Book Reviews

Review: The Royal Art of Poison

I was so lucky to win a copy of this amazing book from Duckworth Books, as I’m a big fan of Eleanor Herman’s writing, and I love learning about the history of early medicine and cosmetics – especially when they’re actually poisonous!


Book: The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman

Read before: No

Ownership: Finished hardback won in publisher giveaway!

This book is so interesting, you guys. Within moments of opening it, I was swept away by the chatty style and fascinating anecdotes, and was reading out gross and fun tidbits to my long-suffering husband. There are stories here that you can show off at parties for years to come, horrifying all your friends with tales of weird and horrible remedies (I had a great time at the Christmas dinner table!).

The book starts with an overview of the history of poison, then offers bitesize case studies of various historical personages who died, or who are thought to have died, of poisoning, examining their symptoms (and in some cases, their remains) to try to find the truth about what killed them. This section was particularly fascinating, and really stretched my knowledge of historical figures. It won’t be a surprise to many that the Medici family feature heavily! The last section in the book briefly brings the history of poison out of the royal zone and right up to date, looking at modern poisonings – but this is a much swifter tour of things, and the focus of the main part of the book is firmly historical.

There’s just such a wealth of information here, but it’s written in such a smooth, anecdotal style, that it feels more like listening to a good friend explain cool bits of history to you. You come away from every page thinking, ‘wow, that’s an awesome fact’. It manages to relate the royal experience of poison to every day life, making both the history and the science accessible and interesting – you find out so much about trends and lifestyles by looking at medicine, because you can see not only how people treated illnesses, but also what they treated, and why that was a problem for them. For example, Herman makes a good point, that in future generations our use of chemotherapy, for example, will be seen as just as barbaric as our ancestors’ use of mercury in medicine does to us now. This is ostensibly a book about poisons, but manages to encompass so much anthropology and information about people’s lifestyles and beliefs that it’s worth a read for any history buff.

I loved this book! It’s a little gross, sure, but it’s gorgeously written, and contains so much interesting stuff. Definitely a great buy for anyone interested in, well, anything! Five out of five cats.

5 star

13 thoughts on “Review: The Royal Art of Poison

  1. So glad you enjoyed this one. It’s one that looks pretty interesting but not sure if I’d pick up myself just because I have so many other things on my list right now. Great review! Also, that cover is great, just love it. 🙂


    1. Yes! In the profiles of the different historical figures, that’s exactly what it discusses – what people thought it was, what any contemporary autopsy showed, what a modern DNA test shows if we still have their remains, or what we can work out from the description of the symptoms now that wouldn’t have been known. It’s utterly fascinating and really in depth about the forensics of it!

      Liked by 1 person

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