Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Grave Mercy Blog Tour - Poison: The Assassin's Art

When I was asked to read Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, I jumped at the chance. It sounded so outside my comfort zone and yet complete inside it too (my review will be coming in the next few weeks). So, when I was asked if I wanted to take part in the tour, I jumped at the chance yet again (thanks Eve for letting me take part)! 

Before we let the author, Robin LaFevers, take over my blog, must say that if you are interested in the book, there is an sneaky peek online (which you can go via here), you can join the UK Facebook Group, and there's a trailer for the book (that's at the bottom of the post!). Also, if you're following the tour, tomorrow is at So Many Books, So Little Time, so go there!

So, on the penultimate leg of her UK blog tour, author Robin LaFevers takes about poisons. So, take it away, Robin...!

Poison: The Assassin’s Art

“We will teach you to make poisons.” Sister Serafina’s voice is as gentle as the lulling waves. “Poisons that grip the gut and force a man’s life to dribble from him into a slop pail. Poisons to stop the heart or squeeze the humors from the body. Bloodwort to congeal the blood so it can no longer move through the veins. We will show you subtle poisons that take days to fell a man, and those that kill within seconds. And that is just to start.”

Ismae spends a large part of her time at the convent of Saint Mortain with the poisons mistress in her workshop. Too much time, perhaps, as she ends up missing other important lessons in order to keep up with the convent’s demand. However, other than Sister Serafina, Ismae is the only one who has the special skills needed to work with such toxins. Many of the plants and other ingredients used in the poisons were so toxic that merely touching them or breathing in their fumes at the wrong time could prove fatal to the other girls at the convent.        
Poisons were a standby of the medieval assassin’s toolkit. They were cheap, easy to find, and even easier to use. Hemlock, nightshade, belladonna, monkshood, thorn apple, lily of the valley, rosary pea, hensbane, hellebore, foxglove, mandrake, opium, cantharides (extracted from dried beetles), mushrooms (including death cap, avenging angel, deadly webcap). Even the mold that formed on damp rye was poisonous and was called Saint Anthony’s Fire.            
Depending on the ingredients used, some poisons provide a peaceful death, others a much more painful one, with paralysis of the heart, convulsions, cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, and the drying up of all bodily fluids. 
True master poisoners weren’t content with a simple plant extract or decoction. They often created compounds or went for a multilayered approach to creating the perfect poison. For example, Sister Serafina, like other medieval poisoners, kept her own beehive. Her bees collected pollen almost exclusively from the toxic rhododendron and laurel plants, which in turn tainted the honey. Thus, even the sweeteners used in the convent’s poison were deadly.
But at the convent of Saint Mortain, Death’s handmaidens sometimes preferred an even subtler approach. In those cases they might serve their victim a quail who had fed on hemlock while alive, or a rabbit who dined on belladonna. The meat would often contain enough toxic effects of those plants to kill a person.
Ingesting poison wasn’t the only method employed by poisoners. Depending on what sort of access they had to their victim and how far away they wanted to be when the poison took effect, there were other ways to administer the deadly substance. Some poison had merely to come into contact with the skin. Historically, gloves, gowns, hunting horns, have all been used to transmit poison to a victim. For these sorts of applications, the convent used a formulation they called Arduina’s Snare.
Other substances were so toxic that simply breathing them brought death. Pomanders were often used by the noble classes to protect their delicate noses from the inescapable medieval stench found in cities. Consequently, pomanders also became a reliable method for delivering inhaled poisons. Ismae herself uses a carefully crafted candle that contains a poison called Night Whispers. Once lit, the fumes from that candle can kill in minutes.
Of course, the convent (or assassins) wasn’t the only source of poisons. Many, many noble and wealthy families in the Middle Ages had their own poisoner on staff. One simply never knew when there was a pesky political rival or fractious neighbor that needed to be got rid of.
This poisoner not only was responsible for having poisons at the ready for the family’s use, but was expected to be able to prepare a number of effective antidotes as well. Some popular antidotes were waving gemstones, such as emeralds or rubies, over one’s plate or cup to nullify the poison. Drinking from a unicorn’s horn was believed to neutralize all poison. (Narwhal tusks were often mistaken for unicorn’s horns back then and were even more expensive than the rubies or emeralds.) Bezoars stones were also renowned for their poison-neutralizing properties. These “stones” were found in the stomachs of goats. Or, without a goat, a deer’s, antelope’s, or gazelle’s. The stone was actually an indigestible object that had found its way into the animal’s stomach and had accumulated layers of secreted stomach chemicals to form a “stone” around the foreign object, much like a pearl forms around a grain of sand in an oyster. A popular practice of the time was to place a bezoars stone in your cup to neutralize any poison that might find its way there. (Can we all say, Ewwww!)
The very wealthy would also employ poison tasters who would sample any dishes or drinks for them. If they tasted nothing suspicious - and did not show any ill effects - then the food was considered safe to eat. The problem was, many medieval foods were so heavily spiced that poison was hard to detect until it was too late. Nor would a poison taster be of much use if the poison was absorbed through the skin or lungs. For those who couldn’t afford any of the above, the best recommendation was to drink large quantities of milk. Or engage in vomiting and purging.
Oddly enough, it is these last remedies that come the closest to modern science.

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