Elyse Waters-Brown - PhD Archaeology
The unicorn made a huge impact on the medieval economy due to the belief in its prophylactic powers. This myth, therefore, provides an excellent framework for highlighting the aspects most essential for long-term integration of a myth into society and rendering material profit. To sell a myth, one must first determine what people desperately need, it needs to be within the realms of reality, one must carefully explain how it works with logical explanations that concur with the science of the time, and veracity of myth proved by way of tests to determine authenticity.
The unicorn mythology centers around the belief in its ability to detect and neutralize poisons. The demand for this service was so high, that the unicorn horn was worth more than gold and rare gems (Schoenberger 1951, 284). The threat of poisoning for the elite class was growing in the twelfth century and extended into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Gibbs 2009, 29, 82). Poison in drinks was of special concern as the strong taste of wine helps to hide the flavor of many poisons (Gibbs 2009, 51).
The next step in selling a myth is to make it believable. What you are selling needs to fit into the scientific understanding of the day, and not be removed from the natural world. Supernatural cures were often attributed to the work of demons and witches. As most physicians were devout Christians, authors of medical texts took special care in describing their cures as fitting with the natural order created by God (Rider 2011, 100). For hundreds of years, the European medical beliefs were based on the works of Galen, who advocated the humoural theory which described health in terms of temperature and moisture (Schulze 1935, 431). By the 12th century, there was an extreme diversity in poisons, with research suggesting there was a particular focus on cold poisons (Gibbs 2009, 19, 48, 106). Some of the major authors of poison treatment such as Hildegard von Bingen and Averroes, were especially interested in how poisons worked and how medication could offset them (Throop 1998; Gibbs 2009). Some of their ideas are considered below.
Next in an endeavor to sell a myth, physical evidence must be provided as proof of the myth’s existence. Whole horns – usually owned by only the very rich, royalty, or those high in the religious order – sat on tables to detect poison (Schoenberger 1951, 284). Pieces might be fashioned into scepters, goblets, pendants, or handles of cutlery (Schoenberger 1951, 284; Shepard 1930, 136-137). Powdered horn was mixed into drinks as an antidote (Schoenberger 1951, 284). In reality, whole pieces were either Mammoth tusks, Walrus tusks, goats horns, Indian Rhinoceros horns, or Narwhal tusks (Schoenberger 1951, 284). The powdered form was drawn from sources such as clay, pig or dog bone, whalebone, bones of fossilized animals, burnt horn, lime-stone, or stalactites (Shepard 1930, 116).
But why was it important to have physical objects as part of the myth? The senses are an important basis for belief in what is real. Saint Augustine highlighted the importance of personal experience for credibility, especially touch (Daston & Park 1998, 63). The audience can engage with the item as a corporeal object, bringing it down from the lofty realms of the symbolic and grounding it in the world of reality (Geisbusch 2012, 206, 207).
The next step to promote belief in a myth is to explain how the object operates in natural terms. Medieval authors explained the horn’s effect through theories of sympathy or antipathy. Hildegard suggests antipathy and explains that the unicorn, as a warm animal, treats poison by balancing out the illnesses caused by their negative cooling factors (Throop 1998, 210- 211). In opposition to this, Laurens Catelan promotes the idea of specific form and asserts that antidotes cure poisons by virtue of being made from poisons (Shepard 1930, 150). While we cannot say that either could be proved correct, these theories do show that both authors were very interested in explaining the effectiveness of unicorn products in natural terms.
The final stage to advance belief in a myth is to offer tests of authenticity. Though belief in the unicorn’s existence was steady for centuries, naturalists were aware that charlatans would try to make a quick buck by faking unicorn horns using something easier to obtain (Daston & Park 1998, 62; Shepard 1930). David de Pomis suggests placing the believed unicorn horn in a closed container with three to four live scorpions and to wait for four hours. Dead scorpions would indicate that the object is a true unicorn horn (Shepard 1930, 117). Cardan included a specific description as well as a test. According to this author, the horn is striated, hard, heavy, the colour of boxwood, and can save a pigeon poisoned with arsenic (Shepard 1930, 118). Laurens Catelan provided not one, but five tests that must be passed successfully to prove that the unicorn horn is authentic, which he apparently believed could work as he owned his own unicorn horn (Shepard 1930, 117-118).
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Gibbs, Frederick W. (2009). Medical understandings of poison circa 1250-1600. Thesis (Ph.D.), University of Wisconsin, Madison.
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Schoenberger, G. (1951). A Goblet of Unicorn Horn. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 9(10), 284-288.
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Throop P. (Trans), (1998), Hildegard von Bingen's Physica : the complete English translation of her classic work on health and healing, Rochester.