I recently had the chance to visit the Apothecary Museum at Heidelberg Castle, a fascinating and free museum with several re-created pharmacists’ offices of different eras, and a great room full of actual ingredients ranging from exotic fruits, nuts and roots, to whole dried lizards and narwhal horns, along with many less palatable things.
This is a display about the ancient cure-all, Theriac. Roman recipes included all manner of spices, herbs and animal parts–including viper’s flesh–each prepared in its own unique way. 40 to 70 ingredients were listed.
A proper Theriac took months to create, what with fermentation of various ingredients, and should be allowed to mature for years before use. (The cynic in me suspects that this allows the physician a lot of wiggle room in explaining why it might not have worked in any given case–because it wasn’t prepared properly or because it hadn’t sat long enough.) It was said to be almost universally helpful and some of the wealthy took it every day. The viper’s flesh was particularly strong against poisons.
The popes at Avignon, on the other hand, had a sort of mystic tree hung with bits of coral, shark’s teeth, “unicorn horn” and other items said to be proof against food-borne poisons. This tree stood in the great dining hall. Did it work? Well, none of those popes died of poison–although Pope Clement V (famed for his part in the Templars persecution) died from a surfeit of emeralds. He was eating the ground gemstones on the advice of his doctor.