Medicinal Cannibalism and the Power of Implicit Bias
The prevalence of corpse medicine in early modern Europe.
Posted Nov 10, 2020
Prepare yourself for a history of Europe that you’ve probably never heard.
In the words of historian Richard Sugg, “For well over two hundred years in early-modern Europe, the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate all participated in cannibalism on a more or less routine basis.”
Pharmaceutical products were commonly created from blood, flesh, fat, and bone. Mummy powder was considered a powerful medicinal substance. In some countries, executioners sold convicts’ skin, teeth, hair, and skulls, which led some apothecaries to complain that their prices were being undercut.
This is all very gruesome to modern readers, and it seems strange to say the least. So, why was corpse medicine so pervasive, and what were its moral and ethical limits?
The Rise of Corpse Medicine
As Sugg points out, there were very few instances of medicinal cannibalism before the fifteenth century, but shortly after, physicians started seeking remedies to human ailments within other human bodies.
The sixteenth-century German-Swiss physician Paracelsus argued that it was beneficial to drink fresh blood because it contained vitality. Human flesh was typically prepared as a powder, and it was considered useful for bruising, bleeding, inflammation, fever, or diarrhea. Powdered skull was used to combat epilepsy and other head-oriented afflictions. In other words, pieces of the human body were used to cure a wide range of ailments.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the term “mummy” referred not only to ancient embalmed corpses but to any medicine made from a human source. According to scholar Louise Noble, “The most highly prized mummy was that from a fresh corpse, preferably a youth who had died a sudden and violent death, because of the widespread belief that a swift death captured the body’s healing life force, while a slow death depleted it.”
That conviction—that human bodies were a powerful source of healing—helped erase any possible taboos around the use of corpse medicine. Medicinal cannibalism was widespread and culturally accepted. In fact, even popes relied on corpse medicines. At the time, there was nothing sensational about using human bodies as medicine.
On a basic level, people relied on corpse medicine because, in many cases, they had actually seen it work. Powdered blood can stimulate coagulation (in fact, any powder can), and when fat was applied to wounds, it could provide some protection from infection. Of course, these substances weren’t effective because they came from humans, but they showed results, which convinced people of their value.
A Blatant Double-Standard
Of course, the moment we call something “cannibalism,” it becomes taboo. That word carries with it a justifiably negative connotation. In large part, that is why I and other scholars use it to refer to these European practices—to highlight an irony that surrounds the widespread acceptance of corpse medicine.
At the same time that people across Europe were buying bone powders and slices of human flesh to cure themselves, these same Europeans showed particular disdain for the “cannibalistic” practices of New World natives. Chroniclers recounted (and often fabricated) sordid tales about the “barbaric” practices of other peoples.
For example, Christopher Columbus told tales of the warlike “Caniba” people “who ate men.” Spanish accounts of the Aztecs are filled with stories of cannibalism, despite the fact that researchers haven’t found definitive evidence that this was customary. (Cannibalism may have occurred occasionally to humiliate enemies, but there is also evidence to suggest that Spaniards created the myths.)
The discourse of “cannibalism” was a political tool for European Christians looking for reasons to excuse their invasion of the Americas, Africa, and other parts of the world. It seemed to be undeniable evidence of others’ “savagery” and gave license to the so-called “civilizing mission.” Meanwhile, Europeans’ own medicinal practices escaped the label of “cannibalism” and fell under the benign labels of “mummy” or, simply, “medicine.”
Some early modern writers were aware of this hypocrisy. In his essay “Of Cannibals,” Michel de Montaigne pointed out the European double standard that “physicians make no bones of employing [dead carcasses] to all sorts of use.”
He continued, “…everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country,” highlighting the fact that many Europeans never considered that they condemned people for actions that weren’t radically different from their own.
I hope I don’t have to make this clear, but I will: I’m not endorsing cannibalism or corpse medicine. My essential point is to draw attention to the fact that similar practices—consuming parts of a human corpse—received distinct labels across different cultures, and people who freely consumed “mummy” condemned those branded as “cannibals.”
By the eighteenth century, corpse medicine had begun to meet opposition and started to fall out of fashion, although there were still plenty of people using it into the nineteenth century. There were many reasons for corpse medicine’s decline (see Sugg if you want to know more), but for the moment, I’d like to focus on what this forgotten historical practice teaches us about how we see, judge, and understand others.
The discourse around corpse medicine invites questions about what double standards we have today. And how does biased language reinforce uneven power dynamics? For example, in media depictions of Hurricane Katrina, Black survivors were often described as “looting” stores for resources, while white survivors were said to have “found” supplies. Or, consider who receives the designation “ex-pat” and who’s called an “immigrant?"
It’s far easier to judge the actions of others than to consider how they actually relate, on a deep level, to our own experiences. For a European reading sordid accounts of bloodthirsty Aztecs, there seemed to be no analogous connection to buying a vial of powdered blood from an apothecary.
Yet that assumption of difference—otherness—made it possible for Europeans to justify their own actions, not only when it came to mummy medicine and the bodies from which it came, but also when it came to harming living, indigenous peoples.
Columbus, Christopher. Journal (1492). Excerpted from E.G. Bourne, ed. The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot (New York, 1906). https://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bdorsey1/41docs/01-col.html
Dolan, Maria. “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine.” Smithsonian Magazine. May 6, 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-gruesome-history-of-eating-corpses-as-medicine-82360284/
Isaac, Barry L. "AZTEC CANNIBALISM: Nahua versus Spanish and Mestizo Accounts in the Valley of Mexico." Ancient Mesoamerica 16, no. 1 (2005): 1-10. Accessed October 27, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26309390.
Montaigne, Michel de. “Of Cannibals.” (1580). https://web2.qatar.cmu.edu/~breilly2/odyssey/Montaigne.pdf
Noble, Louise. Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2011.
Shah, J. B. (2011). The History of Wound Care. The Journal of the American College of Certified Wound Specialists, 3(3), 65–66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcws.2012.04.002
Samuel R. Sommers et al. “Race and Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Analysis, Implications, and Future Research Questions.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2006, pp. 1-17.
Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. New York: Routledge, 2012.