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