Europe's 'Medicinal Cannibalism': The Healing Power of Death

By Philip Bethge

Were Europeans once cannibals? Research shows that up until the end of the 18th century, medicine routinely included stomach-churning ingredients like human flesh and blood.

According to the recipe, the meat was to be cut into small pieces or slices, sprinkled with "myrrh and at least a little bit of aloe" and then soaked in spirits of wine for a few days.

A blindfolded man kneels and prays moments before he is beheaded circa 1550.
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A blindfolded man kneels and prays moments before he is beheaded circa 1550.

Finally, it was to be hung up "in a very dry and shady place." In the end, the recipe notes, it would be "similar to smoke-cured meat" and would be without "any stench."

Johann Schröder, a German pharmacologist, wrote these words in the 17th century. But the meat to which he was referring was not cured ham or beef tenderloin. The instructions specifically called for the "cadaver of a reddish man ... of around 24 years old," who had been "dead of a violent death but not an illness" and then laid out "exposed to the moon rays for one day and one night" with, he noted, "a clear sky."

In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, recipes for remedies like this, which provided instructions on how to process human bodies, were almost as common as the use of herbs, roots and bark. Medical historian Richard Sugg of Britain's Durham University, who is currently writing a book on the subject says that cadaver parts and blood were standard fare, available in every pharmacy. He even describes supply bottlenecks from the glory days of "medicinal cannibalism." Sugg is convinced that avid cannibalism was not only found within the New World, but also in Europe.

In fact, there are countless sources that describe the morbid practices of early European healers. The Romans drank the blood of gladiators as a remedy against epilepsy. But it was not until the Renaissance that the use of cadaver parts in medicine became more commonplace. At first, powders made from shredded Egyptian mummies were sold as an "elixir of life," says Sugg. In the early 17th century, healers turned their attention to the mortal remains of people who had been executed or even the corpses of beggars and lepers.

Paracelsus, the German-Swiss physician, was one of the most vehement proponents of body-stripping, which eventually gained popularity at even the highest levels of society. British King Charles II paid 6,000 pounds for a recipe to distill human skull. The regent applied the resulting distillate, which entered the history of medicine as "the king's drops," almost daily.

Scholars and noblemen, as well as ordinary people, swore by the healing powers of death. US anthropologist Beth Conklin, for example, quoting a 19th-century source, writes that in Denmark epileptics were reported to stand around the scaffold in crowds, cup in hand, ready to drink the red blood as it flows from the still quavering body. Skulls were used as medicine, as was the moss that tended to sprout from them. It was believed to staunch bleeding.

Human fat was supposed to alleviate rheumatism and arthritis, while a paste made from corpses was believed to help against contusions. Sugg even attributes religious significance to human flesh. For some Protestants, he writes, it served as a sort of substitute for the Eucharist, or the tasting of the body of Christ in Holy Communion. Some monks even cooked "a marmalade of sorts" from the blood of the dead.

"It was about the intrinsic vitality of the human organism," says the historian. The assumption was that all organisms have a predetermined life span. If a body died in an unnatural way, the remainder of that person's life could be harvested, as it were -- hence the preference for the executed.

The practice was not always a success. In 1492, when Pope Innocent VIII was on his deathbed, his doctors bled three boys and had the pope drink their blood. The boys died, and so did the pope.

Was all of this cannibalism? Sugg has no doubt that it was. Like the cannibals of the New World, the Europeans were fundamentally interested in the consumption of vital energy. For anthropologist Conklin, the European form of cannibalism is especially remarkable. Outside Europe, she notes, the person who was eating almost always had a relationship with the person who was eaten. Europe's cannibalism, on the other hand, was "distinctly asocial," Conklin writes, adding that human body parts were treated as merchandise: bought and sold for a profit.

By the end of the 18th century, however, the appeal had worn off. "With the Enlightenment, physicians sought to shed their superstitious past," says Sugg. In 1782, for example, William Black, a physician, wrote that he welcomed the demise of "loathsome and insignificant" medicines, like "dead men's skulls pulverized." These, and "a farrago of such feculence," had fortunately disappeared from the pharmacies, Black remarked.

An era had come to an end, and with it the interest in recipes like those of Briton John Keogh. The preacher, who died in 1754, recommended pulverized human heart for "dizziness." Keogh even provided a dose and instructions for use: "A dram in the morning -- on an empty stomach."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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