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Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires
The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians

Second Edition


Welcome to the companion website for Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, 2nd edition, by Richard Sugg.

This unique book charts the largely forgotten history of European corpse medicine in vivid detail to show that, far from being a medieval therapy, corpse medicine was at its height during the social and scientific revolutions of early-modern Britain and lingered stubbornly on into the time of Queen Victoria.

On this dedicated companion website you will find additional articles, interviews and resources to help you explore this fascinating topic further. Resources on this website include:

  • Summaries of key topics
  • A glossary
  • Links to related media articles
  • Interviews and articles from the author

About the Author

Richard Sugg is the author of eight published books:

  • John Donne (Palgrave, 2007)
  • Murder After Death: Literature and Anatomy in Early Modern England (Cornell UP, 2007)
  • Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, 2011; 2nd edn 2015)
  • The Secret History of the Soul: Physiology, Religion and Spirit Forces from Homer to St Paul (Cambridge Scholars, 2013)
  • The Smoke of the Soul: Medicine, Physiology and Religion in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2013)
  • A Century of Supernatural Stories (CreateSpace, 2015)
  • A Century of Ghost Stories (CreateSpace, 2017)
  • A Singing Mouse at Buckingham Palace (CreateSpace, 2017)

He is currently completing a long-awaited new book, The Real Vampires; and Fairies: A Dangerous History will be published by Reaktion in spring 2018.
He has previously lectured in English at the universities of Cardiff and Durham, and his work has appeared in international press, radio and television.

In order to balance the special demands of scholarly work, he has recently begun a children’s book, Our Week with the Juffle Hunters. There are no cannibals in it.


Selected Articles

‘Early Modern Cannibal Doctors’, BBC History Magazine, March 2007.

‘Eating the Soul: from the Aztecs to Charles II’, commissioned by www.mexicolore.co.uk, 2007.

‘Corpse Medicine: Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires’, The Lancet, June 2008, vol. 371.

‘Eating your Enemy’, History Today, July 2008.

(With Philip Bethge) ‘The Healing Power of Death’ [medicinal cannibalism in early-modern Europe] Der Spiegel, 26 January 2009.

‘Blood Libels’, History Today online, 27 January 2011.

‘Prescientific Death Rites, Vampires and the Human Soul’, The Lancet, February 2011, vol. 377.

‘The Trade in Human Organs: Return of the Bodysnatchers’, History Today, 5 May 2011, vol. 61.

‘Skulls for Sale: English Conquest and Cannibal Medicines’, History Ireland cover story, May/June 2011.

‘Brain Food: The History of Skull Drinking’, Guardian online, Comment is Free, 18 February 2011.

‘The Unusual Uses of Urine’, The Guardian, 10 March 2011.

‘A History of Cannibalism’, The Guardian, 21 October 2011.

‘Organ Donations: A Local Shortage and a Global Problem’, The Guardian, 16 February 2012.

Interviewed by Maria Dolan for ‘The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine’, 7 May 2012.

‘Vampire Beliefs Still Have Bite’, The Guardian, 8 June 2012.

‘Papua New Guinea “Witch” Murder Is a Reminder of Our Gruesome Past’, The Guardian, 20 February 2013.

‘The Jameston Cannibalism Is No Surprise: It’s Part of Human History’, The Guardian, 5 May 2013.

‘A Fatberg in the Sewers? What a Waste’, The Guardian, 8 August 2013.

‘Five Diseases That Are, Thankfully, Consigned to the Past’, The Guardian, 4 September 2013.

‘Night Fright’s Deadly Bite’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 31 October 2013.

‘Vampires and Poltergeists’, History Today online, 30 October 2013.

‘Disgust, or Deathly Terror? Ghost Pranks Past and Present’, History Today online, 12 August 2014.

‘Schools That Have Ghouls’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 30 October 2014.

Radio interviews with Dr Sugg

‘Lifting the Veil’, Freethink Radio with Cari-Lee Miller, 13 June 2011.

‘Saturday Morning with Kim Hill’, Radio New Zealand, 1 September 2012.

‘Black Talk Radio: The Context of White Supremacy’, 17 December 2014.

Television appearances

Filmed alongside Tony Robinson, making and discussing cannibal medicines for a sequence in Wildfire Television’s ‘Tony Robinson’s Superstitions’; broadcast on Channel 4, as ‘Tony Robinson’s Gods and Monsters’, 8.15 pm, 26 November 2011; director Ben Steele.

Interviewed on Galvani, Frankenstein, and ‘weighing the soul’, for Wide-eyed Entertainment’s ‘Dark Matters’ series, producer Dan Gold; broadcast in the USA, 31 August 2011.

Chapter Resources

Chapter 1

Our opening chapter ranges from the Roman gladiatorial arena, through to the secretive alchemy of medieval monks, distilling and processing human blood, into the European Renaissance, and finally to the brink of the English Civil War. Here we meet a Pope swallowing human blood upon his deathbed, and learn the recipes for blood jam and corpse cosmetics. We begin to find our way through the peculiar medical and scientific attitudes which prevailed in Shakespeare’s time, and consider the possibility that Donne, during his near-fatal sickness of 1623, was dosed with corpse medicine by the King’s own physician, Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne. By way of introduction to the startling social inequality of early modern Europe, we find aristocrats dosing their hawks with Egyptian mummy, or mixing it into fish baits.

When considering the scandalous careers of Renaissance popes, we hear of Sixtus IV’s involvement in the notorious Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478. What follows below is my own account of this extraordinary event.

The Pazzi Conspiracy

Birds are singing. That special soft breath of early spring drifts in the air. Church bells chime. In Botticelli’s studio the smell of oils fills the painter’s nostrils as he closes his eyes on a half-finished canvas and kneels down on the sun-warmed floor to pray. An ordinary Sunday morning in Florence, on this the 26 April 1478. As you walk to the cathedral you see Lorenzo de Medici, the head of the city’s most eminent family, and its effectual ruler, heading the same way. Today he has a guest, a young cardinal, named Rafaello Riario. They pass into the grand cool space of one of Europe’s finest cathedrals, and disappear. Waiting outside briefly for a friend, and relishing this still novel sweetness of pollen and warmth a few moments longer, you now see Lorenzo’s brother, Giuiliano, approaching with two other guests of the Medici, Francesco de Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini. They seem friendly. Indeed, at one point Rafaello puts his arm round Lorenzo’s waist (a not uncommon gesture among men in these days – but Bandini is in fact checking to see if his supposed friend (who he has attempted to poison just the day before) wears armour under his clothes – he does not). Giuliano has, oddly, no sword. But as he comes nearer you notice he is limping very slightly, and recall that he has recently discarded the weapon for this reason. As they pass Giuiliano nods and smiles at you briefly, with that genuine ease of manner and good nature for which his family is renowned. It is not the first kind gesture you have known from this brilliant and popular young man. But it will in fact be the last.

Inside the cathedral is already crowded. But a third friend now hails the two of you, and makes space in a row some twenty feet back from the altar. Having good eyesight you find this a fair vantage, and stand scanning the people ahead as the last places fill, the doors swing to with a soft boom, and the murmurous beeswarm of voices slowly fades. Soon absorbed by the chanting and singing, and the sweet clouds of incense spiralling up from the golden censer, you cannot help now and then be a little distracted by both Lorenzo and Giuiliano. Or rather, not so much by the brothers, as by those around them. Very difficult to quite pin down, but … – a certain faint twitch of hands and shoulders now and then, even a slight stiffness in their postures. And then, every few minutes, Pazzi’s and Bandini’s eyes will meet, fractionally yet definitely, before their heads turn back to the altar. And thinking of it, now: why are Lorenzo and Giuiliano in separate parts of the cathedral? The first is at the south side of the choir, the second at its north. You yourself happen to be standing almost equidistant from each of them, making the tip of a triangle, with each brother at either side of its base. Have they quarrelled? This would certainly be untypical.

Presently, however, there comes that most sacred moment of the whole service, the elevation of the mass, and you forget these oddities as you, along with all those around you, solemnly lower your head. Later, re-telling this story for perhaps the fortieth time to another group of friends over supper, you are still not quite sure what you first noticed. A scuffle, a growing confusion and disorder vibrating out through the bodies of the congregation around the north side of the choir. (Although you never admit it, for the very first few seconds you assumed it was just old Paolo Pasolini, roused from a doze by the elbow of his attentive daughter.) Perhaps indeed you smelled the blood before you really saw or heard anything. But in less than a minute matters are grimly clear. Leaping onto the pew you see Giuiliano slumped motionless, face down in a growing crimson circle. Still dazed by the unreality of this sight, you cannot help but wrench your head to the south of the choir. A billowing velvet arc swirls round Lorenzo’s body – his cloak, yanked from his back, and now deftly thrown round his left arm, which it shields as his right thrusts a sword out at two attackers. Already bleeding from the neck, he leaps over the altar rail and rushes for the refuge of the sacristy. Bandini, flying from the dead body of Giuiliano, is now furiously attempting to head him off, stunned citizens gaping as he runs for the sacristy doors. For a moment a man stands against him – Bandini, sweeping him down with a single blow, hardly checks his stride. Sword dripping and face scarlet, he is now almost there. But not quite soon enough. The poet Politian and his friends have yanked the sacristy doors behind Lorenzo – with a crash they swing to in Bandini’s face.

How he himself managed to disappear is something you never work out. But just at that moment, with the cathedral doors now bursting open on all sides, and the sudden tumult of the city rushing in from outside, this is in fact a minor issue. As you stumble into the streets, horses are careering through the uproar. Their riders, the friends of Pazzi and Bandini, are shouting ‘Liberta!’, attempting to rouse the crowds against the Medici and the government of Florence. It soon becomes clear that they are failing. The riders’ efforts to spread the cry of ‘Abasso le Palle!’ rebound, and amidst the storm of outrage and rumour the words ‘Vivano le Palle!’ have soon boiled like froth over this bubbling surf of confusion. Giuiliano is dead! And Lorenzo! No – just hurt. But poisoned? No – his friend, Ridolfi, sucked the wound at once lest he should be … And the Signoria? Even now, in these first wild minutes, a certain direction begins to take shape – and very soon the crowds are rushing with drawn swords toward the Signoria, fearful of what they will find in the home of the Florentine ruling council.

And indeed, the bulk of the Pazzi conspirators had already got there. Led by their chief, the Archbishop Salviati, they have come to slay the city’s leaders in their own council chamber. But the chief councillor, Petrucci, is suspicious from the first. A faint smell of something not quite right enters with these strange guests. ‘Archbishop! – an honour. Please – I would speak with you. No – here, I think – in private for a moment. I was hoping, actually, to show you –’ (‘Sergio – outside – news – and quickly!’) Moments later word of the atrocities in the duomo has got back to the council. Thrashing and roaring, Salviati is bound, noosed, thrown from a window of the council building, his thunderings and screamings finally cut dead as the rope snaps tight and his neck cracks in two. Below the raging crowd watches as five others join him. With the resolution of the council grimly signalled by these six corpses swinging outside its windows, swords are further hacking and thrusting inside.

When you and the others finally manage to gain admission, the staircase is thick and red with the bodies and blood of conspirators – perhaps two dozen or more. Presently a more familiar sight at another window. Over at the Medici Palace Lorenzo appears, addresses the crowd below – he is alive, only slightly hurt. He begs them to refrain from violence. For once, he goes unheeded. Down in the streets more conspirators are seized. They do not have the luck to be handed over for executions even so impromptu as that of Salviati. All but torn to pieces where they are caught, they are dragged around the city, reviled and mutilated in a swarm of relentless anger. Before the day is out, perhaps eighty of Florence’s would-be attackers have met this kind of fate.

During the following week Florence overflows with unexpected visitors from the surrounding countryside. They have come, it seems, to protect Lorenzo from further danger. And presently a new uproar ignites as a party appears from the village of Castagno. Its inhabitants have seized Jacopo de Pazzi, who had managed to escape there. He is presently executed by order of the Signoria, along with several others. Bandini had been more ambitious in his flight. He left not only Florence, but Italy; finally surfacing in Constantinople. But the world, on this occasion, was not big enough for this kind of criminal. The sultan of Constantinople had him sent back in chains, to be executed in the city which by now he might have been all but ruling.

But who, exactly, were the Pazzi conspirators? What sort of people attempt to overthrow a city in one afternoon, and to commit their murders during the most sacred instants of the holy Catholic ritual? Well – the friends of the Pope, actually. The sword arms of Bandini and Pazzi stretched back, down shadowy winding tunnels, all the way to the Vatican itself, where Pope Sixtus IV had agreed to the plot so that Florence could be handed over to his nephew, Girolamo Riario. Many historians would argue that this kind of affair was a fairly ordinary day’s work for Sixtus IV. And certainly he did not take defeat with that Christian humility which we might expect to be shown to the will of the Almighty. Rudely interrupted by this ill news (he was, let us suppose, busy worshipping an especially fine example of the Lord’s handiwork in one of Rome’s better brothels), and raging bitterly to his cardinals that an Archbishop could not attempt a minor revolution these days without being hung from a window, he swiftly excommunicated the entire state of Tuscany. The Tuscan bishops responded by excommunicating the Pope, and Florence lived happily ever after – well, at least until 1494, which is a good long time in Italian Renaissance politics.

Both here and in chapter two we encounter various medical uses of breast milk. Few people are willing to consider breast-feeding itself as a form of cannibalism. Interestingly, however, other uses of breast milk quickly become controversial. One of these was the retailing of breast-milk ice-cream. Another, more recently, has been the fad for breast-milk jewellery. As Florence Williams notes, in her book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (Norton, 2012), when sold on the Internet, breast milk can now retail for 262 times the price of oil.
‘Breast milk ice cream goes on sale in Covent Garden’, BBC News, 24 February 2011.



Chapter 2

Chapter two takes us into some strange, now largely forgotten territories in the England of the seventeenth century. We find Robert Boyle, Father of Chemistry, laboriously processing and administering blood medicines, and Thomas Willis, Father of Neuroscience and the richest doctor in England, mixing up human skull and chocolate for his more privileged patients. At the same time, the two decades of the Civil War and Interregnum catalyse radical pleas for a newly democratic, affordable medicine; whilst the general iconoclasm of the age gives rise to fantastical fusions of the occult and scientific. The alchemist Michael Sandivogius, for example, not only discovers oxygen, but sets out the recipe for the artificial generation of a human being, or homunculus. The royalist surgeon Christopher Irvine describes a lamp filled with human blood, and flirts with the idea of corpse medicines derived from living human bodies. Paracelsian corpse medicines, now adding fresh corpses to the ancient mummy therapies of past decades, include a ‘divine water’ alchemised from the pulverised mass of an entire human body. Well-meaning aristocrats open corpse medicine chests to the servants and tenants on their country estates, and poorer women express their breast milk to supply the medical needs of their betters. In his private laboratory Charles II concocts human skull into the increasingly famed ‘King’s Drops’, whilst his private secretary, William Chiffinch, uses these to spike the drinks of hapless courtiers, learning valuable secrets from his drunken victims in the process.

Chapter 3

Our third chapter turns to the sources of corpse medicine. Here we follow the curious career of an Egyptian mummy through centuries of reverent darkness and out into the bustle of Elizabethan London, where it is pounded in a mortar and pressed onto a fresh wound. We hear of those much newer corpses, mummified and desiccated to dry light husks by the sandstorms of the Arabian deserts. We accompany graverobbers from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and watch as the executioners of Paris or Hanover cut, saw, scrape and sell human skull and fat. Carrying large supplies of mummy against expected contusions, we sway through the jostling crowds at beheadings in Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, where epileptics gulp hot blood from beakers, and desperate men and women, deprived of the corpse by official intervention, cram blood-soaked earth into their mouths beneath the scaffold. The English invasion of Ireland presents us with a pathway of severed heads, and the English trade in skulls sets an import duty on Irish crania shipped to Britain and Germany. An entire human skin is fished from a London pond, and a Norfolk woman sells her dead husband to supply the eighteenth-century medical demand for human fat.

In addition to the ‘natural mummies’ mentioned here, we also find a startling new discovery from Sweden, in June 2015.
Maev Kennedy, ‘Scientists find body of five-month-old foetus concealed under feet of 336-year-old body of Bishop Peder Winstrup in Lund cathedral’, The Guardian, 21 June 2015.

Artificial mummification, meanwhile, had an interesting revival in 2011, when Dr Stephen Buckley and Dr Jo Fletcher mummified the body of Alan Billis. Mr Billis, a Torquay taxi-driver, donated his body to this scientific project after learning that he had terminal lung cancer. For more on this story, see:

For more on the vagaries of mummy collecting, and associated ethics, see my article, ‘Collecting Mummies’, in Mummies around the World: An Encyclopedia of Mummies in History, Religion, and Popular Culture, ed. Matt Cardin (ABC Clio, 2014).

If you are ever in Prague, the bone church at Sedlice is well worth the short train ride. Until then …

Interestingly, the Cathedral of Otranto, whose interior bears some resemblance to Sedlice’s bone church, has been in the news recently because one of the skulls there may have been used to make medicine. For more on this, see Dolly Stolze, at:

The exposed body of a criminal ‘broken on the wheel’ can be seen in this Swedish engraving: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Category:Files_from_Wellcome_Images&filefrom=%22Fading+away%22.+Oil+painting+attributed+to+E.+Kennedy.+Wellcome+V0017586.jpg#/media/File:%22Mode_of_Exhibiting_the_Bodies_of_Criminals_in_Sweden%22._Wellcome_L0027515.jpg

The question of people selling themselves to anatomists acquires a curious twist in Hilary Mantel’s 1998 novel, The Giant, O’Brien, in which eighteenth-century anatomist John Hunter is keen to acquire the giant’s body for his medical collection. The giant’s bones are still on display in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, despite recent requests for them to be buried at sea, as Byrne had originally requested. It is no accident that William Hunter, John’s surgeon brother, coined the phrase ‘necessary inhumanity’ as a required trait of the successful anatomy student.

Sir Thomas Browne’s skull, once a museum exhibit, resting on his famous book, Religio Medici:

Chapter 4

In the decades after 1492, Spanish and Portuguese invaders of the Americas used tribal cannibalism as a powerful weapon in their campaigns of exploitation, settlement and (allegedly) genocide. Meanwhile, Protestants, whilst denouncing the cruelties of Catholic soldiers in Central and South America, also generally assumed New World cannibalism to be a nadir of barbarity and inhumanity. Since 2011, many readers of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires have felt the associated hypocrisy of early modern Christians to have been the most intriguing and shocking element of the book.

Despite the invention of cannibals for propaganda purposes, and the various distortions of New World culture by Old World writers, tribal cannibalism certainly has taken place, evidently occurring in one part of Brazil as late as the 1960s. In almost all cases, however, tribal cannibalism was in its own way as solemnly religious, and as densely cultural, as the pious rituals of Protestants or Catholics. This held for aggressive cannibalism, practised on prisoners from rival tribes, with the victim themself often co-operating in a complex, controlled ritual imbued with notions of courage, honour and community. And it applied perhaps still more strongly to funerary cannibalism. Though little known or discussed by Old World writers, this was probably the more common type of tribal cannibalism, and was thoroughly consensual. A tribe ate or drank part or all of the deceased, who would themselves have expected this, and have wanted it to happen. When questioned about such rituals, native American tribes often expressed shock and disgust at the idea of something as unnatural as burying a body in cold, dank earth. This chapter helps us begin to grasp how Christians sought to elevate medicinal cannibalism above tribal man-eating, viewing it as ‘cooked’, rather than raw, or cultural rather than animal behaviour. As well as New World cannibalism, it details incidents of cannibal violence from Christian Europe, and from China’s Cultural Revolution.

Many readers of this book have been struck by the way that ‘civilised cannibalism’ has been so effectively whitewashed out of history. Another striking, little-known example of ‘civilised cannibalism’ is that discussed in Michael Bell’s ground-breaking book, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires (2001). Exposing the distinctive vampire beliefs and associated rituals of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New England, Bell cites cases in which supposed ‘victims’ of vampirism swallowed the vampire’s ashes in water. If you think that this is not cannibalism, ask yourself the following question: ‘Would I smoke a cigarette made from human organic matter?’ Further discussion of this topic can also be found in: Richard Sugg, The Real Vampires (forthcoming).


Chapter 5

For many readers, the idea of medicinal cannibalism now seems not just hypocritical, but disgusting. Chapter five explores the possibility that, when so much of ordinary life was so disgusting, it was not really possible to be disgusted. Elizabeth I, notably much cleaner than her successor James, took a bath once a month, ‘whether she needed it or not’. James urinated in the saddle whilst hunting, to save the trouble of dismounting, had head lice, and never changed his clothes until they wore out. Those who were more fastidious than their king or queen were themselves constantly assailed with the sight or stench of urine, excrement, and rotting or slaughtered animals.

In terms of illness, numerous people often had disgusting things inside them, given the much greater prevalence of intestinal worms in this period – to say nothing of the now forgotten condition known as phthiriasis, which saw thousands of minute insects generating under your own skin, and effectively eating you alive. The finest doctors in the land might ask you, the patient, to swallow live lice, urine, animal or human excrement, the still beating heart of a dove, or maggots, along with numerous corpse preparations. They could prescribe that dead pigeons be laid at your head or feet, or that dried faeces be blown into your eye against cataracts. Genteel women were known to rub not only urine into their cheeks to beautify them, but also excrement. More broadly, in an age when human and animal bodily wastes were heavily used in industry and agriculture, we find interesting parallels with modern attempts to employ such substances as fuel, in the era of global warming and dwindling fossil fuel reserves.


A brief introduction to the surprisingly varied uses of urine can be found in my article: ‘The Unusual Uses of Urine’, The Guardian, 10 March 2011.
Anyone still thirsty for more can try:

The kind of medicine which was abandoned by most educated doctors and patients in the eighteenth century often lingered stubbornly on amongst the poor in the nineteenth century. Recalling the dead pigeons laid at Donne’s feet in 1623, we find a close echo over 200 years later:

‘A young man not far from this town was last week in the agonies of death, when his father was induced to try the powers of a potent spell, which he was assured would restore the dying man to health and vigour; he accordingly procured a live pigeon, split it suddenly down the middle of the body with a sharp knife, and applied the severed parts, still moving with life, to the soles of the feet of the dying patient, fully expecting to behold its instantaneous effect. The son, however, was a corpse a short time after. We should be inclined to laugh at this lamentable ignorance, if the awful scene with which it is connected did not engender feelings of pity.’
The Times, 21 October 1835.

Meanwhile, recalling the vigorous street medicine of Elizabethan London, we find that some startling forms of amateur medicine were taking place in Bradford market into the 1950s. Christine Alvin, who kindly supplied me with some late examples of skull medicine, wrote to me in 2014 about a quack doctor named Hugh Duncan Walker, who would ‘suck cataracts’ out of people’s eyes. When Christine posted a query about this in a Bradford local paper, several people wrote in with their memories of this performance:

‘I remember this “doctor” – I guess the year would be about 1952–53 (I was 11 or 12) and I would watch this “doctor” call for people from the “audience” who had medical problems to come to the front of the group and he would then sit them in a chair that was on top of a table – this gave the audience a good view of his method of treating corns and bunions etc. I think he applied some cream or ointment.

I once mentioned this “quack ” to my great aunt and she responded with a story how she had seen him remove cataracts from people’s eyes by using his tongue and licking then out !!!!

She said upon completion of this treatment he would remove the “cataract” from his mouth. (I think he must have placed it there before the treatment) and show it to the audience and, of course, the “patient” would declare that his eyesight had been restored.’
Pete Duckworth, Woodstock, Ontario, Canada, 24 July 2014.

Christine suspected that any perceived sense of improvement in vision may have come ‘because the licking cleans the surface of the eye and leaves a film of liquid, so everything's brighter’. She also guessed that the ‘cataract’ which Walker spat out before his audience was probably wet tissue paper.

Chapter 6

Previous chapters have hinted at the beliefs which motivated early modern patients to swallow corpse medicines of so many kinds. Paracelsus seems to have believed that there was something especially potent about a fresh criminal corpse, whilst the epileptics downing draughts of hot blood at execution scaffolds evidently felt that they were drinking life itself. What was it about human, as opposed to animal bodies that made them so valuable as medicine? Simply, human bodies had a soul. Until the eighteenth century, educated and uneducated alike understood this to be not just spiritual, but to have quite precise and dynamic physiological roles within the body. Was the soul located in the heart or the brain? Although there was no firm agreement on this, the soul was very closely associated with the blood. The finest, hottest part of the blood was held to form vital spirits, and these in turn were believed to be the bond between the perishable body and the immortal soul. Chapter six restores this now largely forgotten physiology for us, and explores in detail how so much of corpse medicine was based on the power of the vital spirits and the human soul. This held not only for the drinking of fresh blood, but for processed, alchemised forms of it (produced by Robert Boyle, among others); for spirit of skull; and for medicine derived from criminal corpses up to three days old – thought, at this time, to have a residual spiritual potency smouldering within them. Here science and religion blend in peculiarly intimate ways, whilst certain figures imagine the body as a kind of living laboratory, with the spirits open to medical conditioning, via particular modes of death.

Readers interested in this topic can learn much more from my book, The Smoke of the Soul: Medicine, Physiology and Religion in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2013).

The opening paragraphs are here below:

Nothing was so essential, and nothing so elusive. For almost two millennia, the Christian soul was the ultimate essence of millions of human beings across Western Europe. Throughout this world of uncertainty, pain and hardship your primary duty was to nurture that seed of immortality, the core of your real and eternal life that was to be spent (you fervently hoped) in the crystalline arcades and marbled halls of heaven. In 1612 John Donne portrayed the dying body as giving birth to the liberated soul: ‘Think thy shell broke, think thy soul hatched but now’. This kind of image is far from being a merely fanciful metaphor. In many ways, Donne and his contemporaries lived most fully in their souls, rather than their bodies. And yet: at the same time, for all that one knew and believed it to be the pure breath of God, animating and sustaining the body which He had created, the soul was cruelly inaccessible by the standards of everyday life. Just what was it? The theologians, whose authority for most was probably far greater than that of modern scientists or medical doctors, could tell you with conviction that it was ‘an incorporeal substance’. No doubt you believed this as a theory. But as a tangible reality, as something whose crucial state of health could be persuasively gauged from one month to the next of your precarious existence, it must have been painfully unsatisfying. The soul was yours. It was in you. But where? How?

From a slightly different angle this was the question which the poet Robert Browning put into the mouth of the Renaissance painter, Fra Lippo Lippi. Writing in the late nineteenth century, Browning imagined Lippi as skilled in the depiction of vivid human particularity. He could capture minute individual nuances of character and texture, render facial types and expressions which made you believe that these were real people with real lives. For his ecclesiastical employers, however, this style was implicitly irreverent. Lippi’s job, they insisted, was to offer not the true reflection of this world, but of the next:

‘Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men –
Man’s soul, and it’s a fire, smoke … no, it’s not …
It’s vapour done up like a new-born babe –
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It’s … well, what matters talking, it’s the soul!’

If anything, the soul of the Old and New Testaments was in many ways more physical, worldly, dynamic and practical than that established by full-blown Christianity in the centuries after Christ. For more on this, see my book: The Secret History of the Soul: Physiology, Religion and Spirit Forces from Homer to St Paul (Cambridge Scholars, 2013).

Chapter 6 Image

In both these and many other countries, this transitional state was not only real, but potentially very dangerous. Until fully dead, a corpse could be vampirically reanimated – either demonically, or by its own lingering soul. Whilst in the house, the body must therefore be watched obsessively to protect it. And, even after removing the deceased for burial, mourners often used devious means to stop the soul re-entering its old house. In some cases the corpse was removed via a special temporary exit, which was then bricked up. Given the Northern European belief in the animate corpse, it is telling that these ‘corpse doors’ could still be seen in Denmark in the early twentieth century.

Chapter 7

Our final three chapters look at opposition to corpse medicine; its long-term decline among the educated; and its persistence amongst the poor in many parts of Europe. Before the eighteenth century, there was very little overt opposition to medicinal cannibalism. Yet there was some ambivalence. Even in the early seventeenth century, playwrights such as Jonson, Dekker and Webster make use of this unease by irreverently playing up the more exploitative sides of mummy, whilst come the Restoration corpse medicine frequently appears as the stuff of low comedy. The aged are walking mummies, and more vulnerable characters are often imagined as being sold into mummy, made into mummy, or beaten into mummy. In the coded or oblique references to mummy made by playwrights, we begin to glimpse a powerful and long-running feature of the darker side of medical history. For the powerless or the oppressed, the gap between patients and medical practitioners has at times not been one simply of gratitude or awe. It has, on occasion, crystallised into the very real belief that ‘there is nothing that the powerful will not do to us; and that includes making us into medicine’.

Chapter 8

Come the eighteenth century, corpse medicine remained a valuable commodity for some time. Human fat was recommended by many elite physicians to treat gout; skulls from Ireland passed through Customs at the cost of one shilling per head; and the genteel minister John Keogh recommended almost every fluid or substance from head to toe as medicine, whilst also advising gloves made from human skin for contractions of the joints.

Once opposition to medicinal cannibalism gathered force after mid-century, there seem to have been various reasons for the shift. Changes in social structure and habits meant that genteel patients were now more easily disgusted; and the newly emerging medical profession was keen to clean up its image, as well as to detach itself from the superstitious or backward habits of the pre-Enlightenment era. Along with these important markers of a more modern culture, we also find another significant change. For many educated observers, the soul had now been hunted out of the body by medicine and science. In this increasingly mechanised human entity, the animate powers corpse medicine had once sought to exploit were no longer wanted or needed. Without the soul, the body was not good enough to eat.

Interestingly, hostility to corpse medicine amongst the medical elite may also have been accelerated by popular mockery of such treatments. In 1717 the first mummy to appear on the English stage was creaking down the boards in Three Hours after Marriage, whilst in 1734 an adaptation of Molière’s play The Hypochondriac satirises a physician called ‘Dr Mummy’. For serious, respectable, proto-scientific doctors, this kind of profile may have been a sharp spur to abandoning all the skulls, flesh, fat and blood once so central to European medicine and trade.

This chapter also examines the curious whitewashing of corpse medicine from medical history, tracking the various distortions, omissions and inaccuracies evident in so many textbooks of recent decades.


For most people, in most of history, there was nothing but magic. And, as educated and genteel men and women of the nineteenth century unanimously defined themselves in horrified opposition to the corpse medicines of their allegedly backward ancestors, the ordinary masses of European society still swallowed shavings of human skull, or attempted cures which involved drinking from the skull of a suicide. At public executions and after fatal accidents, people could be found touching corpses in the hope of curing scrofula. Perhaps most startlingly of all, in Germany and in Russia across the nineteenth century, people were murdered for their fat, owing to the belief that a candle made from human grease would render the bearer invisible. Blood-drinking, meanwhile, becomes increasingly sexualised in the post-Enlightenment era, with one romantic couple having themselves bled by a surgeon, before swallowing each other’s blood.

Implicit in all the preceding chapters has been the fact that many people, living or dead, were made into medicine. No less significant is the belief of various oppressed groups that the powerful would indeed murder them to make them into medicine. In the nineteenth century this was found in Scotland and in the British Raj. In the twentieth and twenty-first it has been fervently believed in many central and Latin American countries, as part of rumours about black market organ murders and trading. As well as discussing the cultural significance of such beliefs (even when probably false) the Conclusion also looks at twenty-first century cases where people have allegedly been murdered for their organs, or had them illegitimately cannibalised after death.

Images of the legendary Hand of Glory can be seen here:

Sometimes, the thrifty or eco-conscious might make do with a mere Thumb of Glory (as in the Ober-Haynewald case of 1638), or a finger …

Loughall, County Antrim Petty Sessions.

‘James Hagan was summoned by his wife, Sarah Hagan, for gross ill treatment, the cause of which … was the loss of a talisman, which Hagan believed enabled him to become invisible at certain times and places. This mysterious power is communicated by the power of a “dead man’s finger”! It certainly must have once been part of a very bad man, for its possessor seems to have used it for very bad purposes, his wife having sworn that he kept it because by means of it he could enter any man’s dwelling, go behind his counter, and rob his drawers without being observed or detected. This was her evidence; but she could not say if the finger had ever been so employed. No doubt to a thief such a relic would be valuable. Hagan regarded it in that light; it endowed him with a charmed existence, and, because his wife could not account for it, he gave his wife a most unmerciful beating, and threatened to take her life. The truth appears to be that the poor woman became alarmed at the conduct of her husband carrying about the finger, and she buried it in a neighbour’s field and forgot the place of interment. No excuse would satisfy Hagan. He should have the finger, and nothing but the finger; so that the poor woman, failing to discover it, felt the power of his five fingers in a very unmanly way. The Bench, having commented severely on the fellow’s misconduct and gross superstition, ordered him to find bail to keep the peace for 12 months.’
The Times, 19 September 1863.

If you have not seen one of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibitions, I’d recommend doing so. In the meantime, you can get a two-dimensional glimpse here: http://www.bodyworlds.com/en/gunther_von_hagens/life_in_science.html

Top Five Historical Cannibal and Corpse Recipes

These recipes are presented here for historical interest only, and should not be attempted.

1. Paracelsian Mummy Tincture. Oswald Croll (1609)

‘Choose the carcass of a red man, whole, clear without blemish, of the age of twenty four years, that hath been hanged, broke upon a wheel, or thrust-through, having been for one day and night exposed to the open air, in a serene time. Cut into small pieces or slices, and sprinkle with powder of myrrh and aloes, before repeatedly macerating in spirit of wine. It should then be hung up to dry in the air’, after which ‘it will be like flesh hardened in smoke’ and ‘without stink’.

Preparation Board Image

2. Blood Jam or Marmalade. Franciscan Apothecary (1679)

‘Draw blood … from persons of warm, moist temperament, such as those of a blotchy, red complexion and rather plump of build. Their blood will be perfect, even if they have not red hair … Let it dry into a sticky mass. Place it upon a flat, smooth table of soft wood, and cut it into thin little slices, allowing its watery part to drip away. When it is no longer dripping, place it on a stove on the same table, and stir it to a batter with a knife … When it is absolutely dry, place it immediately in a very warm bronze mortar, and pound it, forcing it through a sieve of finest silk. When it has all been sieved, seal it in a glass jar. Renew it in the spring of every year.’
(Quoted in: Piero Camporesi, Juice of Life: The Symbolic and Magic Significance of Blood (New York: Continuum, 1988), 29–30.)

3. Cosmetic Ointment for the Face. Reverend John Keogh (1739)

‘Fat or grease … fills the pits or holes left after the small-pox. The said ointment is made thus: take man’s grease 2 pound, bees’ wax, turpentine, of each one pound, gum elemi half a pound, balm of gilead or Peru, four ounces. Mix for melting, for the purposes aforesaid.’

4. The Hand of Glory. Cheshire Observer, 24 February 1872

‘Wrap the hand in a piece of winding sheet, drawing it tight, so as to squeeze out the little blood which may remain. Then place it in an earthenware vessel with saltpetre, common salt, and long pepper, all carefully and thoroughly powdered. Let it remain a fortnight in this pickle, till it is well-dried, then expose it to the sun in dog days till it is completely parched; or, if the sun be not powerful enough, dry it in an oven, heated with vervain and fern. Next make a candle with the fat of a hung man, virgin wax, and Lapland sesame. The hand of glory is used to hold this candle when it is lighted, and wherever he goes with it burning all are rendered incapable of motion.’

5. Eau de Merde. Late eighteenth century, France

The French physician M. Geoffroy knew of one ‘“lady of high standing, who relied on stercorary fluid to keep her complexion the most beautiful in the world until a very advanced age. She retained a healthy young man in her service whose sole duty was to answer nature’s call in a special basin of tin-plated copper with a very tight lid”’. This was covered so that none of the contents could evaporate. When the shit had cooled, the young man collected the moisture which had formed under the lid of the basin. ‘“This precious elixir was then poured into a flask that was kept on Madame’s dressing table. Every day, without fail, this lady would wash her hands and face in the fragrant liquid; she had uncovered the secret to being beautiful for an entire lifetime”’.

(Quoted in: Dominique Laporte, History of Shit (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 107.)

The Publishers accept no liability for any physical injury or damage to any person caused by following these recipes.


‘Chirurgion’ is the older term for ‘surgeon’.

‘Galenists’ were the more conservative physicians who followed the teachings of Claudius Galen (c.120–200 ad). From the later sixteenth century on, they were increasingly opposed by the Paracelsians (q.v.).

‘Kharisiri’, also known as a ‘pishtaco’, this, in the Andean culture of Bolivia and Peru, is a bogey-man with superhuman powers, able to steal his victim’s fat, which he sells for industrial or pharmaceutical purposes. As a figure used to explain mysterious deaths or disease, the kharisiri is very similar to the European witch or vampire. The belief is still a living one as I write.

‘Magistery’: (OED, sense 5. a.) Alchemy. A master principle of nature, free of impurities; a potent transmuting or curative quality or agency; (concr.) a substance, such as the philosopher’s stone, capable of transmuting or changing the nature of other substances.

‘Paracelsians’ were the influential scientific and medical followers of the controversial natural philosopher, Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) (d.1541).

‘Usnea’, this Latin word, meaning ‘lichen’, was often used to refer to the medical moss found on some human skulls, and employed for various medical purposes, most notably against bleeding.

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