Researchers studying medieval texts at the University of Southern Denmark have uncovered a hidden danger in the bindings of at least three different historical documents that date back to the 1500 and 1600s. A green pigment found in the bindings of these books was discovered to be enriched in arsenic, so much so that they would poison anyone coming into physical contact with them. Naturally, one wonders how the arsenic found its way into these medieval books.
First, for the non-chemists among us: what is arsenic?
When a teenager in Idaho contracted the bubonic plague in early June, it made a few headlines because it was the first case in Idaho in 26 years. Half a millennium after it killed an estimated 60% of the European population, the specter of the Black Death still looms large in Western consciousness — gangrene, swollen lymph nodes, seizures — a horrific relic of days long past. But actually, although the bubonic plague has long been understood, it has never been eradicated.
In fact, outbreaks of the bubonic plague have been fairly common across the US since the early 20th Century. The last widespread outbreak happened in Los Angeles in late 1924, when 30 people who lived within a few blocks of each other contracted the bubonic plague, which developed into pneumonic plague, as it virtually always does when left untreated. Altogether, 24 people died in that outbreak, though newspapers at the time referred to it as a strain of pneumonia to prevent panic — and possibly anti-racist sentiment as the neighborhood affected was home to a large population of Mexican immigrants, including Patient 0. Antibiotics, which are still very effective against the bubonic plague, did not come into widespread use until the 1950s. Before that development, outbreaks were not unusual throughout the west, particularly in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Oregon.
When archaeologists uncovered a medieval grave on the island of Chapelle Dom Hue, off the west coast of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, they expected to find the remains of a long-departed human. Instead, they found a properly buried porpoise.
The grave, carefully cut into the rocky soil on a high point of the island overlooking the sea, was constructed with the same techniques used for human graves. It takes up valuable real estate on the small island. So what’s the explanation? At this point, researchers only have theories.