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The Poison Trials

Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science

The Poison Trials

Wonder Drugs, Experiment, and the Battle for Authority in Renaissance Science

In 1524, Pope Clement VII gave two condemned criminals to his physician to test a promising new antidote. After each convict ate a marzipan cake poisoned with deadly aconite, one of them received the antidote, and lived—the other died in agony. In sixteenth-century Europe, this and more than a dozen other accounts of poison trials were committed to writing. Alisha Rankin tells their little-known story.

At a time when poison was widely feared, the urgent need for effective cures provoked intense excitement about new drugs. As doctors created, performed, and evaluated poison trials, they devoted careful attention to method, wrote detailed experimental reports, and engaged with the problem of using human subjects for fatal tests. In reconstructing this history, Rankin reveals how the antidote trials generated extensive engagement with “experimental thinking” long before the great experimental boom of the seventeenth century and investigates how competition with lower-class healers spurred on this trend.

The Poison Trials sheds welcome and timely light on the intertwined nature of medical innovations, professional rivalries, and political power.

312 pages | 38 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2021


History: European History

History of Science


"Rankin describes the cruel human experiments in grisly detail in her book. . . . Her anecdotes are riveting. . . . But the book's fascination lies in its exposure of the early attempts at an approach to medicine that we would now call scientific—along with the revelation of how quickly and seemingly instinctively these attempts became enmeshed in a primitive version of what we would now call medical ethics. These tensions, like contagions, have always been with us."


"[Rankin] brings us her half-a-decade's worth of research in the disturbing monograph The Poison Trials. . . . Rankin goes to lengths to not just tell the stories, she also analyses them to reconstruct the journey of moving from coercion to informed consent in clinical trials. With this, Rankin succeeds in uncovering a part of history most readers might be unfamiliar with. . . . I have to give a standing ovation for the work that has gone into the book."

Chemistry World

"Poison Trials is a book that deftly and masterfully interweaves archival sources and the contemporary printing press, addressing long-standing que-tions in the history of medicine, and it does so in a style that is both lively and engaging."

Early Science and Medicine

"Brilliantly researched, described, analysed and reported. . . . Rankin tells a highly comprehensive tale of a fascinating piece of Renaissance medical history. It is thoroughly researched and presented in exhaustive detail. A true academic work, it has extensive endnotes (unfortunately not footnotes), a voluminous bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, and an excellent index. . . . Despite the academic rigour, Rankin has a light, literary style and her prose is truly a pleasure to read. . . . This volume is a must read for anybody involved in the history of Early Modern and/or Renaissance medicine but also more generally for those working on the history of Early Modern and/or Renaissance science, or simply Early Modern and/or Renaissance history. I would also recommend it, without reservations, for any general readers, who like to read well written accounts of interesting episodes in history."

Renaissance Mathematicus

"Rankin immerses her readers in the early modern world of variegated medical practice, contested medical authority, and competing kinds of evidence. . . . Readers will quickly cherish the vividness that Rankin brings to early modern texts, their authors, and medical debates. Specialists and nonspecialists alike will appreciate Rankin's energetic and conversational prose, as well as the fluidity with which she moves between micro and macro analysis. . . . A significant contribution to our understanding of experience, experiment, and evidence in early modern Europe."

Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“This is an exciting and original book that examines the role of poison trials in early modern medicine and science and brings up important issues about the role of experiential knowledge, the ethical and legal implications of medical testing, the role of courtly patronage in the shaping of scientific practice, and the culture of exotica in sixteenth-century Europe. Rich and dense, it deals with important issues, provides strong and unexpected arguments, and presents a fascinating narrative that will captivate readers.”

Daniel Margócsy, author of Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age

"The Poison Trials is a deeply researched and brilliantly constructed history of early modern tests of antidotes against poison. But, far more than that, it is also a cultural history of poison in the early modern era that targets experimental tests, raising the ingenious argument that the poison trials provided a kind of medical model for experiments in a time when experimental science was emerging. Rankin tells the story of the battle of physicians against empirics in a fiercely competitive marketplace, with physicians asserting their power and priority against the ragged street-corner ‘doctors’ who hawked their antidotes and panaceas, and of wary rulers fearful of being poisoned by enemies. This is rich cultural history and Rankin is an excellent guide through the thickets of the archival and printed sources detailing these sometimes bizarre events. The Poison Trials makes a major contribution to the history of early modern science and culture, and casts light on ethical concerns that still haunt us."

William Eamon, New Mexico State University

"In this sharp and engaging analysis of these fascinating yet widely overlooked experiments, Alisha Rankin persuasively demonstrates that the poison trials shed much light on the shifting definitions of medical ethics and the relationship between the marketplace and scientific authority in the Renaissance." 

Seventeenth Century News

The Poison Trials is a painstakingly researched and shrewd analysis that links a burgeoning experimental tradition to larger shifts in the scientific and political culture of early modern Europe."

Celeste Chamberland, Roosevelt University

"Alisha Rankin’s new book The Poison Trials is a rich new contribution to the subject of sixteenth-century experimentalism... knotting together experimentation with another subject that has grown in importance in the latter period: poisons."

Annals of Science

"This entertaining and insightful study is warmly recommended to anyone interested in the early modern period and the history of medicine and science."

Historische Zeitschrift (translated from German)

Table of Contents

Introduction: Caravita’s Oil

Part One: Authorities

1. Poison on Trial: Theriac
2. Condemned Bodies: Oleum Clementis

Part Two: Experiments

3. Experimenting with Drugs: Mattioli’s Scorpion Oil
4. To Cure a Thief: Silesian Terra Sigillata

Part Three: Wonder Drugs

5. Powerful and Artful Substances: Bezoar Stone
6. A Universal Cure: The Panacea Amwaldina
Conclusion: Testing and Testimony: Orviétan


Sixteenth Century Studies Conference: Roland H. Bainton Book Prize

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