VIKINGS were keen to make an impression

The Vikings are traditionally known for leaving destruction in their wake as they traveled around Europe raping, pillaging and plundering.

But Cambridge University has launched a campaign to recast them as “new men” with an interest in grooming, fashion and poetry.

Academics claim that the old stereotype is damaging, and want teenagers to be more appreciative of the Vikings’ social and cultural impact on Britain.

They say that the Norse explorers, far from being obsessed with fighting and drinking, were a largely-peaceful race who were even criticised for being too hygienic.

The university’s department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic has published a guide revealing how much of the Vikings’ history has been misrepresented.

They did not, in fact, wear horned or winged helmets. And they appear to have been a vain race who were concerned about their appearance.

“It seems that the Vikings may not have been as hairy and dirty as is commonly imagined,” the guide says.

“A medieval chronicler, John of Wallingford, talking about the eleventh century, complained that the Danes were too clean – they combed their hair every day, washed every Saturday, and changed their clothes regularly.”

The guide reveals that Norsemen were also stylish trend-setters: “Contemporaries who met individual Vikings were struck by the extreme bagginess of their trousers.

“A tenth-century Persian explorer described trousers (of Vikings in Russia) that were made of one hundred cubits of material, and a number of runestones depict warriors with flared breeches.”

The traditional view of the Vikings as “illiterate warring thugs” exaggerates considerably the reality of their life, the academics argue.

“Although Norse men and women may have sometimes liked fighting and drinking, and were sometimes buried with weapons, they also spent much of their time in peaceful activities such as farming, building, writing and illustrating.”

The guide points out that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary list of notable events beginning in the ninth century and running through to the twelfth, records some battles, but not for every year.

“Life can’t have been as violent as we sometimes like to imagine,” it adds.

Dr Elizabeth Rowe, a Viking expert and lecturer in Scandinavian mediaeval history at the university, said it was important that children should not picture the Norse warriors as an aggressive race, preoccupied with raping and looting.

“Many British children are quite likely to have Viking ancestry and we want to make them think about the reality of their past,” she said.

“It’s damaging to think that they were simply a violent society, and easy to undermine them as a people who have no redeeming qualities.

“The truth is that their culture was very artistic and they were keen to make an impression because they want to cultivate a certain look. They were very concerned about their appearance.”

The first burial ground of Viking origin in Britain was located only four years ago. Discoveries at the site have challenged the romanticised picture of a noble savage race, perpetuated most famously in Wagner’s operas and Hollywood films.

Archaeologists in Cumbria unearthed the remains of Viking men and women buried with copper brooches, jewellery, and riding gear as well as swords and spears.

Dr Francis Pryor, an archaeologist and regular on the Channel Four series Time Team, said the discovery had shown the Norse warriors to be part of an advanced society.

He said: “Far from the illiterate warring thugs in horned helmets who brought us to new depths of barbarism after landing by boat to sack monasteries and molest women, they were a settled and remarkably civilised people who integrated into community life and joined the property-owning classes.”



Secrets of Martin Luther’s life

Brother Martin, a stout man, was sitting on the toilet in the Wittenberg Monastery, wearing the black robe of the Augustinian Order, when he was suddenly struck with the fundamental concept of his reformist body of thought.

Martin Luther himself noted, in two after-dinner speeches (Nos. 1681 and 3232b), that Protestantism was born in the sewer: “The spiritus sanctus imparted this creation to me on dis cloaca.”

Nevertheless, historians have warmed to Luther’s own admission, arguing that while the word “cloaca” could be interpreted as “lavatory,” perhaps it was a more general term for “this world.”

But the truth is truly as distasteful as the master once stated. Excavations in the Wittenberg Monastery have uncovered not only the remains of Luther’s old study, but “a small pit latrine with a lid” in the cellar below, as archeologist Mirko Gutjahr reports.

This latest finding is the result of a major archeological dig that began in 2003 and ended a few weeks ago with a final analysis of the site. Architectural historians, ceramics specialists and zoologists have discovered the kitchen waste of the man whose theories changed the world, and who proudly referred to himself as the “doctor above all doctors in the entire papacy.”

Luther, a German national hero, has been the subject of dozens of biographies. His translation of the Bible into German was as influential as his curses were memorable. Now archeologists have uncovered surprising new information about the religious reformer at three different excavation sites:

  • The floor of the building where Luther was born, in the town of Eisleben
  • His parents’ house in the town of Mansfeld
  • The estate in Wittenberg where the former monk lived with his wife and their six children

The digs exposed toys and food remains, broken dishes and grain (dated to the year 1500, using the C-14 method). The archeologists also found his wife’s wedding ring and a hoard of 250 silver coins.

The German State Museum of Prehistory will unveil the exhibition of Luther’s personal effects this Friday, to coincide with Reformation Day. The catalogue describes the content of the exhibition as “sensational,” noting that it enables us to reexamine “entire chapters in human life.”

All of this snooping around in the refuse of the founder of their church has not exactly been met with enthusiasm within Germany’s protestant congregations. In their view, the notion that the Luther family tossed dead cats into the household garbage is just as irrelevant, from a religious standpoint, as the suspicion that Luther, as a monk, attached his theses to the castle church with tacks instead of nails.

But the debris from Luther’s household should not be downplayed. Some of it, analyzed using the methods of criminology, relates to the reformer’s intellectual works, and it even reveals that he was not always entirely truthful.

For instance, the scholar fudged his parents’ social circumstances. He claimed that he was the son of a “poor miner” who toiled away in the mines with his hatchet, and that “my mother carried all her wood home on her back.”

But this is far from the truth. Luther’s father already owned a copper mill as a young man, while his mother came from a bourgeois family in Eisenach and had good connections to the royal mine administration.

In 1484, when Martin Luther was still an infant, the family moved to Mansfeld, where the father quickly became a successful foreman. He operated three copper smelters, owned 80 hectares (198 acres) of land and lent his money for interest.

The size and grandeur of his house, as the excavation revealed, were in keeping with his economic standing. “The front of the house on the street side was 25 meters (82 feet) wide,” says archeologist Björn Schlenker. The excavation exposed massive basement vaults and a rear courtyard surrounded by large outbuildings.

It was on this farm that young Martin and his siblings played, surrounded by flocks of geese and chickens. The fragments at the site reveal that they played with crossbows, clay marbles and bowling pins made of beef bones — toys not every family could afford at the time.

The remains of kitchen scraps discovered on the property reveal that the family frequently ate roast goose and the tender meat of young pigs. During Lent, the Luther family ate expensive ocean fish, like herring, codfish and plaice.

Lightning Strike or Fleeing Marriage?

Their diet even included figs and grapes, as well as partridges and songbirds, especially robins. The family hunted with clay decoys.

The birds were cooked in gray three-legged pots in a spacious kitchen. The hearth was heated with hot copper cinders from the smelting works, cooled to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit) and brought to the house in wooden carts.

The theologian later recalled that his mother had once given him a severe beating for stealing a nut. In the local Latin school, the miscreant once received 15 blows with a stick in a single morning.

It is well known that Luther’s parents firmly believed in witches and the devil, but now further details have emerged. The remains of a pilgrim’s horn, a noisemaker pilgrims could buy in the western city of Aachen, were found in the rubble. The father had apparently traveled to Aachen, the German version of Lourdes, to marvel at the swaddling clothes and loincloth of Jesus.

The young Luther did not yet find such relics repulsive when he studied law in Erfurt, a city in eastern Germany. But then suddenly he discontinued his university studies and fled into a monastery. Why?

The reformer later explained that his decision was prompted by a severe storm he had been caught in on July 2, 1505. After a lightning strike, he spontaneously vowed to become a monk.

Modern historians have added their dramatic embellishments to the story. “The lightning struck the ground so close to Luther that he was hurled a few meters away by the pressure,” writes the theologian Hanns Lilje. Others have conjectured that Luther was overcome by “mortal fear.”

But the tale of a sign from above coming to Luther in the form of a lightning strike is greatly exaggerated. In truth Luther, who was 21 at the time, was fleeing from an impending forced marriage.

“Newly discovered archive records show that the father had already married off three of his daughters and one son to the children of wealthy foremen,” explains expert Schlenker. Apparently it was now Martin’s turn.

Instead of submitting to his father’s will, the young man went to the monastery of the Augustinian hermits near Erfurt. The 50 monks living there wore black robes and the circular tonsure. They rose at two in the morning for the first Divine Office of the day.

The newest resident at the monastery was undaunted and even eager to chasten himself. He was constantly in the confessional where, according to one monk, he even confessed to the most minor of offences.

The reason was that the demon of relentless self-analysis was raging in Brother Martin. He was constantly examining his inner self. But the deeper he looked, the more he realized that evil lust and hidden desires were staring back at him.

The agony of the young novice began to grow, especially since Luther, still completely immersed in the Middle Ages, saw Christ primarily as an avenger who would soon descend from heaven for the Last Judgment, to push all sinners into the eternal fires of hell.

Matters did not improve when Luther moved to Wittenberg. While reading a biblical verse about the possessed, he fell to the floor, screaming: “It is not I.”

It was this almost psychoanalytical navel-gazing that led the monk to lose his old belief in the certainty of faith. His heretical thoughts soon expanded to include the letters of indulgence Christians used to buy themselves freedom from their sins. In doing so, Luther was attacking the Vatican’s lifeblood. The church earned millions with the letters.

His final break with the church came during his “tower experience” of 1516. Luther was convinced that man could only receive redemption through the “grace” of God, not through payments and good deeds. From his perspective, man remained an undeserving servant, forever tainted with evil. The creed that suddenly dawned on the Wittenberg monk as he was sitting on the toilet was that Jesus brought salvation to mankind despite his sins.

The resulting 95 theses quickly led to a conflagration in the Europe of the early 16th century. The emperor threatened to put the insurgent to death, but Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle, where he continued to write. He declared as invalid all but two of the seven sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and he criticized the cult of relics as a “dead thing.”

The pull of outrage began to draw in more and more people, breaking apart the unity of Christianity.

The Wittenberg Monastery closed its doors in 1522. Luther was given the building for his personal use and, after marrying the former Catholic nun Catherine von Bora, whom he eccentrically referred to as “Mr. Käthe,” he set up home.

He was no longer interested in celibacy, which he argued was against nature. The Curia, he argued, could “just as easily have banned shitting.”

The archeologists have already been hard at work in the old abbey in Wittenberg. They scored a direct hit in the rear courtyard, where they found a waste pit filled with a collection of the family’s refuse.

The find reveals that the doctor worked in a heated room with a view of the Elbe River. He spent his evenings writing in the light of lamps filled with animal fat. The dig contained the bindings of parchment books, several “quill knives” to sharpen goose quills, as well as four writing sets containing sand, ink and styluses.

The educated thinker was tremendously prolific, writing an average of 1,800 pages a year.

His tone became increasingly brusque over the years. He denounced Turks as “devils,” Jews as “liars” and gay priests as “garden brothers who do it with each other.” Rome, he wrote, was surrounded by “pig-theologians.”

After penning such sharp words, the powerfully eloquent reformer ate from faience bowls and drank from magnificent Turkish pitchers. The archeologists found intricate oven tiles decorated with motifs from the Old Testament, as well as more than 1,600 shards from glasses Luther, an avid eater, used to quench his considerable thirst for beer. Luther needed it to numb his emotions. The reformer’s attacks on the apostolic seat had come at the price of depression. He was constantly tempted by sadness.

In moments of remorse, the suffering Luther was convinced that the devil was trying to convince him to revoke his thoughts. His prompt response was to throw inkpots at the devil or resort to the power of his bowels: “But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.”

Given his many conflicts with the pope, it is no surprise that the stress took a toll on Luther’s health. He was plagued by rheumatism and urinary stones. He was so weak that he had himself taken to his lectures in a handcart. He also suffered from angina pectoris, which made him anxious. As gout set in, writing became increasingly difficult.

And then there was his obesity. At first, the doctor weighed 100, then 120 and, finally, an estimated 150 kilograms (the estimate is based on an ink drawing made of Luther shortly after his death).

The archeologists also found dozens of small containers, which Luther used to hold the many ointments and medications he bought for himself.

Gradually he wasted away, Luther, the Lord’s wrestler, the man who, eternally convinced of the incompleteness of all activity, noted humbly on his deathbed: “We are beggars.”


REYKJAVIK – Iceland: ancient spindle with runes discovered

A fracture of a spindle with a runic inscription was discovered in an archeological excavation near the Althingi parliament building in Reykjavík last week. It is believed to date back to the 11th century and may be the oldest runic inscription in Iceland.

Archeologist Vala Gardarsdóttir, who is in control of the excavation, told Fréttabladid that the discovery is of great significance. “What makes it so special is that it is the only runic inscription from that time that has been found in Iceland.”

“This find could tell us a lot about the development of runes in Iceland because it can prove to be an important piece of the puzzle. One could even say that we’ve discovered the missing link,” Gardarsdóttir said.

Thórgunnur Snaedal, a professor with expertise in runes, has examined the spindle and decoded the inscription. “The female name Thórunn is probably inscribed to the fraction and the words ‘owns me’.”

The spindle is made from green sandstone which indicates that it was made from a stone from Esja, the mountain which towers over Reykjavík.

Relics of the oldest inhabitation in Reykjavík have been discovered near the Althingi building, the most important of which is the settlement lodge on Adalstraeti 16.

Gardarsdóttir said various objects have been discovered which indicate that during the settlement era this was an industrial area and such operations were probably undertaken inside or next to the lodge.


Viking hunting outpost on Greenland

Ruins recently discovered on Greenland may mark the Vikings’ most northerly year-round hunting outpost on the icy island, a researcher said on Monday.

Knut Espen Solberg, leader of ‘The Melting Arctic’ project mapping changes in the north, said the remains uncovered in past weeks in west Greenland may also be new evidence that the climate was less chilly about 1,000 years ago than it is today.

‘We found something that most likely was a dock, made of rocks, for big ships up to 20-30 metres (60-90 ft) long,’ he told Reuters by satellite phone from a yacht off Greenland. He said further study and carbon dating were needed to pinpoint the site’s age.

Viking accounts speak of hunting stations for walrus, seals and polar bears in west Greenland. Inuit hunters also lived in the area.

‘This is the furthest north on Greenland that evidence of year-round Viking activity has been found,’ Solberg said of the finds in an area called Nuussuaq. ‘At the time the Vikings were living here it was warmer than today.’

In a Medieval warm period, trees and crops grew on parts of Greenland. The Vikings disappeared in the 14th century, coinciding with a little-understood shift to a cooler climate.

Solberg said that the expedition, linked to Norwegian climate research institutes and including an archaeologist, reckoned the dock was probably built by Vikings because the Inuit only used small kayaks and had no need for a large quay.

The team, which came upon the ruins during their expedition, also found remains of several small stone buildings nearby. Both Inuit and Vikings had similar building styles.

Christian Keller, a professor of archaeology at Oslo University, was quoted as telling the daily Aftenposten that the buildings were similar to Viking structures in west Norway but that the dock was unlike known Viking quays.

Any carbon dating placing the site between 900-1400 would make it ‘an exciting find’ from the Vikings, he said. A later date could mean it was built by European whalers in the 16th century.

Solberg said Vikings in Greenland were unlikely to have built with wood, traditionally used in Scandinavia for docks. A wooden structure would not have survived thick winter ice.

He also said that modern climate change, blamed mainly on human emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, was bringing erosion to archaeological sites on Greenland.

Warmer summers mean fewer days with ice on the sea, increasing a battering of waves on the shore, while permafrost is also thawing. Seas have also been rising, largely because of a long-term coastal subsidence unrelated to climate change.

Article retrieved from here.

L’Abbaye de Fontenay

cloisters-fontenay.jpgShort history:

1118. The abbey was founded by Saint Bernard in a small marshy valley a few kilometers from Montbard (Burgundy).

1130. The monks settled down on the actual Fontenay site, at the intersection of two combes.

1139. Ebrard, the Bishop of Norwich, came to Fontenay to flee the persecution he was under in England. His fortune financed in part the construction of the church

1147. Church dedicated by Pope Eugene III.

1259. Saint Louis exempts Fontenay from all taxes.

1269. Fontenay became the Royal Abbey.

1359. Fontenay was pillaged by the armies of Edward III, king of England.france-cistercianabbeyoffontenay.jpg

1547. Establishment of the Commende regime whereby the Father monk is appointed by the King and not elected by the monks.

1745. Destruction of the refectory.

1789. French revolution.

1790. The last eight monks left the abbey.

1791. The revolutionaries sold the abbey to Mr. Hugot, who turned it into a paper mill.

1820. Fontenay was bought by Elie de Montgolfier, an ancestor of the inventor of hot air balloons, who develops the business.

1838. The scholar Marc Seguin lives in Fontenay and does research.

1852. Fontenay is classed as a historical site.

1903. The paper mill is expanded by the Montgolfier family.

1906. Eduard Aynard, a Lyonnais banker and son-in-law of Montgolfier, bought Fontenay and decided to dismantle all the industrial buildings in order to bring back Fontenay to its mediaeval glory. The restoration continued until 1911.

1960. The dormitory is restored by Pierre and Hubert Aynard.

1981. The Fontenay Abbey is declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

The Fontenay abbey is located in northern Burgundy, 80 km north of Dijon and 250 km south of Paris. In this small valley of forest and ponds, Fontenay has stayed a peaceful haven from its very beginning.

This stark Burgundian monastery was founded by St Bernard in 1119. With its church, cloister, refectory, sleeping quarters, bakery and ironworks, it is an excellent illustration of the ideal of self-sufficiency as practiced by the earliest communities of Cistercian monks. Apart from the demolished refectory, it retains almost all of its original buildings: church, dormitory, cloister, chapter house, caldarium or “heating room”, dovecote and forge, all built in Romanesque style, with later abbot’s lodgings and infirmary. It is one of the oldest and most complete Cistercian abbeys in Europe.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a French ecclesiastic, born near Dijon. In 1113 he became a monk in the Cistercian monastery of Cîteaux, a small village south of Dijon, and in 1115 he became abbot of a monastery at Clairvaux, north of Dijon. Under his rule the monastery at Clairvaux became the most prominent of the Cistercian order. Reputed miracles and the eloquent preaching of Bernard attracted numerous pilgrims. Between 1130 and 1145, more than 90 monasteries were founded under the auspices of the one at Clairvaux, and Bernard’s influence in the Roman Catholic church spread throughout the world.

He is reputed to have established the rule of the Order of Knights Templar, and in 1128 he obtained recognition of the order from the church. In the contest between Pope Innocent II and Antipope Anacletus II for the papacy, Bernard was instrumental in the victory of Innocent. In 1146, at the command of the pope, Bernard began his preaching of the Second Crusade.

His sermon, delivered at Vézelay, aroused enthusiasm throughout France; Louis VII, king of France, was persuaded to join the Crusade, and subsequently Bernard gained recruits from northern France, Flanders, and Germany. The failure of the Crusade was a great blow to him. He was canonized in 1174 and named Doctor of the Church in 1830. His feast day is August 20.

Bernard was an uncompromising opponent of heresies and of rationalistic theology, such as that of the French philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard. He wrote many sermons, letters, and hymns; some of the hymns are still sung in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. Important among his works are De Diligendo Deo (The Love of God, c. 1127) and De Consideratione (Consideration to Eugene III, c. 1148).

Links of interest:

Official Abbey website


“A poison in a small dose is a medicine, and a medicine in a large dose is a poison.”

poison1.jpg roman_nero1.jpg
Humans appear to have been exposed to arsenic for more than 5000 years and we know this because hair from the Iceman, who was preserved in a glacier in the mountains of the Italian Alps for this length of time, contained high levels of the element. His exposure to arsenic is thought to indicate that he was a coppersmith by trade since the smelting of this metal is often from ores that are rich in arsenic. The arsenic is volatilized as arsenic trioxide and it deposits in the flue of the furnace or on nearby surfaces.

Theophrastus, Aristotle’s pupil and successor and who lived around 300 BC, recognized two forms of what he referred to as ‘arsenic’ although these were not the pure element, but the arsenic sulphide minerals orpiment (As2S3) and realgar (As4S4). The ancient Chinese also knew of them and the encyclopaedic work of Pen Ts’ao Kan-Mu mentions them, noting their toxicity and use as pesticides in rice fields. The mineral realgar was recommended as a treatment for many diseases as well as for banishing grey hair.

Arsenic compounds are also referred to in Democritus’s Physica et Mystica, and the Roman writer Pliny wrote that the Emperor Caligula (12-41 AD) financed a project for making gold from orpiment and while some was produced it was so little that the project was abandoned.

The link between arsenic and gold was not forgotten and arsenic really came into its own in the Middle Ages. Realgar was found to yield so-called white arsenic by fusing it with natron (natural sodium carbonate). Petrus Oponus (1250-1303) showed that both orpiment and realgar could be converted to white arsenic, which we now know as the dangerously toxic arsenic trioxide, and which in the hands of the unscrupulous was to wreak such havoc down the ages. If white arsenic was mixed with vegetable oil and heated it yielded another sublimate, arsenic metal itself, and this may be how the discoverer of the element, Albertus Magnus (1206-80), first made it, although it was not identified as an element until several centuries later. What was also noted in the Middle Ages was that when arsenic was applied to copper metal it turned it silver, and this too appeared to be a kind of transmutation.

Arsenic has a long historical and disreputable pedigree; its very name seems to condemn it as something unspeakable. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first recorded use of the English word arsenic was in 1310, and certainly it must have been widely known by the end of that century because it was mentioned by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, written in 1386. The canon yeoman’s tale has the words:

No need to reckon up the lot,

Rubeficated water, bull’s gall,

Arsenic, sal ammoniac, and brimstone:

And if I wanted to waste your time I could recite any number of herbs.

Rubeficated means red, sal ammoniac is ammonium chloride, and brimstone is sulphur. Later in the tale he mentions orpiment (arsenic sulphide, As2S3) as one of the four spirits of alchemy.

The Romans knew of arsenic materials, as did the contemporary civilizations of China and India. The Chinese used them to kill flies and rodents, and the Indians used them to preserve paper from attack by insects. The Roman writer Dioscorides (40-90) wrote De Materia Medica [Medical Matters] in which he listed scores of remedies, mainly of the herbal kind, but also of the mineral variety and among these he mentioned orpiment and realgar, both of which are natural arsenic sulphides.

Although arsenic rarely threatens our health today, in the past it has affected the lives of many, but that was at a time when it was generally perceived as beneficial, to the extent of being taken regularly as a tonic. Yet while doctors often prescribed it for many ailments, they began to question its widespread use. In 1880 the Medical Society of London published a list of all the products then on sale which were coloured with arsenic pigments, and there were indeed many of them. For example if you were having an evening playing cards, then not only were the cards themselves likely to contain arsenic, but the green baize of the card table certainly did, and the wallpaper of the room would be printed with its pigments, as would the blinds and curtains at the window. The linoleum on the floor might well be coloured with it as would the toys with which the children played, and even the artificial flowers in the vase on the sideboard would have leaves of arsenic green. Arsenic indeed was everywhere.


The forces of the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Eastern Roman Empire, had at their disposal a wonder-weapon: Greek fire. According to one account it appeared in the reign of Constantine IV Pogonatus (641-68) and its invention was credited to a refugee from Syria who fled to Constantinople after his native land was conquered by the Arabs. Others say that it was really a development of an existing weapon that the Byzantines had used in the 500s but, however it was discovered, it certainly had a profound effect.

Greek fire was invaluable in fighting off the Arab fleets that attacked Constantinople in 673 and 717, and was even used against a Russian fleet in the 900s. In these attacks Greek fire was ejected under pressure from tubes mounted on the prows of the Byzantine ships, rather in the manner of a modern flame-thrower, and it was reputed to catch fire spontaneously and to be impossible to extinguish. Such was the power of this new weapon, and the fear it engendered, that it is thought to have been a significant factor in enabling the Byzantine Empire to flourish for almost a thousand years. The secret of Greek fire was carefully guarded and with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 all knowledge of how it was made was lost.

Arsenic as an agent in warfare languished for many centuries until it was revived in World War I. In that war various chemical agents were used in an effort to break through the lines of trenches that stretched for hundreds of miles along the Western Front. The Germans tried chlorine gas on 22 April 1915 and this had a devastating effect on the unprotected British soldiers as it rolled over no-man’s-land and into their trenches. Five thousand men died and more than 15 000 were permanently lung-damaged. In September of that year the British retaliated with mustard gas, a sulphur compound, but the attack was totally ineffective. The disadvantage of these types of chemical agents was that they made the target area unsafe to occupy and it hindered rather than helped the attacking forces. The search was on for ‘better’ weapons.

Several arsenic-based chemicals were found such as Lewisite, Sneeze Gas, and Adamsite, their chemical names being 2-chlorovinyldichlorarsine, phenyldichlorarsine, and diphenylaminechlorarsine. Of these the only one used on a large scale in World War I was Sneeze Gas which was capable of penetrating gas masks and producing unbearable irritation of the respiratory tract. Lewisite was much more potent and this was developed for use as a chemical weapon, but the War was over before it could be deployed. Lewisite is an oily liquid with the odour of geraniums and it boils at the relatively high temperature of 190°C; this means that it is not very volatile and so cannot be used as a gas as such, but it could be spread as a vapour – the ‘dew of death’ – and while it could kill it was more likely to incapacitate because breathing the vapour would cause the lungs to fill up with fluid. The reason for using Lewisite was to disable troops by penetrating their clothing, including protective rubber suiting, causing a violent reaction on the skin forming large painful blisters. On unprotected individuals the chemical would attack eyes, lungs, and skin and eventually lead to liver damage and perhaps death.


The ancient Assyrians of the eighth and ninth centuries BC were familiar with yellow orpiment, and the Greeks and Romans knew that it formed a white compound when roasted, which would be mainly arsenic trioxide. It was also known from an early date that heating orpiment with natron (natural sodium carbonate) produced a product that was deadly and that when it was dissolved in water it gave a clear solution. This reaction would form the soluble salt sodium arsenite, which would indeed have been very poisonous. Thus from the very earliest days there were those who knew the deadly nature of arsenic trioxide and its salts and how to make them. Such knowledge was both dangerous and politically useful, and there were some unexpected deaths that seem likely to have been caused by it. Laws of ancient Rome, dating from around 100 BC were specifically designed to cover cases of death by poisoning.

One of the more notorious poisoners of ancient Rome was Agrippina. She disposed of those who stood in her way, and almost certainly used arsenic trioxide because it was so effective and it enabled her to escape detection. Agrippina undoubtedly murdered her husband in order to be free to marry her uncle, the Emperor Claudius, and thereby gain political power and promote her son Nero into becoming Claudius’s successor. To bring that about Agrippina first eliminated her opponents among the palace advisors, and then poisoned Claudius’s wife Valeria. Once she and Claudius were married she persuaded the Emperor to allow his daughter Octavia to marry Nero. All that remained was to poison the Emperor’s son Britannicus, who would undoubtedly have succeeded him, and persuade the Emperor to name his stepson Nero as his successor. When he did that he sealed his own fate. She poisoned Claudius in 54 and Nero became Emperor at the tender age of 16. Sadly poor Agrippina soon fell out of favour with her son and he had her murdered in 59, although not with poison. Or so the story goes.

The use of poison in the furtherance of political ends is supposed to have reached a fine art in Italy in the 1500s and 1600s. The most notorious practitioners were Cesare Borgia (1476-1507) and his sister Lucrezia (1480-1519) whose names are still synonymous with such depravity. The pair employed a white powder they referred to as La Cantarella and which was almost certainly arsenic trioxide. It was said they got the recipe for making it from the Spanish Moors, and indeed their father was a Spanish cardinal called Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492. He died in 1503 after attending a banquet with his son Cesare and it was even rumoured that his death was caused by his eating poisoned food and wine that was destined for someone else. This seems unlikely because Cesare was also taken ill, although he recovered. Lucrezia died in 1519 at the age of 39, apparently in a state of grace, having given up her scandalous life for one of religious devotion. Her brother died in a skirmish in 1507 aged 31.

Book of interest