The Messed Up Truth About Poisonous Renaissance Books

It seems like a harmless activity. You head to the beach for a little light summer reading, crack open your favorite 16th-century manuscript, lick your finger, turn the page, and repeat. But then, before you know it, you're dead.

Okay, we'll admit, the chances of you taking a rare Renaissance-era history book on vacation with you are slim to none, but the fact is that books laced with arsenic actually do exist. According to The Conversation, researchers at the University of Southern Denmark found three books covered in the deadly poison in the library's collection of rare books in 2018.

Noting that the covers of the old books were made up of fragments of old medieval manuscripts, they wanted to know what the text on these recycled papers said. But the covers had been slathered with a thick layer of green paint that made it hard to read the words with the naked eye, so they sent the books to get x-rayed. That's when they saw that the book covers were loaded with arsenic, a poison that can be carcinogenic or even fatal. Now they knew to keep their hands off these toxic tomes, but there were still the questions of why and how they'd been poisoned in the first place.

Books aren't the only poisonous old stuff to watch out for

The books weren't painted green to make them look pretty. The researchers said that they were covered in a thick layer of paint known as Paris green most likely to protect them from insects and other pests. Paris green, which gets its brilliant verdant color from arsenic, was actually a pretty common in the early 19th century. It was used in everything from books to clothes to wallpaper to artists' palettes and canvases. "Impressionist and post-impressionist painters used different versions of the pigment to create their vivid masterpieces," wrote the researchers who discovered the poisoned books. "This means that many museum pieces today contain the poison." So when you see the sign in the museum that says, "Don't touch," you can be sure it means business.

Luckily, by the end of the 19th century, people began to catch on to the devastating effects of arsenic, and its use in paints and dyes was phased out, so you shouldn't have to worry about avoiding the color green. Just be careful when doing your research for that term paper on medieval history.