Modern forensics solve 700-year-old murder mystery

The contents of the bowels of an Italian medieval warlord have revealed his nefarious cause of death nearly 700 years later.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

It's commonly accepted that life expectancy in the Middle Ages was pretty low, hovering around the early 30s -- mainly because of the hazards of childhood. If a person made it to adulthood, the average was in the 60s -- but, although that's comparable with today's global life expectancy, the world was still a much more dangerous -- and openly vicious -- place. It wasn't, for example, unusual for popes and kings to be assassinated.

Take Cangrande I della Scala. Born in 1291, he rose to rule Verona in 1311 at the age of 20, and was a skilled warrior and ruler, claiming several additional territories for his family's rule. He was also the most prominent patron of poet Dante Alighieri, and was considered a brave, yet merciful man.

In the year 1328, at the age of 37, he took possession of the Padua region, after 16 years of bloody conflict. In 1329, he prepared to move on Mantua, formerly the seat of a trusted ally with whom he had become estranged, but postponed the action due to a change of government at Treviso, a territory long contested and the last slice of the Veneto region to fall into his control.

But his triumphal procession into Treviso was spoiled by a sudden, sharp illness. Rumour had it that Cangrande had become ill after drinking from a polluted spring a few days before. The most powerful man in Verona's history reached his lodgings four days after entering Treviso, took to bed and promptly died on 22 July 1329, at the age of 38. Immediately, rumours proliferated that someone had poisoned the nobleman.

Now, a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science has revealed that the rumoured poisoning was actually the case.

Cangrande entering the CT scanning phase. University of Pisa

In 2004, the body of Cangrande was exhumed from its marble, still well preserved and naturally mummified. X-ray and CT scans revealed that much of the internal structure was intact, if dessicated. The team found evidence of osteoarthritis and tuberculosis, and, in the colon and rectum, traces of faecal matter.

It is this that the team then analysed, seeking clues to the substance that led to Cangrande's sudden death. They found chamomile, a herb used nowadays in relaxing teas; black mulberry; and -- a complete surprise -- pollen spores of Digitalis, a deadly plant commonly known as foxglove.

This is consistent with the symptoms -- diarrhoea and vomiting -- Cangrande exhibited prior to his death, the team wrote.

"The gastrointestinal symptoms manifested by Cangrande in his last hours of life are compatible with the early phase of Digitalis intoxication and the hypothesis of poisoning is mentioned by some local historical sources," the study reads. "The most likely hypothesis on the causes of death is that of a deliberate administration of a lethal amount of Digitalis."

As for who did the poisoning... well, that's likely to remain a mystery. Shortly after his death, one of Cangrande's physicians was hanged by his successor -- and the contents of Cangrande's intestines does support the theory that the physician was the one whodunnit. A decoction of chamomile and black mulberry could have been given the nobleman to help soothe an ailment. Chamomile is a sedative and antispasmodic, while black mulberry is astringent. The foxglove could have been slipped into the medicine, masked by the other flavours.

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That said, the man was not without a plethora of political enemies -- including his aforementioned successor, Mastino II.

"The principal suspects are the neighbouring states, the Republic of Venice or Ducate of Milan, worried about the new regional power of Cangrande and Verona; at the death of Cangrande also his ambitious nephew Mastino, who became ruler of Verona in association with his brother Alberto, cannot be totally excluded as instigator," the study reads.