Cannibalism…. What image does that conjure up? Missionaries stewing in a cooking pot somewhere deep in the jungle….or serial killers dining on ‘filet de jambe’, quaffed down with large quantities of Chianti…? There is no doubt cannibals belong in horror films – but eating human flesh has been with us since the beginnings of our time….
Europe has the oldest fossil evidence of cannibalism…. 100,000 year old Neanderthal bones found in the Marla-Guercy Cave in France had been broken by other Neanderthals in order to extract the bone marrow, skulls smashed open to gain access to the brains…. Further evidence revealed tools had likely been used to remove thigh tissue and tongues. In another cave, at El Sidon, Spain more gruesome Neanderthal finds….12 members of a family dismembered, skinned and eaten by fellow Neanderthals, some 50,000 years ago….
‘Neanderthal’ may be a term we sometimes use when we want to be demeaning – but in all honesty tens of thousands of years later, Homo Sapiens were not much better…. Even in so-called ‘civilised’ societies pure and simple cannibalism was not unheard of – especially in times of famine…. Christian Crusaders ate the flesh of local Muslims after taking the Syrian city of Ma’arra in 1098…. Human flesh was sold in British markets during famine times in the 11th Century and during the Great Famine of 1315-17 cannibalism reached extremes…. Even in 1612 Polish troops after a prolonged siege in Moscow succumbed – and there have been more modern-day examples; such as the 1970s Andes air crash of a Uruguayan Air Force flight….when survivors had to resort to eating human remains….
These were cases of survival – but could this be applied to the general medical practices of Renaissance through to Victorian times? I’m referring to ‘corpse medicine’ or ‘medical cannibalism’….
Ancient healers in Mesopotamia and India believed human body parts had healing properties – but the Romans took it to another level…. Their belief was that the blood from freshly slaughtered gladiators, still full of the essence of the brave, was a good remedy for conditions such as epilepsy…. They drank it, still warm, probably straight from the body…. Gruesome..!!
As time meandered on and medicine ‘advanced’….blood still played a key part. In 1492, as Pope Innocent VIII lay on his death-bed, his doctors deemed it necessary to try to save him by prescribing a tonic of fresh plasma…. Three young shepherd boys were brought forthwith and accordingly ‘bled’….but it was all in vain….the Pope still died…. and tragically, so did the three boys….
The word ‘cannibal’ came to the English language in the 16th Century….from the Spanish ‘canibales’ – a term used by Columbus to describe natives of the Caribbean Islands who were rumoured to eat human flesh….
Medical cannibalism started with Egyptian mummies….burned and then ground to a fine powder. Trade of this substance became a huge business – it was a common ingredient of medicines all over Europe and in Britain…. King Francis I carried a pouch with him at all times….just in case….
Other body parts began to be used – the fresher the better…. Fat, bones, blood, urine – remedies including human remains became more and more commonplace and were thought to be cures for just about any ailment; headaches, epilepsy, coughs, contusions, ulcers…. The ‘spirits’ of those the remains were taken from were thought to still be within….blood was the essence and vitality of the body…. Recipes for the use of the remains would often be specific – the flesh of a young man who had died a violent death, complete with veins, arteries and nerves, for example….would give ‘strength’ – the belief a violent death meant the spirit of the man would remain entrapped….
“We preserve our life with 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”…. ~ Leonardo da Vinci
The menstrual blood of a virgin was a much sought after commodity – on the account of its ‘pureness’…. The afterbirth of a new mother still held the fetal spirit…. It just gets more bizarre….
The 17th Century physician George Thomson claimed the sweat from a terrified person about to be hanged (or having just been so) contained a good remedy for haemorrhoids – the idea being the fear captivated within would shrink the piles into submission….
Executions became a market place for entrepreneurs and sufferers alike…. The executioner would happily sell a cup of warm blood for a few pence…. 16th Century epileptics would wait cup in hand….hoping to cure their ailment – whereas, the poor would hope to sell their cupful to the wealthy, who preferred not to get their own hands bloody….
It was the wealthy who really fuelled the demand for corpse medicine…. Royalty, priests, nobility, scientists…. Charles II had his own personal concoction – ‘The King’s Drops’ – powdered human skull steeped in alcohol…. Thomas Willis, a 17th Century brain scientist, proclaimed a drink of hot chocolate and powdered skull could help apoplexy and bleeding….
18th Century British preacher, John Keogh claimed pulverized human heart was good for dizziness – ‘a dram in the morning on an empty stomach’….
Human fat was used externally; a remedy for gout when applied as a salve….bandages soaked in the glutinous substance supposedly healed wounds….
It is said Protestants used human flesh during the rite of Eucharist….and monks made a special marmalade type preserve containing human blood….
Although the main source of human remains came from the bodies of executed criminals, the high demand for such parts obviously created a black market…. Grave robbers exhumed fresh graves….beggars and the homeless were murdered….
Thankfully by the end of the 18th Century the appeal for corpse medicine was beginning to wane….although remedies containing human parts were still available right up to the beginning of the 20th Century…. In 1910 a German pharmaceutical company continued to offer powdered mummy in its product catalogue….
We may well shudder to think of human remains being used in every day medicine – but back in the time it was considered completely normal and acceptable…. Just as today, with our modern-day equivalents; blood transfusions, organ transplants, skin grafts…. Perhaps in centuries to come people will look back and exclaim in horror “they used to use real body parts???” At least we no longer ingest human remains….but then again….what about those who choose to eat their placenta? Just saying….
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