Poison-Laden Books From The 16th And 17th Centuries Discovered In University Library

'One wouldn’t expect a book to contain a poisonous substance. But it might,' says Kaare Lund Rasmussen, the professor who made the discovery.

Old books.
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'One wouldn’t expect a book to contain a poisonous substance. But it might,' says Kaare Lund Rasmussen, the professor who made the discovery.

The University of Southern Denmark has made a confounding discovery that brings to mind the famous 1980 novel by Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose. Amid its library’s rare books collection, the university has uncovered three ancient tomes laden with poison, reports Fox News.

The discovery was made by Kaare Lund Rasmussen, an associate professor at the university, together with research librarian Jacob Povl Holck. The duo was examining the old books, which date back to the 16th and 17th centuries — a time when bookbinders were known to recycle older parchments and use them to make covers for their newer books.

The books in question — Anglica Historia by Polydorus Vergilius (1570), Historia boiemica by Johannes Dubravius (1575), and Vitæ Patrum Das ist: Das Leben der Altväter, Zu nutz Den Predigern Göttliches Worts by Georg Maior (1604) — had gone through the same procedure and were bound with pages from other tomes.

For instance, the 1575 book was bound with Æneas Sylvius: De Bohemorum et ex his imperatorum aliqvot origine ac gestis historia, printed in the same year, notes Fox News.

Rasmussen and Holck initially set out to take a closer look at the books’ covers, in order to decipher the Latin text in the old pages used for binding the historical tomes.

But they immediately hit a hurdle, which eventually unmasked an unexpected secret: the three ancient books were filled not only with history lessons, but also with wild amounts of arsenic.

“This chemical element is among the most toxic substances in the world and exposure may lead to various symptoms of poisoning, the development of cancer and even death,” Rasmussen and Holck stated in an article penned for The Conversation.

The Secret Of The Arsenic-Covered Books

The finding of the toxic chemical hidden within the book covers was a history lesson in itself.

As Rasmussen and Holck explain in the article, the binding parchment used in the covers of the three books was smeared with “an extensive layer of green paint.”

Since this made it difficult for the pair to read the text beneath the paint, they decided to take the ancient tomes to the X-ray lab and use micro X-ray fluorescence technology to look under the green paint.

The same method is employed by archaeologists and art galleries when trying to determine to chemical make-up of artifacts, such as pottery pieces, and paintings.

The X-ray analysis revealed that the green pigment in the paint was actually arsenic — and quite a lot of it, Rasmussen told Fox News.

“We were looking for writing which shows up as ink may contain copper or iron or calcium. However, the moment we put the X-ray beam on the green surface we saw the fantastic high amounts of arsenic.”

Deadly Beauty

The two suspect that the arsenic-containing pigment is, in fact, Paris green — a beautifully-colored pigment also known as “emerald green,” used in the old days to beautify an entire host of objects, from book covers to even more personal items, such as clothing.

Though pleasing to the eye, this aesthetic whim could lead to a gruesome end, as prolonged exposure to the green pigment, especially in contact with the skin, brought on symptoms of arsenic poisoning.

These included “an irritated stomach, irritated intestines, nausea, diarrhea, skin changes and irritation of the lungs,” Rasmussen and Holck wrote in The Conversation.

Impressionist and post-impressionist artists also used Paris green in their paintings, which “means that many museum pieces today contain the poison,” note the two.

Yet the use of arsenic pigment in the book covers was not motivated by aesthetic goals. Found in a lower level of the cover, the substance was probably smeared to ward off insects and vermin.

The arsenic coating may have been applied much later, probably in the 19th century, with the purpose of keeping the old tomes safe, argue Rasmussen and Holck.

Following this startling discovery, Rasmussen pointed out that the word needs to get out, so that people who read and handle old books are made aware of this unusual situation.

“Next step is to warn librarians and readers of old books to wear protective gloves, and to advise libraries to store any green painted old books in a dry, dark environment out of harm’s way of people inhaling the air above the books.”

This is because “arsenic has a tendency to transform to the airborne arsine (AsH3) given the right conditions of humidity and light,” he explains. This colorless gas can rupture red blood cells, causing renal failure and ultimately death, notes Fox News, citing the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

“One wouldn’t expect a book to contain a poisonous substance. But it might,” conclude Rasmussen and Holck.

The arsenic-laden books are now kept under a sort of quarantine by the university, stored in a ventilated cabinet and fitted with warning labels. The ancient tomes are to be converted into digital format, so that they can be read without being physically touched.