Saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, is a key ingredient in the making of gunpowder. It’s used in fertilizer and to remove tree stumps. Fourth of July fireworks would not be the same without it. Saltpeter was once purported to be an anaphrodisiac. The monks called it chaste berry or monk’s pepper. It’s been rumored that the army put it in coffee given to soldiers to reduce amorous urges. In truth, saltpeter is the stuff of urban legend.
It is the latter use of this efflorescence that I researched while writing Wild Lavender. So why would an author of romance require information on an anaphrodisiac? My reasons for requiring an anti-love drug were indeed nefarious, for every medieval romance novel has its antagonist. In the case of my book, it happens to be the heroine’s husband. Saltpeter was harvested for multiple reasons, the most unappetizing of which being a food preservative. Medieval monk’s pepper was found on the stone walls of stables, occurring naturally in places constantly saturated with animal urine and dung—salt of the rock indeed. When my heroine became desperate for some remedy that would curb her husband’s baser instincts, her maid provided her with a topical solution.
Excerpt from Wild Lavender:
Grainne cleared her throat nervously. “It’s saltpeter, Lady Aubrianne. My mother called it fool’s pipe. …the ointment can be applied to the mare. Over time, the stallion feels the effects,” she explained with frankness. “There are a number of uses for fool’s pipe, m’lady. It’s rumored that many a monk depends upon it.”
When comprehension dawned, Anna’s mouth dropped open. “For my stallion, I see. And the mare, Grainne? Any side effects for the mare?”
“None that I’ve heard, m’lady.”
Is there any truth to the rumor that saltpeter quelled the urges of monks and soldiers? I doubt it, the army would have been better served doling out black licorice instead of chocolate bars. Thankfully, medical science has learned quite a bit since medieval times. But remember, only twenty years ago, we were still putting butter on burns and peroxide on cuts. As for the heroine Anna, if she ever worked up the nerve to use the fool’s pipe on her husband, I’m not telling. That would be a spoiler.