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Fossil Sharks’ Teeth: A Medieval Safeguard Against Poisoning

Fossil Sharks’ Teeth: A Medieval Safeguard Against Poisoning

By George Zammit-Maempel

Melita Historica, Vol. 6 (1975)

Vienna, Treasury of the German Order. So called Natternzungenkredenz ( 15th/16th century ) made of fossil shark teeth and red coral - photo by Wolfgang Sauber
Vienna, Treasury of the German Order. So called Natternzungenkredenz ( 15th/16th century ) made of fossil shark teeth and red coral – photo by Wolfgang Sauber

Abstract: In the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, particularly between the thirteenth and the sixteenth century, the most common way of eliminating one’s enemy was by poisoning his food or drink at a banquet. Amongst the precautionary measures adopted by royalty and members of the nobility (who were the chief victims of such attempts), was the use of fossil sharks’ teeth mounted as amuletic pendants. Contemporary literature suggests that most of these teeth originated from the Tertiary rocks of the Maltese Islands.

Ornamental set-ups with fossil sharks’ teeth attached or suspended, known as Natternzungen-Kredenzen, were placed on side-tables (credence tables) in readiness for detecting poison by “sweating profusely” or by “sweating and changing colour” when in proximity of poisoned food or drink. As an extra precaution, fossil sharks’ teeth were often dipped in beverages to neutralise any poison that might not have been already “detected.”

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This paper, which is part of a more comprehensive study on fossil sharks’ teeth, entitled The Curious Lore of Malta’s Fossil Sharks’ Teeth, describes and figures three Natternzungen-Kredenzen known so far to have survived the ravages of time. It records and describes in addition, what is considered to have once been another credence. The treasured object, which is now preserved at the Cathedral Museum, Mdina, Malta, consists of a red coral tree (now devoid of any fossil sharks’ teeth pendants) and a silver-gilt crucifix mounted on an elaborately worked pedestal containing representations of poisonous and other animals, leaves and fruit.

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