Welcome! This is the homepage for a Columbia University seminar called “Drugs and Poisons in World History” taught by Benjamin Breen in the spring of 2016.
This site collects resources relating to the history of poisons (mainly visual sources at the moment) and as well as the syllabus for the course and two sections (reading responses and final projects) devoted to students’ writing. It aims to be of use not just to students in the course, but to other members of the Columbia community and interested members of the general public.
So, why a class about poisons?
The history of poisons is also a history of alchemy, assassins, magic, shamans, and arcane lore. It offers access to an ancient tradition of folk knowledge and alchemical practice that continues to pop up in the most unexpected places (when Severus Snape lectured that “a bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat, and it will save you from most poisons,” he was drawing on over two thousand years of scholarly precedent). In short, poisons are fun.
But what I hope this class will also show is that poisons have also had a serious role to play in history. The act of poisoning is inherently a reflection of unbalanced power relations: it’s the tool of the servant or slave, the oppressed subaltern, the person who wants to fight back but can’t do so through a display of force or public resistance. And the act of taking poisons is a surprisingly complex one – indeed, the more we contemplate the term and what it entails, the harder it becomes to define. Is a cigarette smoker a poison-taker? What about someone who likes habeñero peppers? From one perspective, the answer to both questions is yes: both nicotine and capsaicin evolved to deter predation, and both can kill you if you take enough of them (yes, people can die from eating chili peppers). Humans, being the bizarre animals that we are, often enjoy poisoning themselves, and cases of mild poisoning are in fact incredibly common in our culture if we pause to reflect on them (what else would you call a hangover?) The simultaneous allure and danger of poisons has proven to be an incredibly potent force in history, leading to the fall of empires, the rise of mighty merchant dynasties, and, arguably, important aspects of modernity – not least the modern disciplines of biochemistry, pharmacy and toxicology.
In short, as Paracelsus put it, poisons are in everything, and nothing is without poison. The aim of this course is to look with new eyes on a theme in history that seems dangerous and exotic, but on reflection is closer to home than we think.
Who is this website for?
Good question! The core users of this site will, naturally, be the Columbia University students who are registered in this course. Students will be expected to post regular (weekly or biweekly) reading responses on the Reading Responses portion of the site, and are greatly encouraged (via extra credit points) to comment on and engage with their peer’s writings. But this site is also a bit of an experiment, in that I’m intentionally making this a public resource in hopes that it will continue to be useful to a broader readership even after the class is over. I’m also using the site as a public notebook of sorts: for instance, I’m posting versions of my class lectures and research notes in the Resources section along with some of the class readings. Thus it’s a hybrid of a blog, digitized lecture notes, and a course website.
Although I’m committed to keeping my contributions to the site publicly available and public domain (under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 3.0 license), please note that student’s contributions are their own intellectual property and may not be reproduced without their express permission. Please write me at bpb2121 @ [the .edu email address used by Columbia university] if you want to get in touch, or simply leave a comment below.
How can I learn more about the history of poisons?
Where’s that image of the snake above the chalice from?
The featured image for this blog is from Piero di Cosimo’s Saint John the Evangelist, painted c. 1500‒1505 in Italy and now held by the Honolulu Museum of Art. It shows Saint John about to drink a cup of poisoned wine which he neutralizes by blessing it, an apocryphal story about the evangelist that was popular during the Renaissance. Poisons are often depicted as physical snakes in medieval and early modern art, but this is among the most artful versions of the theme I’ve come across. You can read more about this marvelous painting here.