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Blinded by Botany: medieval malice!

[There is some cool stuff in this post, but the actual identification of the famed titmallo is wrong: full story here! GW]

One of my favourite passages in Il Fior di Battaglia is this, where Fiore shows the use of a poison-dust pollax:


Have some poison dust sir!

The text that goes with it is hilarious. The text above the image reads (in Tom Leoni's translation)

This axe is hollow all around and filled with a corrosive powder that makes it impossible to open the eyes as soon as it comes into contact with them–and may even cause permanent blindness.

I am the axe, heavy, cruel and lethal, and I deliver bigger blows than any other handheld weapon. If I miss with my first attack, the axe becomes a useless liability. But if I don't miss, my axe can come to the rescue of any other handheld weapon. If I am accompanied by good weapons, I can defend with the pulsative guards of the sword.

Oh, my lord, my noble lord the Marquis! I've put so many dirty tricks in this book, I know you'll never resort to them. But read them anyway, just for the love of knowledge. 

And he then goes on to give the recipe. Tom's translation is:

This is the recipe for the powder that goes in the axe, as I showed in the previous picture. Take the milk of the thyme and dry it in the sunlight or in the oven, and make a powder out of it. Take a pinch of this powder and an ounce of powder of fior di preta, and mix them together. Then put the mixture in the axe. This can also be done with any fine caustic powder — as you can find some fine ones indeed in this book. 

Where la latte dello titimallo is translated as  “the milk of the thyme”. This has always struck me as unlikely as a) I've never heard of thyme having milk and b) thyme is generally considered a friendly herb.

One of the great benefits of running a school such as mine is that many of my students, off their own bat, go and dig up interesting stuff about the Arts we practise. One such student, Kliment Yanev, has just returned from a work trip to Trieste, and sent me this (quoted with permission):

I had the pleasure of meeting Carlo Fonda, someone born on the language border between Veneto-Giulia and Friuli, particle physicist, science disseminator, and most importantly local wildlife expert. He took me on a tour of the nearby mountains and showed me a plant with some interesting properties. It is covered by a thin layer of sap, which when exposed to light turns caustic and burns the skin. It can be handled safely in the dark, as long as all remains of the sap are removed from the skin before it is exposed to any light. Modern Italian name is “dittamo”, Latin “Dictamnus Albus”, not far from “titimallo”. Common in Friuli, even more common on the slopes of the Adriatic coast, but available almost everywhere in Europe.

This seems very convincing to to me: we have found our titimallo! (No, I will NOT be including this play in our basic syllabus. Put that mortar and pestle down!)

And get this: there is a poisonous herb that can only be collected by the light of the moon (how would you find it at night, pre-flashlight?)  and processed in the dark; pick it in daylight and you may go blind! How totally fantastic is that?


I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

3 Responses

  1. I confess, i have read many of your posts over the years, but this is the firdt to make me want to pump my fist and shout “yes!” You’re right, that is SO cool!

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