“MELLIFICATION: THE SWEET TASTING SIDE OF CORPSE MEDICINE” #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: Of all the instances of cannibalism found in human history, no one quite practiced it like some in China used to. In these cases, cannibalism came in the form of eating mellified flesh for medicinal purposes. In 16th century China, mellification was a way for elderly people nearing the end of their lives to donate their body to science. The idea, originally derived from an Arabic recipe, was that they could turn their bodies into medicine that would be ingested by their descendants to alleviate ailments like broken bones. The process of mellification was a gruesome one. In short, it consisted of very slowly turning one’s body into a mummified human candy bar. And that’s not even the worst part — for mellification to be the most effective, the process started while the person was still alive.
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Of all the instances of cannibalism found in human history, no one quite practiced it like some in China used to. In these cases, cannibalism came in the form of eating mellified flesh for medicinal purposes. In 16th century China, mellification was a way for elderly people nearing the end of their lives to donate their body to science. The idea, originally derived from an Arabic recipe, was that they could turn their bodies into medicine that would be ingested by their descendants to alleviate ailments like broken bones. The process of mellification was a gruesome one. In short, it consisted of very slowly turning one’s body into a mummified human candy bar. And that’s not even the worst part — for mellification to be the most effective, the process started while the person was still alive.
To begin the process of mellification, the living donor would stop eating anything other than honey, and would occasionally even bathe in it. Soon the honey would begin to build up inside the body and, obviously, because an all-honey diet is not sustainable, the person would die. Then, after death, their body would be placed in a stone coffin filled with honey.
Then, nature would be left to take its course. The coffin would be left closed for up to a century, letting the honey preserve the corpse. Because honey never spoils and has antibacterial properties, it made for an effective preservative.
After a century, the body would have become a sugary glob, and the honey would have become a sort of confection. This “mellified man” confection would then be sold at markets for the treatment of wounds and bone fractures. It would also be consumed orally, as a treatment for internal ailments.
Though the idea has been circulated for centuries, historians have not found concrete proof of mellified men. Some historians believe that the practice of self-mummifying monks and the practice of corpse medicine may have contributed to this legend. However, just because there is no archeological evidence doesn’t mean that the mellified men never existed.
After all, there is hard evidence that the bones and other body parts of recently deceased people were taken as medicine, especially in 16th century China and Arabia, where mellification is said to have originated.
In 2015, on the banks of the Alazani River in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the archaeologist Zurab Makharadze cut into a 40-foot-high burial mound that bulged above the surrounding green farmland.
“One of our botanists noticed it first,” Makharadze said of the odor wafting up from some of the unearthed artifacts. “She was in the laboratory, working her microscope. She was analyzing samples. She started smiling.”
The samples, in this case, were wild berries—offerings left for the entombed dead. Their aroma: thick and intensely sweet, but with musky undertones, with hints of molasses. The berries were astonishingly well preserved. They were still red. They were 4,300 years old. They had been carefully cured with ancient honey.
Other items found inside the Bronze Age grave site, called Ananauri 3, were far more spectacular: In a collapsed burial chamber built of logs sat two full-size wagons, complete with ox yokes (domesticated horses had yet to arrive in the south Caucasus during this remote era); beautiful golden jewelry; amber beads traded either from the Baltic region or India; and a trove of astonishingly intact textiles, leather, and basketry. Whoever lay buried inside the mound had been an important chief or religious leader. Six other bodies were interred with him, possibly slaves. Ananauri 3 will add richly to our knowledge of an obscure people called the Martkopi and Bedeni, who farmed grains and raised cattle in the waning centuries of a vast Transcaucasian civilization known as the Araxes-Kura culture. But what struck me, as Makharadze laid out his immensely old treasures on a table at the Otar Lordkipanidze Archaeology Center in Tbilisi, was a delicious biological grace note: The task of archaeologists has been assisted by prehistoric bees.
“Wet clay kept many of the artifacts from rotting,” said Makharadze, a big, shy, red-faced man with a bull chest and the square jaw of a boxer. “But these people used honey to embalm many burial objects. They knew what they were doing.”
Not only the wild berries—ground cherries—but also bushels of other ceremonial offerings in the tomb, such as hazel nuts, were slathered in honey. So were wicker baskets of chestnuts. Even some of the weavings and other organic perishables may have been honey coated. This was done to supply the souls of the departed with all the sustenance and tools they would require in a better world.
Walking for more than two years north from Africa into the Middle East, and then east from Turkey into the Caucasus, a key caloric ingredient of this strange journey has been local honey. In hot Arabia, I ate desert honey as clear as air. In the icy mountains of Anatolia, I ate old, crystallized honey that looked like snow. Packed with energy, honey is a walker’s rocket fuel. I also know it makes a good ointment against burns.
Honey, of course, has been touted for millennia as a cure-all.
“It causes heat, cleans sores and ulcers, softens hard ulcers of the lips, heals carbuncles and running sores,” wrote Hippocrates, the Greek clinician, in the fourth century B.C.
Less well known are its mummifying powers.
Honey’s extremely high sugar content acts much like salt: It sucks water from bacteria, essentially drying the microbes to death. Honey also contains small amounts of hydrogen peroxide, which of course is antiseptic. Slather honey on wild berries, then, or on nuts, and you create the perfect afterlife snack—food with a shelf life that is eternal. The same applies to corpses. Herodotus noted that the ancient Assyrians embalmed their dead in honey. And after he died in 323 B.C., Alexander the Great was reportedly immersed in a golden sarcophagus brimming with honey. His subjects wanted to keep him presentable for public display.
Then there is the strange case of mellification.
What is mellification?
According to Li Shizhen, the 16th-century Chinese apothecary and author of the monumental Bengcao gangmu—a compendium of exotic cures that features decoctions of dragon bones and ground up human hair—mellification was a practice whereby certain altruistic volunteers, usually aged holy men from Arabia, sacrificed themselves by ingesting nothing but honey until they sweated honey, shat honey, bled honey: Until they died. Their sugar-crystallized bodies were then immersed in huge jars of honey for a century. The end result: human rock candy—“mellified man”—a miraculous remedy for broken bones.
The nameless dead within the Ananauri 3 mound were mummified in honey.
“We didn’t find actual honey on their bodies,” Makharadze, the Georgian archaeologist, informed me. “It was long gone. Their bones were simply covered in flower pollen, and in bees’ broken toes.”
Accounts of what has become known as the Mellified Man originate in China, from a 16th-century Chinese pharmacologist named Li Shizhen who heard about the practice second-hand from another man, Tao Jiucheng, who told of the mysterious practice of mummification in honey carried out in Arabia which he refers to as miren, or literally, “honey person.”
Volunteering for the process was integral since it would allegedly not work unless there was an element of self-sacrifice involved. The volunteer would cease to eat regular food in order to subsist on a strict diet of nothing but honey, and even go so far as to bather in honey. According to the legend, after around a month the volunteer’s sweat, urine, and even feces would be comprised of honey.
This strange confection was said to be exceedingly rare and exorbitantly expensive due to the lack of many people willing to voluntarily undergo the morbid process and the long amount of time needed to properly age the mummies.
What do we make of this rather bizarre and fantastical sounding confection? Physiologically at least, such a process could work. As had been mentioned, honey has remarkable preservative properties, so much so that a jar of honey from hundreds or even thousands of years ago could be opened today and still be edible. Jars of honey unearthed in ancient Egyptian tombs have been found to be totally and perfectly preserved, edible even. Honey has in fact been used as a preservative in many cultures throughout the world since ancient times, and it was long used as a way to keep food fresh before the advent of refrigeration. Ancient Egyptians chose honey as a food for souls for the afterlife due to this very longevity, and jars of honey were customarily buried with mummies. In fact, the Hindus, Chinese, Babylonians, Greeks, Africans, and Romans, among others, also all had the tradition of burying corpses with honey placed next to them as food for their souls in the next life. It seems that a human corpse buried while steeped in honey could easily remain intact for a hundred years. It is also for this reason that honey has been used for thousands of years as a topical antibacterial ointment.
Other than food and ointments to cure various maladies, this also would not be the first case of honey being used to preserve human remains either, and there are many cultures in which honey has been used for this purpose. There seems to be a long historical link between honey and rituals of death and burial. In many cultures, it was desirable to prevent the decomposition of corpses, and additionally some cultures viewed honey as a sacred, pure substance which in some cases could sometimes even bestow a corpse with the ability to be revived from the dead. The Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Assyrians, Spartans, Byzantines, and Arabs all made use of honey as a substance for embalming the dead of important members of society. The Burmese coat the corpses of high ranking priests with a layer of honey as well, and often use honey as a way to temporarily preserve corpses awaiting burial.
Many historical figures are known to have been embalmed with honey as well. Alexander the Great is said to have ordered that his body be embalmed with honey, and upon his death he was placed in a golden coffin filled with the purest of white honey and taken back to Macedonia. Other famous figures were similarly preserved with honey. The body of King Edward I of England, who died in 1307, was found to have hands and a face that were remarkably well preserved due to having been coated with a layer of wax and honey. Although in none of these cases are the corpses known to have endured a procedure like that described by Li for the Mellified Man, and none of them were consumed for healing purposes, it certainly shows that honey has long been closely entwined with death and that bodies can be successfully preserved for long periods of time with honey.
The use of human remains for medicinal purposes is also not unprecedented. The ancient Romans used the blood of dead gladiators as a medicine, and mummy powder was highly valued during the 16th and 17th centuries as a cure-all for a wide variety of ailments and for salves for treating gangrene. Since apothecaries were willing to pay vast amounts of money for such powders, it was common for ancient tombs to be plundered for their mummies, after which they would be ground down into the precious powder and sold for high prices. However, the Mellified Man account is the only known case of a honey embalmed mummy being used and consumed for its healing properties.
Although the use of honey for preserving the dead and the use of the dead for medicinal purposes is well established and not in dispute, there has been no other evidence other than Li’s account that the Arabians, nor anyone else for that matter, practiced the mellification of willing individuals starting when they were alive and subsequently using their remains as a potent healing confection. There is no physical evidence that this occurred and no other documentation of such a ritual, nor is there any proof of the healing efficacy of the purported confection. Even Li himself doesn’t seem to be sure if it is real or not, rather mentioning it as more of a curiosity more than anything else. However, considering the long tradition of the marriage between honey and death, it seems like it could be more than a simple legend. It at least will likely change one’s way of looking at honey.
In 17th Century England, at the age of 23, Richard Baxter, writer of Protestant Christian works, was generally having a bad time. Every day he coughed, sometimes spitting blood. He had pains in his stomach, suffered from daily flatulence and joint pains, had bouts of scurvy, and to top it off, often had an achy tooth. He suffered from constant headaches, and much of the medicine of his day had no idea what to do with him. So he did what anyone else would in his time, under the circumstances: he tried some more potent cures, made of human corpses.
Baxter’s ailments plagued him in the middle of an increase in medical cures in Europe, made from human body parts and blood from corpses as ingredients, now called corpse medicine. The use of dead bodies in medicine had been simmering in the medical community since around the year 25 in parts of the ancient Roman empire, with more organized and widespread use in Europe since the 1200s, lasting in dwindling practice into the 1890s. Over the centuries, physicians experimented with their corpse-related remedies; human remains became a cure for anything from gout to deep wounds.
Richard Sugg writes of all this medical macabrely in his book Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires. Some recipes for corpse medicine cures have survived over a very long time. Human body parts have been used in medicine around the world at various points in history, but Europe’s corpse medicine heritage seems to have largely stemmed from ancient Rome. Sugg writes that in ancient Rome, the equivalent of medical professionals at the time advised drinking blood straight from a freshly perished gladiator, and similar practices continued through the middle ages. When Baxter suffered “a fit of bleeding,” he was cured by applying moss that had been grown on a human skull. To promote hair growth for anyone with a receding hairline, “liquor of hair” would help hair grow, while powdered hair taken orally was thought to help cure jaundice. For anyone developing cataracts in old age, human excrement could be ground into a powder, writes Sugg, after which you would “blow it into the eye.”
When people ate ground-up body parts and bodily fluids, they believed that they were using powerful bodily forces to cure another body system issue. Paracelsus, a 16th-century Swiss physician and “father of toxicology” believed that to cure an ailment you needed to treat it with something similar, and many of the corpse medicine-using doctors followed this lead. To prevent tooth decay, someone could wear a tooth taken from a corpse and wear it around his or her neck, or touch the corpse tooth to one’s own. Sometimes, according to Sugg, the belief that “like cures like” was in effect, but at other times, the cure seems to have little to do with which body part it came from and everything to do with the mystical nature of dead bodies.
Kings and commoners alike were interested in this whole mysterious corpse medicine business, and King Charles II of England was apparently very fond of using human skull in a concoction known as “King’s Drops.” The recipe was simple: take a human skull and powder it into a fine dust. Add alcohol to form an extract, and drink it down. On his deathbed, Sugg writes, Charles II’s doctors frantically used these drops along with a barrage of herbal enemas and treatments to no avail. The drops lived on, though, and were sold in shops in London through the 1700s for what 18th-century physicians called “nervous complaints” and dysentery. In some cases, physicians added exotic chocolate or other herbs to the mix, but the skull was key to curing epilepsy, various bouts of bleeding, and it was believed that it could, at the last moment of one’s life, prevent death.
If you’re listening to this in gross fascination, you might be asking—where did they get the bodies? According to Sugg, all over the gruesome place. Mummies were sometimes looted and shipped from Egypt, but since those were in short supply, a locally made mummified body would do the trick. Often, the specific social role of a person in life dictated whether their body was used, usually an executed criminal or one of the poor. In the U.K., the Irish, who were maligned and colonized by England, were a possible common source; Sugg writes that a 17th-century physician named John Pomet of England noted that a specific moss found on skulls imported to England and Germany was from Ireland. These skulls, which were crushed into a fine powder, were used in wounds to stop bleeding and as a salve, though Sugg points out that any starch or powder would generally stop bleeding.
Corpses were also taken from wars, and criminal executions—violent deaths were seen to give the body particular medicinal power. Dissection and corpse medicine became somewhat socially intertwined, with bodies dug straight from the ground. While some doctors may have drawn the line at preying on actual marked graves dug by families of the deceased rather than those of unclaimed bodies, ”bones and skulls were clearly in considerable demand around this time, and not everyone had the luck to live so close to an anonymous burial mound,” writes Sugg.
If the mummy supply from abroad was lacking, it was an easy fix to prepare one from scratch. One recipe promoted by German physician Johann Schroeder in his 17th-century medical tome Pharmacopoeia Medico-Chymica is blatant about the uses of certain bodies over others in mummy-making:
***“Take the fresh, unspotted cadaver of a redheaded man (because in them the blood is thinner and the flesh hence more excellent) aged about twenty-four, who has been executed and died a violent death. Let the corpse lie one day and night in the sun and moon—but the weather must be good. Cut the flesh in pieces and sprinkle it with myrrh and just a little aloe. Then soak it in spirits of wine for several days, hang it up for 6 or 10 hours, soak it again in spirits of wine, then let the pieces dry in dry air in a shady spot. Thus they will be similar to smoked meat, and will not stink.”***
Whether doctors had a bonafide Egyptian mummy or a locally sourced version on hand, they made use of every piece for their practice. Some corpse medicine treatments seemed to have nothing to do with the ailment; fingernails, skull, mistletoe, and peony root were believed to help cure epilepsy, though you could also try dried human heart. Or, Sugg writes, if you wanted to get fancier with your cures, you could infuse water with “lily, lavender, malmsey, and three pounds of human brain.” The whole corpse could be dried and sold as one piece, which Schroeder recommended to other doctors, lest they be cheated with subpar materials.
Even the less preservable parts of the body were used; an ointment of human fat and cinnabar was said to cure patients of various ailments including hydrophobia, now commonly known as rabies. To prepare human fat for use, 18th-century French pharmacist Comte Antoine-François de Fourcroy called for cutting the fat into pieces with “membranes and vessels separated” in his book Elements of Chemistry and Natural History, in which he cites physicians using human fat in cures around Europe. After the fat was washed in water and allowed to melt, it was “poured into a glazed earthen vessel” to solidify; Fourcroy adds helpfully that “twenty eight ounces of human fat” lends about 20 ounces of oil.
Medical beliefs surrounding corpse medicine were sometimes, to put it mildly, at odds with other cultural or religious beliefs during corpse medicine’s popularity. Sugg points out that 17th-century Europeans decried cannibalism, and used accusations of cannibalism against colonized people as a justification for violence.
“Humans are able, and in fact do all the time, carry these contradictory ideas,” explains Zoe Crossland, Archaeologist and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. Even protestant Christians who decried the cannibalism implied by the Catholic eucharist, which was a huge debate in the 1600s, could easily separate their religious beliefs from their desires for the best cures around. Edward Taylor, a Puritan physician who practiced corpse medicine in New England for over 40 years, was one of many religious physicians who promoted the use of dead bodies as cures. Crossland notes that while many relationships between religion and medicine may have existed in Taylor’s time, medical cannibalism and its relationship to his religion might not have been clear, especially if the medicine didn’t come directly from his Christian community’s dogma. “He may not even have articulated or seen this as contradictory as we do now,” she says.
In Europe, the autopsy was growing in popularity as a way to learn about the body, but medical dissection was often seen as a punishment to the dead, and reserved for those considered undesirable in society. Some of the hype around corpse medicine grew from a mix of folk beliefs and medical practices; blood was believed to be such a powerful substance that it was collected at the gallows straight from the recently executed.
The practice of corpse medicine waned over time, but it lasted in small bursts for centuries after its heyday. Sometimes any substance that touched or came from a dead body was seen as potentially healing, even into the 19th century in the U.K.; an 1893 collection of folk cures explains that “Coffin water is considered good for warts, and the water with which a corpse has been washed has been recently given to a man in Glasgow as a remedy for fits.”
Richard Baxter relied on the most current medical knowledge of his day to alleviate his pains, but so do we. While we might cringe at these corpse medicine cures, medical practices in the U.S. and U.K. still involve human body parts, including organ donation, engineering fat cells for medicine, corpse-donated dental grafts and human blood.
“We don’t necessarily take it orally … but we use blood in all sorts of ways,” with inoculations and blood transfusions among them, Crossland says, pointing out some similarities to how people thought of those cures of old. “We get it from the living, not from the dead—but we don’t view that as cannibalistic. We see it as part of the medical world.”
For hundreds of years, cultures from all over the world used corpse medicine to treat all kinds of illnesses and injuries including bruises, coughs, palsy, and vertigo.
English physicians treated Henry VIII with medicines made from mummies and the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1618 includes preparations made with mummies. So from the 12th to the 18th centuries, mummies were commonly sold in European apothecaries. But the use of mummies in medieval medicine may have been caused by a tragic misinterpretation.
Naturally occurring bitumen, that Persians called mumiya, was used by ancient physicians in medications for all kinds of illnesses. Because Egyptian embalming resins looked similar to bitumen, artificially preserved bodies from Egypt became known as mummies. Historians believe medieval physicians began to use Egyptian mummies in prescriptions because they either mistook the word for naturally occurring bitumen for mummified corpses, or they simply used crushed mummies when naturally occurring bitumen became scarce.
In The History, Herodotus described how the ancient Assyrians embalmed their dead with honey. The body of Alexander the Great (356 B.C.-323 B.C.) was supposedly submerged in a golden sarcophagus filled with honey so that his corpse could be displayed.
Buddhist monks in Japan, Russia, Mongolia, and Thailand practiced ritual self-mummification, known as Sokushinbutsu, from the 11th-20th centuries. That monk’s efforts were respected but his body was not revered. The ritual of self-mummification was a way for monks to defeat suffering and achieve enlightenment through meditation and deprivation.
One of the best-known self-mummification rituals was practiced by the Shingon Buddhists of Japan. This ritual involved years of starvation and dehydration to eliminate moisture and kill the bacteria that hasten decomposition. During the first three years, a monk decreased his body fat by eating only nuts, seeds, and berries, while increasing his physical activity. Towards the end of the ritual, the monk only consumed bark, roots, and stones.
Self-mummification was further aided by drinking toxic herbs and tea made from the urushi tree, also known as the Chinese lacquer tree, which eliminated bodily fluids and killed bacteria.
The monk was placed in the lotus position inside a coffin or a tomb when he was close to death. The monk chanted and rang a bell until he died, and when his fellow monks heard silence, they completely sealed the tomb. After several years, monks exhumed the body to see if the self-mummification ritual was successful. If the body was incorrupt then the corpse was placed in a temple and treated like a holy relic. If the body had decayed, then the corpse was left behind and the tomb was resealed.
The last line of a 17th century poem by John Donne prompted Louise Noble’s quest. “Women,” the line read, are not only “Sweetness and wit,” but “mummy, possessed.”
Sweetness and wit, sure. But mummy? In her search for an explanation, Noble, a lecturer of English at the University of New England in Australia, made a surprising discovery: That word recurs throughout the literature of early modern Europe, from Donne’s “Love’s Alchemy” to Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” because mummies and other preserved and fresh human remains were a common ingredient in the medicine of that time. In short: Not long ago, Europeans were cannibals.
Noble’s new book, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, and another by Richard Sugg of England’s University of Durham, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, reveal that for several hundred years, peaking in the 16th and 17th centuries, many Europeans, including royalty, priests and scientists, routinely ingested remedies containing human bones, blood and fat as medicine for everything from headaches to epilepsy. There were few vocal opponents of the practice, even though cannibalism in the newly explored Americas was reviled as a mark of savagery. Mummies were stolen from Egyptian tombs, and skulls were taken from Irish burial sites. Gravediggers robbed and sold body parts.
“The question was not, ‘Should you eat human flesh?’ but, ‘What sort of flesh should you eat?’ ” says Sugg. The answer, at first, was Egyptian mummy, which was crumbled into tinctures to stanch internal bleeding. But other parts of the body soon followed. Skull was one common ingredient, taken in powdered form to cure head ailments. Thomas Willis, a 17th-century pioneer of brain science, brewed a drink for apoplexy, or bleeding, that mingled powdered human skull and chocolate. And King Charles II of England sipped “The King’s Drops,” his personal tincture, containing human skull in alcohol. Even the toupee of moss that grew over a buried skull, called Usnea, became a prized additive, its powder believed to cure nosebleeds and possibly epilepsy. Human fat was used to treat the outside of the body. German doctors, for instance, prescribed bandages soaked in it for wounds, and rubbing fat into the skin was considered a remedy for gout.
Blood was procured as fresh as possible, while it was still thought to contain the vitality of the body. This requirement made it challenging to acquire. The 16th century German-Swiss physician Paracelsus believed blood was good for drinking, and one of his followers even suggested taking blood from a living body. While that doesn’t seem to have been common practice, the poor, who couldn’t always afford the processed compounds sold in apothecaries, could gain the benefits of cannibal medicine by standing by at executions, paying a small amount for a cup of the still-warm blood of the condemned. “The executioner was considered a big healer in Germanic countries,” says Sugg. “He was a social leper with almost magical powers.” For those who preferred their blood cooked, a 1679 recipe from a Franciscan apothecary describes how to make it into marmalade.
Rub fat on an ache, and it might ease your pain. Push powdered moss up your nose, and your nosebleed will stop. If you can afford the King’s Drops, the float of alcohol probably helps you forget you’re depressed—at least temporarily. In other words, these medicines may have been incidentally helpful—even though they worked by magical thinking, one more clumsy search for answers to the question of how to treat ailments at a time when even the circulation of blood was not yet understood.
However, consuming human remains fit with the leading medical theories of the day. “It emerged from homeopathic ideas,” says Noble. “It’s ‘like cures like.’ So you eat ground-up skull for pains in the head.” Or drink blood for diseases of the blood.
Another reason human remains were considered potent was because they were thought to contain the spirit of the body from which they were taken. “Spirit” was considered a very real part of physiology, linking the body and the soul. In this context, blood was especially powerful. “They thought the blood carried the soul, and did so in the form of vaporous spirits,” says Sugg. The freshest blood was considered the most robust. Sometimes the blood of young men was preferred, sometimes, that of virginal young women. By ingesting corpse materials, one gains the strength of the person consumed. Noble quotes Leonardo da Vinci on the matter: “We preserve our life with the death of others. In a dead thing insensate life remains which, when it is reunited with the stomachs of the living, regains sensitive and intellectual life.”
The idea also wasn’t new to the Renaissance, just newly popular. Romans drank the blood of slain gladiators to absorb the vitality of strong young men. Fifteenth-century philosopher Marsilio Ficino suggested drinking blood from the arm of a young person for similar reasons. Many healers in other cultures, including in ancient Mesopotamia and India, believed in the usefulness of human body parts, Noble writes.
Even at corpse medicine’s peak, two groups were demonized for related behaviors that were considered savage and cannibalistic. One was Catholics, whom Protestants condemned for their belief in transubstantiation, that is, that the bread and wine taken during Holy Communion were, through God’s power, changed into the body and blood of Christ. The other group was Native Americans; negative stereotypes about them were justified by the suggestion that these groups practiced cannibalism. “It looks like sheer hypocrisy,” says Beth A. Conklin, a cultural and medical anthropologist at Vanderbilt University who has studied and written about cannibalism in the Americas. People of the time knew that corpse medicine was made from human remains, but through some mental transubstantiation of their own, those consumers refused to see the cannibalistic implications of their own practices.
Conklin finds a distinct difference between European corpse medicine and the New World cannibalism she has studied. “The one thing that we know is that almost all non-Western cannibal practice is deeply social in the sense that the relationship between the eater and the one who is eaten matters,” says Conklin. “In the European process, this was largely erased and made irrelevant. Human beings were reduced to simple biological matter equivalent to any other kind of commodity medicine.”
The hypocrisy was not entirely missed. In Michel de Montaigne’s 16th century essay “On the Cannibals,” for instance, he writes of cannibalism in Brazil as no worse than Europe’s medicinal version, and compares both favorably to the savage massacres of religious wars.
As science strode forward, however, cannibal remedies died out. The practice dwindled in the 18th century, around the time Europeans began regularly using forks for eating and soap for bathing. But Sugg found some late examples of corpse medicine: In 1847, an Englishman was advised to mix the skull of a young woman with treacle (molasses) and feed it to his daughter to cure her epilepsy. (He obtained the compound and administered it, as Sugg writes, but “allegedly without effect.”) A belief that a magical candle made from human fat, called a “thieves candle,” could stupefy and paralyze a person lasted into the 1880s. Mummy was sold as medicine in a German medical catalog at the beginning of the 20th century. And in 1908, a last known attempt was made in Germany to swallow blood at the scaffold.
This is not to say that we have moved on from using one human body to heal another. Blood transfusions, organ transplants and skin grafts are all examples of a modern form of medicine from the body. At their best, these practices are just as rich in poetic possibility as the mummies found in Donne and Shakespeare, as blood and body parts are given freely from one human to another. But Noble points to their darker incarnation, the global black market trade in body parts for transplants. Her book cites news reports on the theft of organs of prisoners executed in China, and, closer to home, of a body-snatching ring in New York City that stole and sold body parts from the dead to medical companies. It’s a disturbing echo of the past. Says Noble, “It’s that idea that once a body is dead you can do what you want with it.”