Poisoned blades are a persistent feature of fantasy literature and video games, but were they ever really used in medieval Europe? If so, what kinds of poison were used and to what effect? The earliest records for the use of poisons in warfare come from Greek antiquity, when Odysseus sails to Ephyra to find deadly poison to put on his bronze arrowheads. The Greeks were familiar with such poisons as hemlock, yew, and monkshood, among others, with Socrates having been famously poisoned to death with a tea of hemlock (not the Hemlock Tree, wild or water hemlock, as seen below). There is less information about the uses of poisoned weapons in the medieval period, though considerable attention is paid to poisoning food as a method of assassination. Indeed, most traditional poisonings seem to have happened through people or animals eating a poison containing plant in some form.
Poison Hemlock, Conium Maculatum, a traditional poison
There is considerably less information about poisoning bladed weapons in medieval Europe (this link is a download), although there are guidelines laid out by classical physicians such as Celsus in his De Serum Medicina on how to treat wounds inflicted with poisoned arrows..."Therefore, at first the limb is to be constricted above this kind of wound but not too tightly lest it become numbed. Next, the poison is to be drawn out. A cup does this best. However, it is not amiss beforehand to make incisions with a scalpel around the wound so that more of the vitiated blood may be extracted. If there is no cup at hand, use any similar vessel; if there is not even this, a man must suck the wound... Serpents poison, like certain poisons used by hunters, particularly the Gauls, does not harm when swallowed, but only I a wound.Hence, the snake itself may be safely eaten, whilst its stroke kills. ... It must be verified that the one who sucks the wound has no sore spots on his gums, palate, or other parts of the mouth. After the suction, the patient should be put into a warm room in such a position that the bitten part points downwards. Book 4, 26)"
Monkshood or Wolfsbane, source of the poison aconitine
Medieval and Renaissance Europeans who read the classical physicians would have been aware of accounts of poisoned weapons and spent considerable time and expense creating antidotes and prophylactics, the most famous of which was theriac, which in medieval Europe was primarily a product of Venice, and which was traded and sold widely as a cure-all with particular ability to counteract poisoning. In England it was known as Venice Treacle and was imported and sold by the Worshipful Company of Grocers and recommended to treat plague, poisons, and various maladies.
16th century Venetian Merchants preparing the medicine theriac
But were daggers, swords, arrows, and other weapons routinely poisoned? Most records of poisoned weapons are ethnographic accounts by 20th century anthropologists investigating the hunting and warfare practices of tribal peoples in South America, Africa, and Oceania. The vast majority of these accounts are of people using arrows coated in either aconite from Monkshood plants or strychnine from the Nux Vomica tree. These are primarily used to poison animals that would otherwise be very difficult to kill due to their size, or in the case of people using blowguns to hunt, due to a lack of killing power the weapon otherwise had. For example, indigenous groups in the arctic used monkshood on harpoons to hunt whales, and the Ainu of Japan used the same poison on arrows to hunt bears. South African indigenous peoples also use poisoned arrows to kill elephants and other large animals that would otherwise be very dangerous to kill without modern firearms. There are also accounts of these poisons being used in war, even up through the 1960s (see this 1964 article from the New York Times, for example).
Monkshood grows throughout Europe and its effects were well known, so it seems a likely candidate for use on weapons. The problem for our modern conception of poisoned weapons is that daggers and swords tend to kill more quickly than a poison does, so it doesn't make much sense to apply a relatively slow acting poison on a weapon that kills quickly and efficiently, unless the killing is meant to be secret (as in assassinations using poisoned food or drink), or perhaps in the use of arrows when a killing shot can't be guaranteed. Poisoning with monkshood produces numbness, muscle weakness, and in extreme cases can kill by effectively stopping the heart, usually within two to six hours of receiving a fatal dose. However, most research on poisoning involves eating the toxin rather than having it injected into the bloodstream via a weapon, which might or might not make it faster acting, depending on its preparation and mechanism of action.
Arms and Armor 14th C. Dagger. Poisoned? Probably not...
Of course, there may be important psychological effects to using poison on weapons, for example, if it is well known that a certain fighter, tribe, or culture routinely applies poisons to their knives it might make others less likely to fight them out of fear. Similarly, applying a poison (even of dubious efficacy) to ones own weapons might provide a morale boost when facing a dangerous enemy. Indeed, most allegedly poisoned weapons in Europe were civilian arms for street fighting or, possibly, assassination. For example, the illustration below is of a Genoese Dagger, probably from the 16th-17th century, with a stiletto like perforated tip, which is claimed to have been for holding poison.
Pierced blades on European weapons are often mistaken as "poison holes", but the vast majority of such pieced blades feature the piercing in the forte of the blade rather than the tip, which means that you would need to run someone entirely through to expose the wound to the poison, at which point the stabbed individual probably had more immediate concerns than whether or not the blade was poisoned.
No need to poison this sword, it kills plenty quickly all by its lonesome. Arms and Armor Hollow Ground Henry V Sword.
In the end, it seems likely that monkshood-based poisons were used on medieval European weapons, particularly arrows, at various times, though to what effect it is difficult to say without a more substantive study. It seems quite unlikely that swords and daggers were routinely poisoned in the European context. Stay tuned for an upcoming vlog in which we will examine some purportedly poisoned weapons from the Oakeshott Institute Collection, and in which I interview Dr. Ahna Brutlag, a board certified toxicologist, about the likely physiological effects of such poisonings.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985