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History And Mystery

Signs of love, not a love potion

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 18 December 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1471
  1. Jeff Aronson, reader in clinical pharmacology (
  1. 1University of Oxford, Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford OX2 6HE

    Gunther Weitz has described the symptoms experienced by Tristan and Isolde in Wagner's opera after they have drunk the love potion. He concludes that the potion is likely to have contained an anticholinergic compound or compounds. This is an amusing idea, but to treat it seriously trivialises Wagner's opera.

    The legend of Tristan (or Tristram) and Iseult (or Isolde) is from the 6th century but was not written down until the 12th century, when it became exceptionally popular, spawning about 80 versions in the next 100 or so years. Its popularity has not waned in 850 years. The first still extant version (circa 1150) was by the French poet Thomas, and later French versions are by Béroul (c 1180), Marie de France (c 1190), and Hélie de Borron (c 1190). Gottfried von Strassburg's early 13th century unfinished version (c 1210) relied on that of Thomas; in completing it, Ulrich von Türheim and Heinrich von Freiburg relied on a late 12th century version by Eilhart of Oberg.

    In most versions the love potion is made by Iseult's mother when her daughter is about to be escorted by Tristan to Cornwall to marry King Mark, with the instruction to Iseult's nurse, Brangien (Brangäne) that it is to be given to Iseult and Mark on their wedding …

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