No one really knows in what era George R. R. Martin’s A Book of Fire and Ice took place. Since it is categorized as a fantasy, it’s safe to say that all the events in the stories took place in an alternate history. But, as fiction goes, there are always embedded elements of reality. Scheming and killing to capture a kingdom (or a territory, if we’re to use a more contemporary term) is real enough.
And so it was that in an attempt to install a new queen minus a monster of a king, the reigning king was poisoned at his own wedding party. Fans of Martin’s books and the TV series it spawned, Game of Thrones, need no backgrounder. For those unfamiliar with neither, suffice to say that the king was a sadistic monster and it was rather fun to watch him die. Although Sansa Stark had no part in the murder, she was instrumental to it as the owner and wearer of a necklace (a hairnet in the book) that carried “the strangler“. The bride’s own grandmother plucked a stone from the necklace and put it in the king’s cup of wine.
Is the poisoning too mean and cruel to be based on real life events?
Poison has been in use as early as 4500 B.C. when its effects were first documented. Poison was a common instrument of death during the Greek and Roman civilizations. In 1424, if stories are to be believed, a pamphlet called The Book of Venoms was in circulation.
In short, dispensing poison to commit murder was not the secret of a few. A number of politicians and members of royal families died from intentional poisoning.
Probably the most infamous poisoner is Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI and Vannozza dei Cattanei, sister of Cesare and pawn in the political machinations of her father and brother. Legend has it that she had a hollow ring where she stored the poison that she poured into the drinks of political rivals.
But that’s just legend. No one knows to this day how much of the stories about her active role in the murders committed by on or behalf of her father and brother is true.
It isn’t legend, however, that poisoning has become rather “fashionable” during the Middle Ages and all through the Renaissance that it became equally fashionable for monarchs and the ultra rich to have food tasters.
The job, however, has been popular for centuries. Roman emperors employed trusted slaves to be their praegustator, not always effectively (when Claudius died after being given poisoned mushrooms in 54BC, his taster Halotus was fingered as a suspect). So did the Egyptian pharaohs and the emperors of Byzantium and China. The Mauryan empress Queen Durdhara died when she ill-advisedly ate some food prepared for her husband, Chandragupta, who went on to unify India into a single state. You had to be on your toes in 320BC. And those expert poisoners the Borgias employed tasters to make sure their own methods weren’t applied to themselves. [The Independent]
In more contemporary history, Adolf Hitler, Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu, Saddam Hussein and Russian President Vladimir Putin all had/have food tasters. I suppose that killing by poison has never really gone out of fashion.