Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About
(against poison), a practice not unknown in modern times, was much more common in antiquity and was notably visible at the tables of royal or other powerful personages in the Middle Ages. The annals of the 14th- and 15th-century European countries are full of instances where troublesome nobles were neatly disposed of by the agency of poison. Several potent drops expressed from monkshood or wolfsbane, or from hemlock—the umbelliferous plant, not our innocent evergreen tree—or black hyoscyamus, yielded by the herb henbane, could be depended upon to make quick and relatively quiet work of an enemy. Likewise the lethal effects of mercury, arsenic, or antimony sulphide were well understood by the pharmacists—and others—of the day. Besides, the chances to instil a poison in food abounded: the formal procedures followed for serving food in noble households meant that numerous individuals handled a multiplicity of prepared dishes as they made their long way between a distant kitchen and the dining hall. The determined assassin with a proclivity to poison had a remarkably good range of choice, in the areas both of means and of opportunity.