Horror story of eating corpses as Medicine

(ORDO NEWS) — The question was not “Should we eat human flesh?” says one historian, but “What kind of flesh should we eat?” In short: not so long ago, Europeans were cannibals.

The last line of a poem by John Donne, written in the 17th century, prompted Louise Noble to search. “Women,” the line ran, “is not only “sweetness and wit,” but also “a mummy possessed.”

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Sweetness and wit, of course. But a mummy?

In search of an explanation, Noble, an English teacher at the University of New England in Australia, made a startling discovery: The word is found throughout the literature of early modern Europe, from Donne’s Alchemy of Love to Shakespeare’s Othello to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, because mummies and other preserved and fresh human remains were a common ingredient in medicine at the time.

In short: not so long ago, Europeans were cannibals.

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Egyptians embalm the body

Noble’s new book, Medical Cannibalism in English Literature and Early Modern Culture, and Richard Sugg of the University of England’s Durham, Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, show that for several hundred years, which peaked in the 16th and 17th centuries, many Europeans, including royalty, priests, and scientists, regularly used remedies containing human bones, blood, and fat as medicines for headaches and epilepsy.

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There were few outspoken opponents of the practice, although cannibalism in the newly explored Americas was condemned as a sign of savagery. Mummies were stolen from Egyptian tombs, and skulls from Irish burials. Gravediggers robbed and sold body parts.

“The question was not ‘Should I eat human flesh?’ but ‘What kind of flesh should I eat?'” says Sugg.

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At first, the answer was an Egyptian mummy, which was crushed into tinctures to stop internal bleeding. But other parts of the body soon followed. The skull was one of the common ingredients taken in powdered form to treat head ailments.

Thomas Willis, a 17th-century pioneer of brain science, brewed a drink for apoplexy, or bleeding, that consisted of human skull powder and chocolate.

And King Charles II of England drank “Royal drops”, his personal tincture containing a human skull in alcohol. Even the moss that grew over the buried skull, called usnea, became a valuable supplement: its powder was believed to cure nosebleeds and possibly epilepsy.

Human fat was used to treat the outer integument of the body. German physicians, for example, prescribed dressings soaked in fat to treat wounds, and rubbing fat into the skin was considered a remedy for gout.

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Apothecary vessel for a mummy of the 18th century

The blood was harvested as fresh as possible, as it was believed that it still contained the life force of the organism. This requirement made it difficult to reach. The 16th-century German-Swiss physician Paracelsus believed that blood could be drunk, and one of his followers even suggested taking blood from a living body.

Although this does not seem to have been a common practice, the poor, who could not always afford the processed compounds sold in pharmacies, could gain the benefits of cannibal medicine by standing at executions and paying a small sum for a cup of the condemned’s still-warm blood.

“The executioner was considered a great healer in the Germanic countries,” says Sugg. “He was a social leper with almost magical powers.” For those who preferred boiled blood, a Franciscan apothecary’s recipe from 1679 describes how to make marmalade out of it.

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The trade in Egyptian mummies was a thriving business before supplies began to run low. Sale of Egyptian mummies in 1870

Rub fat on the sore spot and it can ease your pain. Pour powdered moss into your nose and the bleeding will stop. If you can afford King Drops, then a couple of drinks will probably help you forget about depression – at least for a while.

In other words, these medicines may have been accidentally useful – even if they were due to magical thinking, another clumsy search for answers to the question of how to cure diseases in a time when even blood circulation was not yet understood.

However, the consumption of human remains fits into the leading medical theories of the time. “It originated from the ideas of homeopathy,” says Noble. “It’s ‘like cures like’. So you eat crushed skull for headaches.” Or you drink blood from blood diseases.

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Another reason why human remains were considered potent was that they were believed to contain the spirit of the body from which they were extracted.

“Spirit” was considered a very real part of the physiology, linking body and soul. In this context, blood had a special power. “They believed that the blood carries the soul, and does it in the form of evaporating spirits,” says Sugg.

The freshest blood was considered the strongest. Sometimes the blood of young men was preferred, sometimes virgin young women. By swallowing cadaveric materials, a person acquired the strength of the one he used.

Noble cites the words of Leonardo da Vinci on this subject: “We preserve our life by the death of others. In a dead thing there remains an insensible life, which, when it is reunited with the stomachs of the living, regains sensitive and intellectual life.”

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This idea was also not new to the Renaissance, it just gained new popularity. The Romans drank the blood of slain gladiators to absorb the life force of strong young men.

The 15th-century philosopher Marsilio Ficino suggested drinking blood from a young man’s hand for similar reasons. Many healers in other cultures, including ancient Mesopotamia and India, believed in the usefulness of human body parts, Noble writes.

Even during the heyday of cadaveric medicine, two groups were demonized for their respective behaviors, which were considered savage and cannibalistic.

One of them were Catholics, whom Protestants denounced for their belief in transsubstance, that is, that the bread and wine taken during Holy Communion are transformed into the body and blood of Christ by the power of God.

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Another group were the Native Americans; negative stereotypes about them were justified by the assumption that these groups practiced cannibalism. “It looks like pure hypocrisy,” says Beth A. Conklin, a cultural and medical anthropologist at Vanderbilt University who has studied and written about cannibalism in America.

The people of that time knew that cadaveric medicine was made from human remains, but due to some mental transformation of their own, these users refused to see the cannibalistic consequences of their own practice.”

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Conklin finds a clear difference between European cadaveric medicine and the New World cannibalism she studied. “We know one thing: almost all non-Western cannibal practices are deeply social in the sense that the relationship between the eater and the one being eaten matters,” says Conklin.

“In the European process, this has been largely obliterated and unimportant. Human beings have been reduced to mere biological matter, equivalent to any other kind of commercial medicine.”

The hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed. For example, in Michel de Montaigne’s 16th-century essay “On the Cannibals,” he writes about cannibalism in Brazil as well as about the European medicinal version, and compares both options with brutal massacres during religious wars.

However, as science developed, cannibal remedies died out. This practice died out in the 18th century, around the time that Europeans began to regularly use forks for eating and bathing soap. However, Sugg found several late examples of corpse medicine:

In 1847, an Englishman was advised to mix the skull of a young woman with molasses and feed it to his daughter to cure her of epilepsy. (According to Sugg, he obtained the mixture and injected it, but “presumably without effect”).

The belief that a magical candle made from human fat, called a “thief’s candle,” could intoxicate and paralyze a person, persisted until the 1880s.

In the early 20th century, shilajit was sold as a medicine in a German medical catalogue. And in 1908, the last known attempt was made in Germany to swallow blood on the scaffold.

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This does not mean that we have moved away from using one human body to heal another. Blood transfusions, organ transplants, and skin grafts are all examples of the modern form of medicine from the body.

At their best, these practices are as rich in poetic possibilities as the mummies found in Donne and Shakespeare, as blood and body parts are freely transferred from one person to another. But Noble points to their darker incarnation – the global trade in body parts on the black market for transplants.

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In her book, she cites reports of the theft of organs from prisoners executed in China and, closer to home, of a New York body snatching gang that stole and sold body parts of the dead to medical companies.

This is a disturbing echo of the past. According to Noble, “it’s the idea that after the death of the body, you can do whatever you want with it.”


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