European Corpse medicine: mummies, cannibals, and vampires

Imagine that you are out walking one evening in 1680, in the Wiltshire countryside near Avebury. Suddenly you spy two men, bent over a long, low artificial mound, vigorously plying spades. Before them a third figure is stooped intently over what seems to be a heap of white sticks. Still oblivious of your presence, he now lifts up something that is clearly not a stick. As he shifts the lantern in his other hand and the shadows flicker across his face, you have momentarily the strange illusion that he is speaking, perhaps whimsically interrogating the skull that sits in his outstretched palm.
But by now you have relaxed. It is, of course, none other than the worthy Dr Toope, genteel physician to the citizens of Marlborough. What is he doing? Well, certainly nothing underhand or disreputable. As he himself explained in a letter to the gentleman diarist John Aubrey, in 1685, he had “stored myself with many bushels” of these bones, derived from the ancient burial mound of West Kennet. From these “I made a noble medicine that relieved many of my distressed neighbours.”
We could be forgiven for thinking that Toope was something of an eccentric, and for reassuring ourselves that his cannibalistic medicine was a very dry one, sourced from old and anonymous skeletons. In fact, Toope’s activities were just one small thread in the complex web of early-modern corpse medicine. Up until the late 18th century, the human body was a widely accepted therapeutic agent. The most popular treatments involved flesh, bone, or blood, along with a variety of moss sometimes found on human skulls.
Some way into the 19th century, crowds still jostled beneath the execution scaffold in parts of Denmark, cups raised to catch the precious drops of warm blood as it spilled from the dying body of the felon above. These people were hoping to cure their epilepsy. Their belief ran back almost 2000 years, to the Rome of the physician Celsus, where patients would gain this quintessential fluid from the bodies of wounded gladiators. Although such uses of blood seem a long way from the world of Toope, medical vampirism was by no means limited to folk medicine. The Italian Renaissance scholar, Marsilio Ficino (himself the son of a physician) had recommended that human blood could act not just as a specific curative, but as a kind of elixir of life. The elderly might, he suggested, restore their vitality by sucking directly from a vein in the arm of some healthy youth. Towards the end of the 17th century, we find a Franciscan monk making a kind of jam or marmalade from human blood (“stir it to a batter with a knife…pound it…through a sieve of finest silk”).
In two of those cases the blood is very fresh indeed: we cannot strictly refer to it as corpse medicine. The most popular substance of this tradition was, by contrast, of almost fabulous antiquity. If you see the word “mummy” in an early-modern text, the chances are that it will refer to flesh from a mummified body. Applied topically or mixed into drinks, this was a common remedy for bruising in the period. Among others, the French King, Francis I (1494—1547) “always carried it in his purse, fearing no accident, if he had but a little of that by him”. Francis Bacon asserted that “mummy has great force in staunching of blood”. So highly prized was it that, along with the large quantities plundered from Egyptian burial chambers, there was also a profitable trade in counterfeit varieties, including the flesh of beggars and of camels.
But a second kind of flesh began to rival that of the ancient Egyptians as the 17th century wore on. The Swiss-German medical reformer, Paracelsus, favoured more or less fresh corpses. “If doctors were aware of the power of this substance”, he insisted, “no body would be left on the gibbet for more than three days”. Paracelsus’ follower, the influential German chemist, Johann Schroeder, recommended “the cadaver of a reddish man (because in such a man the blood is believed lighter and so the flesh is better), whole, fresh without blemish, of around twenty-four years of age, dead of a violent death (not of illness), exposed to the moon’s rays for one day and night”. Although this flesh would itself be treated so that “it comes to resemble smoke-cured meat, without any stench”, the specifications clearly imply a desire to use the human body as a kind of elixir of life—hence the youth and health of the corpse.
In his letter to Aubrey, Toope did not say precisely what his “noble medicine” was for. But we do know that in February of that year Charles II was given large doses of “spirit of skull” against the convulsions that racked him on his deathbed. Until quite recently, the mildly antiseptic sphagnum moss has been used against haemorrhaging, particularly during warfare. In the early-modern period, the preferred choice of styptic was “usnea”, or “the moss of the skull”. It was recommended by the Belgian chemist, Jean Baptiste van Helmont, the educational reformer and minister, Richard Baxter, and the natural philosopher, Robert Boyle. The latter reported his controlled experiments on usnea, and cured his own nosebleeds by merely holding the moss at arm’s length (while Baxter himself seems to have inserted it directly into his nostrils).
Corpse medicine did have some opponents in the 16th and 17th centuries. Referring to counterfeit mummy (and possibly also to the Paracelsian kind) the French royal surgeon, Ambroise Paré, lamented in 1585 that “we are…compelled both foolishly and cruelly to devour the mangled and putrid particles of the carcasses of the basest people of Egypt, or such as are hanged”. Just a few years earlier, in 1580, the enlightened French thinker Michel de Montaigne had attacked the hypocrisy of those Europeans who condemned new world anthropophagy, while happily using mummy themselves. Some time before his death in 1566 the herbalist Leonhard Fuchs had attacked this “gory matter of cadavers…sold for medicine”, wondering “who, unless he approves of cannibalism, would not loathe this remedy?”.
Yet there was no question of such antagonists banishing the practice. Indeed, even Paré bases his objection partly on the fact that mummy does not work; he would, he implies, have been prepared to use it if it had. On another occasion, he notes how a patient complained when he was not given mummy after a fall from his horse. It was not until the late 18th century that hostility to corpse medicine became widespread and effective. In 1751, the physician and botanist John Hill found “the swallowing the flesh and bones of our fellow creatures” to be “shocking”. By 1782, the physician William Black, talking of “loathesome or insignificant” remedies such as “Egyptian mummies” and “dead men’s skulls powdered”, could claim that these “and a farrago of such feculence, are all banished from the pharmacopeias”.
What can we learn from the surprisingly neglected history of corpse medicine? We can reasonably infer, for one thing, that it was not merely scientific evidence that finally banished mummy from mainstream medical practice. It seems to have fallen victim, in part, to a more general ideology of progress and enlightenment, as well as to a new kind of gentility, in which the human body (living or dead) far more easily provoked disgust. Without wishing to congratulate our own era too unwarily, we can also argue that recent changes in attitudes to medical history have given us a much more open, much richer view of the past than was previously available.
Writing in 1929, Howard H Haggard imagines the desperate labours of Charles II’s deathbed physicians as a kind of “pharmaceutical debauch”, in which “Raleigh’s antidote, pearl julep, and ammonia” were all “forced down the throat of the dying king…Charles was helpless before the drugging of his physicians”. (Haggard’s book was reprinted as recently as 1980.) The antidote patented by Sir Walter Raleigh contained (among other things) spirit of skull. In 1971, F M Valadez and C D O’Malley describe such therapies as “irrelevant and nasty”—a phrase alarmingly similar to Black’s “loathesome and insignificant” medicines. Somehow, none of these writers could bear to admit that the seemingly bizarre remedies of the past were real to those who prescribed or used them. Clearly Charles’s physicians believed in what they were doing: at the most basic pragmatic level it was in their interests to save the life of their most influential client. And Charles himself, far from being “helpless”, was in fact one of the country’s keenest users of spirit of skull. He had reputedly paid the physician William Goddard £6000 for the recipe; he frequently prepared it himself in his private laboratory; and it was the very first thing he took (perhaps as instinctively as you or I might reach for paracetamol or echinacea) when he first awoke, “feeling ghastly” on February 2, 1685.
For a long time charges of cannibalism were used as an effective slur against tribal peoples in the Americas and Australasia. It was perhaps partly this that prompted the anthropologist William Arens to write his 1979 book, The Man-Eating Myth, claiming that anthropophagy was an entirely fictitious affair. Most scholars in relevant fields now accept that ritual cannibalism has occurred for centuries. There is evidence to suggest that it was still occurring in Brazil in the 1960s. When studying early-modern medicine, we need as far as possible to know what happened, and why. What did it mean to those engaged in it? How might seemingly bizarre or taboo practices have been legitimised? How have taboos and allegedly universal instincts changed radically over time? How entirely rational and homogeneous (by contrast) is the medicine of an age where doctors tell you to take your cold to bed, and pharmaceutical companies tell you to take it to work? For a long time historians have behaved rather like Arens. They have sought to protect medicine as a whole, and perhaps the past itself, from the potent slur of cannibalism. Like good anthropologists, those studying medical history need to see the past as interestingly different, rather than dangerously wrong.

Further reading

Dannenfeldt, 1985 Dannenfeldt KH. Egyptian mumia: the sixteenth century experience and debate. Sixteenth Century Journal1985; 16: 163-180. PubMed
Camporesi, 1988 Camporesi P. The incorruptible flesh: bodily mutation and mortification in religion and folklore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Park, 1995 Park K. The life of the corpse: division and dissection in late Medieval Europe. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 1995; 50: 111-132. PubMed
Korn et al., 2001 Korn D, Radice M, Hawes C. Cannibal: a history of the people-eaters. London: Channel 4/Macmillan, 2001.
Sugg, 2009 Sugg R. Mummies, cannibals and vampires: the human body in religion. Medicine and science from Shakespeare to Dracula (forthcoming, 2009).
a Research Fellow in Literature and Medicine, Department of English Studies, University of Durham, Durham, DH1 3AY, UK
The Lancet, Volume 371, Issue 9630, Pages 2078 – 2079, 21 June 2008
doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60907-1
Copyright © 2008  Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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