Early-modern cannibal doctors: why mummified corpse was considered medicine

Richard Sugg explains why taking a dose of mummified human corpse was considered good medicine in the Renaissance

A group of men observe a body lying on a table.

An execution has just occurred. Jostling beneath the still trembling body are several patients hoping for a cure. Those lucky enough to hear the blood spattering into the cups they are holding gulp the precious liquid down fresh and warm. The scene is in fact not that of an Aztec sacrifice, but a scaffold in early-modern Denmark. While the example is an extreme one, the notion that blood could cure epilepsy was supported by the highest medical authorities across Europe.

This use of “corpse medicine” in the early modern period can be broadly divided into two categories. One popular treatment was “mummy”, the dried, often powdered flesh of embalmed Egyptian corpses. Secondly, some physicians also used substances derived from recently-dead bodies. These included fat and fresh blood, along with muscular flesh, carefully treated and dried before use. Various authorities held that the best source for the latter was “the cadaver of a reddish man… whole, fresh without blemish, of around 24 years of age”, and “dead of a violent death”. Other preparations included human skull, as well as “usnea”, a kind of moss which grew on skulls some time after death. Mummy was used particularly to treat haemorrhage or bruising, and both blood, and powdered or distilled skull, were held to cure epilepsy.

For reasons which are not wholly clear, corpse medicine is strikingly absent from standard histories of medicine. Yet such treatments were far from superstitious folklore or calculated fraud. Derived in part from Classical and Arabic medical traditions, they were recommended or accepted by numerous educated figures, including the proto-scientific philosopher, Francis Bacon; the poet and preacher, John Donne; Queen Elizabeth’s surgeon, John Banister; and the chemist, Robert Boyle. In 1685 drops made from human skull were among treatments given to the dying King Charles II.

Clearly, corpse medicine was a form of cannibalism. From the late 15th century on, Europeans were increasingly aware of the “primitive cannibalism”’ of the recently discovered Americas, and almost universally condemned it. By contrast, almost no one explicitly referred to corpse medicine as cannibalistic. Although it clearly inspired unease, it was popular and lucrative – so much so that merchants not only robbed Egyptian tombs, but frequently sold fraudulent substitutes, ranging from the flesh of beggars to that of lepers or camels. Corpse medicine survived into the late 18th century, and was still available in Germany a hundred years ago.

How did such cures thrive for so long in the face of such apparently formidable taboos? Medical authority, as constructed by physicians’ heavy emphasis on classical authorities, the use of Latin, and a tight system of monopolising controls on “legitimate” practice, was one important factor. Some time before 1599, a traveller recorded what he had seen at a Cairo pyramid: here there were “daily digged the bodies of ancient men, not rotten but all whole”, and it was “these dead bodies… which the physicians and apothecaries do against our wills make us to swallow”. This suggests that physicians had the authority to coerce squeamishly reluctant patients into imbibing mummy. In 1647 the preacher and author, Thomas Fuller, referred to mummy as “good physic but bad food”. His statement implies that medical processes could somehow refine human flesh, elevating it above the raw savagery of cannibalism.

Ultimately, however, this process of refinement depended not on the powers of “science” but on the religious or spiritual potency of the human body. In the Renaissance, the human soul was held responsible for fundamental physiological processes. In theory, the soul itself was immaterial. But it was held to be in the body, and to be linked to it by fine vaporous spirits, formed from a mixture of blood and air. These “spirits” of the soul circulated dynamically through the entire organism, and were a kind of ubiquitous explanatory medium for physiological processes. Spirits were seen as the essence of human vitality, a privileged medium bridging the divine and material worlds. For many Renaissance thinkers, corpse medicine was a kind of alchemy, offering the chance to physically consume a spiritual life-force. This is most obvious in the drinking of fresh blood: here a patient comes closest to imbibing the active stuff of life, just as it exists in a living body. In the late 17th century, the Puritan minister Edward Taylor wrote that “human blood, drunk warm and new is held good in the falling sickness”. Drinking human blood “recent and hot” was still being recommended for epilepsy by English physicians in 1747.

Medical theory held that fear forcibly expelled the spirits from vital organs (liver, heart and brain) into the flesh

 

Again, it was spiritual physiology which underpinned the consumption of human flesh. Recall the mummy recipe which required a young man, perished from “a violent death”. This subject had died in a healthy state, his vitality undiminished by age or disease. And yet, his youth would have been wasted had he died from haemorrhage, the vital spirits smoking away with the blood. He should therefore have ideally been drowned, strangled or smothered. A violent death, moreover, produced fear. Medical theory held that fear forcibly expelled the spirits from vital organs (liver, heart and brain) into the flesh – hence the prickling of hair or skin, and flashing of the eyes. This kind of flesh would, accordingly, be specially potent. At first glance, Egyptian mummies, proverbial for their dryness, should not have harboured such vitality. And yet their undecayed flesh implied that these corpses had retained their spirits, sealed in by the embalming process. Similarly, even the moss of a long dead skull could partake of this spiritual essence. Certain thinkers held that, if a man was strangled, the spirits of the head would remain trapped in the skull for up to seven years.

Around 1604, we find Othello prizing his handkerchief because it had been “dyed in mummy, which the skilful/Conserved of maidens’ hearts”. Maidens or virgins were of course granted a remarkably high degree of spiritual purity in this period. Moreover, while the use of the heart was not medically orthodox, it could well have stemmed from the notion that the finest, purest spirits of the soul itself were indeed located in the left ventricle of that organ.

Corpse medicine probably meant different things to different people. For some, its potential taboo might have been softened by the normalising effects of trade, commodification, learned Western medicine, textual authority, and specialised technical processing. For others, it seems to have represented a peculiarly sensuous contact with the most sacred essence of a human being. Ironically, it may well have been that mummy was abandoned by mainstream medicine not merely because it was considered barbaric or superstitious by contemporaries of Dr Johnson, but because medicine itself had undermined the spiritual density of the human body. In 1782, we find the physician William Black applauding the loss of certain “loathesome or insignificant” remedies such as “Egyptian mummies” and “dead men’s skulls”. These “and a farrago of such feculence, are all banished from the pharmacopeias”.

In thus championing the march of enlightened science, Black fails to consider what might have been lost in this process. For those who had consumed corpse medicine had overcome their repugnance not through credulity or desperation, but through their spiritual reverence for that divine breath which previously animated raw human tissue. Was the end of mummy also, in medical terms, the end of the Christian soul?

If the mummy doesn’t fix you…

Set in the context of pre-modern medicine as a whole, corpse therapies can appear a relatively practical and inoffensive option. Robert Boyle still sanctioned the use of dried excrement, blown into the eyes for the treatment of cataracts. For epilepsy itself, the myriad range of curative ingredients included the bone from the heart of a stag, turtle’s blood, and stork’s dung. Last but not least, you might try various preparations made from the sparrow, given that this bird was itself thought to suffer from epilepsy.

Richard Sugg teaches at the University of Durham. His book Murder after Death explores medicinal cannibalism

This article was first published in the March 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine

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