meant that animal-borne diseases—such as anthrax—could be easily transmitted to humans, sometimes resulting in deadly epidemics.
Even those gorgeous palace walls could make you sick. Walls painted red—quite a fashionable color in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—were made from mercury or arsenic sulfide. White paint was made from lead, yellow from arsenic sulfide. Starting in the eighteenth century, green walls exuded pure arsenic, sickening and killing countless people.
Nowadays, I’m not so keen to time travel. If I went back even for a day, I might come back with something. Worms, perhaps.
New York Times best-selling author Eleanor Herman’s new book is The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medications, and Murder Most Foul (St. Martin’s Press, June 2018.) She examines the fear of poison in royal courts and the irony that most people were poisoning themselves daily with their medications, cosmetics, and unhygienic living conditions. In addition, she investigates the mysterious deaths of many court personages believed to have been poisoned—Mozart, Napoleon, Caravaggio, Edward VI, and a host of scintillating royal mistresses—to determine whether they died naturally or had a bit of help.
You can follow her on Twitter @eleanorherman, or visit her website: http://www.eleanorherman.com/