Seventeenth century silver bezoar stone holder. Medieval times medicine believed to prevent poisoning.
Measirements :55 x 52 mm
Weight :43 gram
In J.K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a quick-thinking Harry saves his best friend’s life by making him swallow a bezoar stone—a calcification from the stomach of a goat or other ruminant. Harry believed, as did many Renaissance doctors, that the stone served as a universal antidote to poison.
The Huntington’s collection of Renaissance printed books document the strange stone’s far-ranging use by apothecaries, medical practitioners, noble and royal collectors, preachers, and poets. In addition to nullifying the effects of poison, the fabulous stone reputedly cured worms, dispelled melancholy, and preserved youth.
The efficacy of the bezoar stone was put to the test in 1567, when Ambroise Paré, physician to King Charles IX of France, proposed a medical trial of sorts. He convinced a prisoner facing hanging to swallow poison along with the bezoar. If he survived, he’d be pardoned. The prisoner agreed and then died hours later, bleeding from every orifice and vomiting profusely, crying that death by gallows would have been better.
Yet the library record is packed with fantastic examples of the stone’s virtues and its soaring market value—equal to gold—that continued unabated long after Paré’s experiment.
Pierre Pomet, a French apothecary, summarized the Renaissance romance with bezoar stones. Harvested from wild goats or sheep in Persia, the East Indies, or Malaca, bezoars evoked the exotic allure of far-away lands, even as they promised to cure the human body. An image from Pomet’s 1694 l’Histoire générale des drogues shows an animated male goat caught in mid-leap among rocky cliffs, emphasizing the stone’s unusual genesis: a concretion bred in an animal but composed of a mineral.
Another Renaissance belief held that bezoars formed from the tears of a weeping stag. Edward Topsell’s The Historie of foure-footed beastes, published in 1607, describes a particular hart or deer that regenerated itself by eating venomous serpents. The hart dispelled the poison by submerging itself in water. According to Topsell, “The teares of this beast . . . are turned into a stone (called Belzahard, or Bezahar) . . . and being thus transubstantiated doe cure all manner of venom.”
Bezoars appeared in inventories of monarchs from the Hapsburg Rudolph II to England’s Queen Elizabeth I and were often displayed proudly alongside their royal jewels. Bezoar stones were also key ingredients in the tonics proposed by Renaissance physicians and apothecaries, as well as the home remedies offered by mothers and wives.The bezoar’s powers encompassed both physical and spiritual cures. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), recommends the bezoar for its “especiall vertue against all melancholy affections” because “it comforts the heart and corroborates the whole body.” As a prophylactic against bodily poisons, the bezoar could be readily cross-purposed for a spiritual antidote.
In the Psalms of David, Psalm 41, a thirsty, panting hart, frequently conflated in commentary with the bezoar-weeping stag, illuminates the struggle of the soul. As translated by the Protestant poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), the psalm reads:
As the chafèd hart, which brayeth,
Seeking some refreshing brook,
So my soul in panting playeth,
Thirsting on my God to look.
The sweating, crying hart, an emblem of the human soul, seeks the cure to relieve spiritual melancholy.