Review: The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman

Title: The Royal Art of Poison – Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul

Author: Eleanor Herman

Pages: 304 Pages

Publisher: St Martin’s Press

The Blurb

Hugely entertaining, a work of pop history that traces the use of poison as a political—and cosmetic—tool in the royal courts of Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the Kremlin today

The story of poison is the story of power. For centuries, royal families have feared the gut-roiling, vomit-inducing agony of a little something added to their food or wine by an enemy. To avoid poison, they depended on tasters, unicorn horns, and antidotes tested on condemned prisoners. Servants licked the royal family’s spoons, tried on their underpants and tested their chamber pots.

Ironically, royals terrified of poison were unknowingly poisoning themselves daily with their cosmetics, medications, and filthy living conditions. Women wore makeup made with mercury and lead. Men rubbed turds on their bald spots. Physicians prescribed mercury enemas, arsenic skin cream, drinks of lead filings, and potions of human fat and skull, fresh from the executioner. The most gorgeous palaces were little better than filthy latrines. Gazing at gorgeous portraits of centuries past, we don’t see what lies beneath the royal robes and the stench of unwashed bodies; the lice feasting on private parts; and worms nesting in the intestines. 

In The Royal Art of Poison, Eleanor Herman combines her unique access to royal archives with cutting-edge forensic discoveries to tell the true story of Europe’s glittering palaces: one of medical bafflement, poisonous cosmetics, ever-present excrement, festering natural illness, and, sometimes, murder.

The Review

What a fascinating read.

The Royal Art of Poison looks at the development of medicine and the concerns and hysteria surrounding poison throughout history. Eleanor Herman uses famous people throughout history and looks at the way they dealt with the threat of poison, the contemporary belief of what illnesses eventually got the famous person and also what a modern diagnosis would be. In some cases, the mystery has been resolved through exhumation of the body but in other cases it is conjecture.

With The Royal Art of Poison you are taken on a fascinating journey and as a modern reader you can laugh at some of the silly things that they thought but this is through the goggles of modern medicine. If you were a contemporary of those featured in this book then you would believe the same things. It is a testament to how much we have advanced in the medical world.

An absolutely fascinating read.

The Royal Art of Poison – Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman is available now.

For more information regarding Eleanor Herman (@eleanorherman) please visit

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