Wednesday 28 August 2019

#HistoricalFiction author, Christopher J T Lewis, is exploring the history of Bezoar, and Bezoarticke medicines #History @cjtlewis

Of Bezoar, and Bezoarticke 

By Christopher J T Lewis

In my novel ‘Galileo’s Revenge’, in his bid to solve the death of Duke Francesco Galileo studies the works of French barber-surgeon Ambroise Paré (c.1510-90). (See my recent blog). In his treatise on poisons, among many other topics, Paré devotes a chapter to ‘Bezoar and Bezoarticke medicines’. What was Bezoar?
From the beginning of the Christian era in Europe, up to Paré’s day and beyond, there were a number of universal panaceas and antidotes on the apothecary’s shelves. There was ‘Mithridatium’, for example, supposedly the personal formulation of King Mithridates VI of Pontus (pre-120-63BC). It contained some 50 ingredients. An alternative was ‘theriac’, containing even more ingredients, and compounded according to closely guarded recipes. In the Middle Ages, this was imported into England as ‘Venice treacle’.
But Bezoar was rather different.

Apothecary shop, by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash.

On the name and nature of Bezoar

Let Paré explain:
‘An Antidote or Counter-poyson is by the Arabians in their mother tongue termed “Bedezahar”, as “the preservers of life”. This word is unknowne to the Greekes and Latines, and in use openly with the Arabians and Persians, because the thing itselfe first came from them… In Persia and a certaine part of India is a certaine kinde of Goate called Pazain – the colour of this beast is commonly reddish, the height thereof indifferent – in whose stomack concreates the stone called Bezoar. It growes by little and little about a straw or some such like substance in scailes, like to the scailes of an onion. So that, when as the first scaile is taken off, the next appears more smooth and shining as you still take them away, the which amongst others is the sign of good Bezoar and not adulterate. This stone is found in sundry shapes, but commonly it resembles an Acorne or Date-stone. It is sometimes of a sanguine colour, and otherwhiles of a honey-like or yellowish colour, but most frequently of a blackish or dark greene, resembling the colour of mad Apples [aubergines], or else of a Civet Cat. This stone hath no heart nor kernel in the midst, but powder in the cavity thereof, which is also of the same faculty [i.e. efficacy].’

 By Jacob Spencer on Unsplash.

Paré’s etymology seems to be entirely correct. The Shorter Oxford Englsih Dictionary (OED) records ‘Bezoar…1477… adaptation of Persian pād-zahr counter-poison’. Anyhow, Bezoar turns out to be a calculus or concretion formed in the intestines of Persian goats. Hmm. But, at least, in contrast to Theriac and Mithridatium, it does not contain dozens of obscure and expensive ‘simples’ compounded in a secretive manner.

Preparation and Prescription:
 ‘By much exceeds what other Antidotes soever’

So, setting aside for the moment the sourcing of such an exotic object, how is Bezoar to be used, and what is it good for?
‘Now this stone is light, & not very hard, but such that it may easily be scraped, or rasped like alabaster, so that it will dissolve, being long macerated in water… They [the Persians] use it, induced thereto by our example, not onely against poysons, but also against the bites of venomous beasts…’ Furthermore, according to one authority, it may be used ‘with very good successe in inveterate melancholy diseases [such] as the itch, scab, tetters [eczema, herpes, etc.] & leprosie; therefore, by the same reason, it may well be given against a quartaine feaver.’ Bezoar powder, Paré continues, may also be recommended for ‘the bites of venomous animals’; also, if applied ‘to pestilent Carbuncles when they are opened, it drawes forth the venome’; and it is good for ‘the small pocks and meazles’. To sum up, some authorities believe ‘that this stone by much exceeds not only other simple medicines of this kind, but also such as are termed theriacalia, and what other Antidotes soever.’

Caveat emptor: 
Trade restrictions, authenticity and efficacy

It is not surprising, then, that the authorities in Persia should have taken steps to protect this valuable resource: ‘At first,’ explains Paré, ‘it was common amongst us [in Western Europe], and of no very great price, because our people who trafficked in Persia, bought it at an easie rate. But after that the faculties thereof were found out, it began to be counted more rare and deare, and it was prohibited by an Edict from the King of that country, that nobody should sell a Goate to the stranger Merchants, unlesse he first killed him’ – i.e. the Goate, I think –  ‘and tooke forth the stone, & brought it to the King.’
As a result of these restrictions – or was it all just clever marketing? – Bezoar stones became highly sought after, finding their way into elite ‘cabinets of curiosities’.

Mounted Bezoar stones in the treasure chamber of the Wittelsbach family, kings of Bavaria. By Schtone - Own work, Wikimedia.

Even without alleged obstacles to free trade, however, the temptation to counterfeit such a mundane and variable pebble must have been considerable. Paré is aware of the problem: ‘Of the notes by which this stone is tried [tested], (for there are many counterfeits brought hither,) the first is already declared’ – i.e. its onion-skin structure – ‘the other is, it may be blown up by the breath, like an oxes hide; for if the wind break through, and do not stay in the density thereof, it is accounted counterfeit.’ Hmm, again.
Despite such caution in regard to authenticity, and despite his track-record of thoughtful scepticism, Paré shows little inclination to doubt the basic efficacy of a genuine Bezoar. At most, he doubted its universal efficacy. Thus:
‘Some years agoe a certaine Gentleman, who had one of these stones which he brought out of Spaine, bragged before King Charles [IX of France (1560-74)]… of the most certaine efficacie of this stone against all manner of poysons. Then the King asked of me, whether there were any Antidote which was equally and in like manner prevalent against all poisons. I answered, that nature could not admit it, for neither have all poysons the like effects, neither doe they arise from one cause; for some worke from an occult and specific property of their whole nature, others from some elementary quality that is predominant’ and so on.
That was the theory, at least. But anyhow, Paré suggested to the King, ‘it was an easie matter to make trial hereof …’

A trial of Bezoar

WARNING: there follows historical material some people might find distressing. I certainly do.
Paré’s suggestion was to do an experiment ‘on such as were condemned to be hanged.’ (You might think that the test could more reasonably have been conducted on the ‘certaine Gentleman’ from Spain but, no matter.) ‘The motion [i.e. Paré ’s proposal] pleased the King.’
And so, forthwith, ‘There was a Cooke brought by the Jailor, who was to have been hanged within a while after for stealing two silver dishes out of his master’s house. Yet the King desired first to know of him, whether he would take the poison on this condition: that if the Antidote which was predicated to have singular power against all manner of poisons, which should be presently [i.e. immediately] given him after the poison, should free him from death, that then he should have his life saved. The Cook answered cheerfully, that he was willing to undergo the hazzard, yea, and greater matters, not only for to save his life, but to shun the infamy of the death he was like to be adjudged to.
‘Therefore he then had poison given him by the Apothecarie that then waited [upon the King] and, presently after the poison, some of the Bezahar brought from Spain. Which being taken down, within a while after he began to vomit, and to void much stoole with grievous torments, and to cry out that his inward parts were burnt with fire. Wherefore, being thirsty, and desiring water, they gave it him. An hour after, with the good leave of the Jailor, I was admitted to him. I find him on the ground going like a beast upon hands and feet, with his tongue thrust forth of his mouth, his eyes fiery, vomiting, with store of cold sweats, and lastly the blood flowing forth by his ears, nose, mouth, fundament and yard. I gave him eight ounces of oile to drinke, but it did him no good, for it came too late. Wherefore at length he died with great torment and exclamation, the seventh hour from the time that he tooke the poison being scarcely passed.’


Paré had first made his name as a military surgeon with the French army. Maybe his experience of treating the injured on the battlefield had inured him to suffering? Or maybe life was cheap and pain ubiquitous? Either way, like such other contemporary anatomists as Andreas Vesalius (1514-64), Paré was not about to miss the chance for an anatomical dissection:
‘I opened the body in the presence of the Jailor and four others, and I found the bottom of his stomacke blacke and dry, as if it had beene burnt with a Cautery. Whereby I understood he had sublimate given him; whose force the Spanish Bezahar could not represse. Wherefore the King commanded to burne it.
Sublimate, also known as ‘corrosive sublimate’, is a chloride of mercury. In suitably dilute form it does have antiseptic and disinfectant properties. In any quantity, however, it is extremely poisonous. According to Paré in the immediately following chapter ‘Of Minerall Poysons’, ‘Such as have taken sublimate, their tongue and jawes become straightened and rough, as if they drunke the juice of unripe services… As soone as it descends to the stomack, it sticketh to it. Therefore presently after it frets and exulcerates; it causeth unquenchable thirst, and unexplicable torments… as if they were seared with an hot iron…’
But let’s end on a lighter note. Fractionally. According to Emsley, at much the same time in Germany, another condemned criminal took the same gamble – and lived. He, however, had had the good sense, or good fortune, to put his trust in the medicinal clay known as terra sigillata.

Sources and Reading
Paré, Ambroise. The works of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey translated out of Latine by Th. Johnson (London, 1634).
Emsley, John. The Elements of Murder. A History of Poison (Oxford, 2005)

Galileo’s Revenge
By Christopher J T Lewis

Florence, October 1587.

 Francesco de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, collapses whilst out hunting with his ambitious younger brother, the Cardinal Ferdinand. Soon the Grand Duke is dead. Officially the Cardinal insists that his brother has died of a malarial fever. But secretly an investigation begins to find the killer – or a suitable scapegoat?

Galileo, a brilliant, impecunious, and unscrupulous young scientist, is struggling to make a name for himself at the corrupt court of the Medici. He is horrified to be arrested as the Duke’s murderer: nothing burns so well as a wicked magician! His only hope is to find the real killer – or, at least, a better scapegoat. His search takes him through the piazzas and palaces of Florence, through the barber-shops and brothels, the cloisters and the taverns. Especially the taverns.

Pick up you copy of
Galileo’s Revenge

Christopher J T Lewis

I am a historian and writer, living in Cambridge, UK. Galileo’s Revenge is my first work of fiction.
I have studied at Cambridge, London and Padua universities. Although theoretical physics was my first love, I subsequently became fascinated by the history of science. I am especially fond of the medieval and early modern periods: everything, that is, from the Venerable Bede (c.673-735) to the Honourable Boyle (1627-91), and a bit beyond. 

A few years ago, I started work on a new, up-to-date biography of Galileo. Unfortunately (for me) a couple of other excellent scholars had already had the same idea, and I shelved my own project. But all was not lost. I have always loved crime fiction and historical fiction and above all historical crime fiction. (Yes, yes, I admit it: I adore Cadfael, even if he is the veritable white line down the middle of the road.) And so I had already started working on an early draft of my novel Galileo’s Revenge.

My story, fills in some of the large gaps in our knowledge about his early life, and entangles the young, ambitious Galileo with the real (and highly suspicious) deaths of the Medici Duke and Duchess of Tuscany in 1587. How hard can writing fiction be? I asked myself.You just make it up as you go along. And I won’t have to check my references. A much older and slightly wiser man, I finally stopped writing and published Galileo’s Revenge, or: A Cure for the Itch in November 2018.

I taught for the Open University for some fifteen years; for another twenty years I was a supervisor and Affiliated Research Scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in Cambridge. My previous work includes Heat and Thermodynamics. A historical perspective (Greenwood, 2007), a largely biographical and social treatment aimed at non-specialist students and the general reader. This received an award from the US journalChoice as one of their ‘Best Academic Books of the Year 2008’. 

But I have put all that behind me now, and I am trying to go straight. I live quietly just off the Mill Road in Cambridge, in newly fashionable Romsey Town. This is most convenient for splendid café/vinyl store ‘Relevant Records’, for wonderful cocktails at ‘196’, and for tasty Italian delicatessen at ‘Limoncello’. It was at each of these excellent emporia, of course, that I had the original inspiration for Galileo’s Revenge. Oh alright, that’s not true, it was whilst walking along the promenade at Southwold, but they have all helped to keep me going along the way.

Connect with Christopher: Website • Twitter

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx