Why Cannibalism Was Considered Good Medicine In The Renaissance

An execution has just occurred.

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Medieval illustration of an autopsy performed in the Middle Ages. From the French manuscript “The properties of things” by Bartholomaeus Anglicus, late 15th century.

Pushing themselves under the still trembling body there are several patients waiting for a cure. Those lucky enough to hear the blood splatter in the cups they hold gulp down the lovely cool, warm liquid.

They are under scaffolding in early modern Denmark.

Although the example is extreme, the idea that blood could cure epilepsy was supported by the highest medical authorities in Europe.

That use of “corpse medicine” in the early modern period can be divided into two categories.

A popular treatment was the “mummy”, the dried meat, often pulverized, of embalmed Egyptian corpses.

But some doctors also used substances derived from more recent corpses. These included fresh fat and blood, as well as muscle meat, carefully treated and dried before use.

Various authorities held that the best source for the latter medicine was the corpse of a reddish man … whole, fresh without blemish, around 24 years oldand that I would have suffered a “violent death“.

Other preparations included the human skull, as well as “usnea”, a species of lichen that grew on skulls some time after death.

The “mummy” was used particularly to treat hemorrhages or bruises, and both the blood and the skull in powder or distilled, to cure epilepsy.


For reasons that are not entirely clear, cadaveric medicine is strikingly absent from the standard histories of medicine. However, such treatments were far from superstitious folklore or calculated fraud.

Page detail from De Arte Phisicali et de Cirurgia by John Arderne, Latin manuscript, 15th century.

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Page detail from De Arte Phisicali et de Cirurgia by John Arderne, Latin manuscript, 15th century.

Derived in part from classical and Arab 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 chemist Robert Boyle.

In 1685, drops made from the human skull were among the treatments administered to the dying King Charles II.

Clearly, corpse medicine was a form of cannibalism.

From the late 15th century onwards, Europeans almost universally condemned the “primitive cannibalism” of the newly discovered America, however, almost nobody referwas going explicitly to corpse medicine as cannibal.

Although it clearly inspired unrest, it was popular and lucrative, so much so that traders not only robbed Egyptian tombs, but frequently sold fraudulent substitutes, ranging from the meat of beggars to that of lepers or camels.

Scene of cannibalism in Brazil in 1644. Indians devouring their enemies and prisoners.  Painting by Jan van Kessel called the Elder (1626-1679).

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Scene of cannibalism in Brazil in 1644. Indians devouring their enemies and prisoners. Painting by Jan van Kessel called the Elder (1626-1679).

Cadaveric medicine survived until the end of the 18th century and was still available in Germany a hundred years ago.

“Good drug”

How did such cures thrive for so long in the face of such seemingly formidable taboos?

Medical authority, based on the strong emphasis of physicians on classical authorities, the use of Latin, and a strict system of monopolizing controls over “legitimate” practice, was an important factor.

Some time before 1599, a traveler recorded what he had seen in a pyramid in Cairo: here – he said – it is “daily excavated the bodies of ancient men, not rotten but all whole“, and were “these corpses … what doctors and apothecaries US make swallow against our will“.

That indicates that doctors had the authority to coerce prissy patients into would drink extracts from mummies.

Interior of a doctor's house, from the reproduction of a miniature of 'Epistre de Othea' by Christine de Pisan, 15th century manuscript.

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Interior of a doctor’s house, from the reproduction of a miniature of ‘Epistre de Othea’ by Christine de Pizan, 15th century manuscript.

In 1647, the preacher and author Thomas Fuller referred to the mummy as “a good drug 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 refinement process did not depend on the powers of “science,” but on the religious or spiritual potency of the human body.

Spiritual life force

In the Renaissance, the human soul was responsible for fundamental physiological processes.

In theory, the soul itself was immaterial. But it was held that it was in the body and that it was attached to it by fine vaporous spirits, formed from a mixture of blood and air.

These “spirits” of the soul circulated dynamically throughout the organism and were a kind of omnipresent means of explanation of physiological processes.

Spirits were seen as the essence of human vitality, a privileged medium that connected the divine and material worlds.

Before and after human, the blood of the sparrow was

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Before and after the human, the blood of the sparrow was “medicinal”, since it was thought that this bird suffered from epilepsy.

For many Renaissance thinkers, corpse medicine was a kind of alchemy that offered the opportunity to physically consume a spiritual life force.

That is more obvious when drinking fresh blood: in that case, the patient was closer to to absorb the active substance of life, as it exists in a living body.

In the late 17th century, the Puritan minister Edward Taylor wrote that “human blood, drink hot and fresh, it is charity against the illness“.

In 1747, English doctors still recommended drinking human blood “recent and hot“for epilepsy.

Not so recent

It was also spiritual physiology that sustained the consumption of human flesh.

Let us remember the recipe for the mummy, which required a young man, who had died of “a violent death”.

'La Leccion de Anatomia del Dr.  Nicolaes Tulp', 1632. Rembrandt van Rhijn (1606-1669).

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‘La Leccion de Anatomia del Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’, 1632. Rembrandt van Rhijn (1606-1669).

The subject had died in a healthy state, his vitality not diminished by age or illness. And yet his youth would have been lost if he had died from a hemorrhage, the vital spirits escaping with the blood. Therefore, ideally he should have been drowned, strangled, or suffocated.

A violent death also produced fear. Medical theory held that fear forcibly expelled spirits from vital organs (liver, heart and brain) to meat, hence the tingling in the hair or skin and the gleam of the eyes. Consequently, this type of meat would be especially powerful.

At first glance, the Egyptian mummies, proverbial for their dryness, should not have harbored such vitality. And yet their intact flesh implied that those corpses had retained their spirits, sealed by the embalming process.

Similarly, even the moss on a long-dead skull could contain that spirit essence.

Certain thinkers held that if a man were strangled, the spirits of the head would remain trapped in the skull for up to seven years.


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Othello’s handkerchief was dyed with the most precious blood.

Around 1604, we find Othello appreciating his handkerchief because his silk “was dyed by magical hands with a liquid made / From maidens’ hearts mummies” .

Of course, maidens or virgins were granted a remarkably high degree of spiritual purity in this period.

Furthermore, although the use of the heart was not medically orthodox, it may well have arisen from the notion that the finest and purest spirits of the soul itself were located in the left ventricle of that organ.

The soul of medicine

Corpse medicine probably meant different things to different people.

For some, its possible taboo might have been nuanced by the normalizing effects of trade, commodification, learned Western medicine, textual authority, and specialized technical processing.

For others, it seems to have represented a peculiarly sensual contact with the most sacred essence of the human being.

Ironically, it may well have been that the mummy was abandoned by mainstream medicine not just because Dr. Johnson’s contemporaries considered it barbaric or superstitious, but because the medicine itself had undermined the spiritual density of the human body.

In 1782, we find the physician William Black applauding the loss of certain remedies “disgusting or insignificant“like the”egyptian mummies” and the “dead skulls“. These “and a fátrait of so much feculence, they are all banished from the pharmacopoeias“.

In thus defending the march of enlightened science, Black did not consider what might have been lost in this process. Because those who had consumed corpse medicine had overcome their disgust not out of gullibility or despair, but out of his spiritual reverence for that divine breath previously believed to animate human tissue.

Was the end of the mummy also, in medical terms, the end of the Christian soul?

* Richard Sugg teaches at Durham University. Your book Murder after Death“(Posthumous murder) explore medicinal cannibalism. Your artoriginal item is Early-modern cannibal doctors: why mummified corpse was considered medicine

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