This is the first Res Obscura post after another rather lengthy break, but I plan to start updating more regularly in the new year. I’ve cannibalized portions of this post from a piece I wrote for the new online journal I helped co-found, The Appendix, the other week: “Ravens-Scull & a Handfull of Fennel.”
I spent much of the past year in Lisbon, Portugal, researching the development of the global trade in medicinal drugs during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While there, I was struck by how extraordinarily different Portuguese pharmacies appeared from their United States counterparts. To be sure, many bore definite similarities to the type of American pharmacies I grew up regarding as normal: modern-looking edifices bathed in fluorescent light and painted a sterile white designed to set off the colorful packaging of the drugs for sale.
Others, however, (like the Farmácia Andrade, which I walked by nearly every day) looked more like this well-preserved pharmacy in Stockholm:
|The Apoteket Storken (Stork Pharmacy) in Stockholm, Sweden, 2009, All images via Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted.
What is striking about these displays is how pre-modern they are. The same basic design (ceramic jars of herbs, minerals and animal products lined on wooden shelves along with the occasional specimen of exotica) can be seen in engravings and paintings from the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries:
|Pietro Longhi, The Apothecary, Italian, 1752.
|An apothecary shop as depicted in Wolfgang Helmhard Hohberg, Georgica curiosa aucta (Nuremberg: 1697).
Yet what did these jars actually contain? Are there links beyond the purely aesthetic between early modern drugs and their modern counterparts? Trying to actually learn the craft of early modern pharmacy is a difficult process: the apothecary was a member of a guild who held closely-guarded secrets, and apothecary manuals were frequently written in Latin and employed a host of specialist symbols and words like “drachm” and “scruple.”
To make matters even more difficult, early modern drug lore predated the widespread adoption of Linnaean classification, so a plant called “Dragon’s blood” in Italian might be totally different from a plant with the same name in English. What emerges when one overcomes these various obstacles and actually gets to the bottom of what was being prescribed, however, is a fascinating picture. It turns out early modern Europeans were prescribing some very familiar items — things found in herb teas sold in grocery stores today, like chamomile, fennel, licorice, and cardamom — alongside some utterly bizarre ones, like powdered crab’s eyes, Egyptian mummies, and human skull, or “cranium humanum.“
|Late 17th or early 18th century medicine jars that once contained human fat — one of several gruesome “cannibal medicine” remedies now forgotten by all except collectors of antique jars and historians of early modern medicine.
In the sister post to this one, on The Appendix’s blog, I listed a few intriguing medical recipes for things like “Snaill water” that I found in archives in Portugal and Philadelphia — you can read them here. But while I was revisiting these sources today, I was struck by the degree to which they take for granted something that I suspect most people in the contemporary world would find revolting: the consumption of human bodies as medicinal drugs.
As the picture above hints, substances like human fat or powdered mummy were once so common that hundreds or perhaps even thousands of antique ceramic jars purpose-built to contain them still exist in antique shops, museums and private collections. This is no secret, but it remains more or less the domain of specialists in early modern history and (judging by the reactions of friends and dinner guests I have broached the subject with!) appears to not be widely known to the general public.
One good popular resource on the subject is this May 2012 Smithsonian article by Maria Dolan, which quotes the authors of two recent academic works on the subject: Louise Noble’s Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture and Richard Sugg’s Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. As the Smithsonian Magazine article notes, it was a relatively common sight in early modern France and Germany to witness relatives of sick people collecting blood from recently executed criminals to use in medical preparations:
“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…
[T]hese 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.
What is striking to me about such stories is not that merely that they occured — there are lots of similar oddities in the history of science and medicine — but that they appear to have been so strikingly commonplace.
|Monrava y Roca, Breve curso de nueva
cirurgia, (Lisbon, 1728). An interesting
engraving illustrating a physician’s
medicine chest containing “mumia.”
In my own research I’ve probably come across dozens of references to eating human remains at this point, and they’re all delivered in a matter-of-fact, almost laconic tone. It is interesting to reflect that this was precisely the era — the 16th through 18th centuries — when Europeans were virtually obsessed with the supposed cruelties of cannibalism in a New World that was thought to be ruled by Satan. It seems to me that Montaigne was (characteristically) alone in noting this irony, in his famously brilliant essay “On Cannibals”:
I am not sorry that we notice the barbarous horror of such acts [of cannibalism by indigenous Americans], but I am heartily sorry that, judging their faults rightly, we should be so blind to our own. I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead; and in tearing by tortures and the rack a body still full of feeling, in roasting a man bit by bit, in having him bitten and mangled by dogs and swine (as we have not only read but seen within fresh memory, not among ancient enemies, but among neighbors and fellow citizens, and what is worse, on the pretext of piety and religion), than in roasting and eating him after he is dead.
Even here, though, Montaigne was equating New World cannibalism with the inhumane cruelty of the French Wars of Religion — which involved extensive torture of civilians and atrocities like the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre — and not with the medicinal cannibalism that was going on all around him. Strangely, even the shrewd and gifted Montaigne seems to miss the obvious equivalences to be drawn between ritualistic cannibalism of the sort practiced in Mesoamerica and early modern European’s consumption of human bodies as part of their medical beliefs, which were intimately tied up with religious and astrological theories of the body.
In such discussions, the specificity of what medicinal cannibalism entailed often gets lost. So I wanted to close by transcribing some “recipes” for early modern medicinal drug preparations that include humans. The following is from a 1676 manuscript called “Viridiarum Regale” that I consulted at the Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. I’d like to thank the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science and the Rare Books staff at the Van Pelt for making this research possible. This manuscript is written in a combination of Latin and Italian, which I’ve translated sloppily. The anonymous author promises his reader a list of “simple remedies gathered from diverse and celebrated authorities,” but on page 591 we encounter a gruesome remedy that is anything but simple:
The regenerated mummy or microcosmic tincture:
Take the body of a mummy with its own form and substance, whether it be a discrete limb, or the entire body, and allow this to putrefy in conserve of violets for a month, so that it becomes a mutillagenous blood. Then strain the putrefied matter and conserve this material… From this ’embrionic’ mummy material you can separate a tincture.
The alchemist Oswald Crull’s Basilica chymica (1608) gets even more specific, and macabre:
Take the fresh corpse of a redhaired, uninjured, unblemished man, 24 years old and killed no more than one day before, preferably by hanging, breaking on the wheel or impaling… Leave it one day and one night in the light of the sun and the moon, then cut into strips. Sprinkle on a little powder of myrrh to prevent it from being too bitter. Steep in spirit of wine for several days. As the foulness of it causes an intolerable humidity in the stomach, it is a good idea to macerate the mummy with oil.
God knows how Croll expected his reader to successfully obtain a redhaired man of the exact age of 24 years who had died one day before. Imagining early modern physicians even attempting such a thing — let alone prescribing the bizarre “drug” of myrrh-coated human jerky that Croll’s recipe describes — is a bit mind-boggling for me. Indeed, I wonder to what degree these recipes actually were carried out in practice — were such elaborate descriptions of medicinal cannibalism more theoretical than practical?
The complex references to a “spiritual mummy” in the writings of Paracelsus, famously described in Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, seem to me to point to a widespread metaphorical use of “mummy” to refer not to actual human bodies but to a theory of how illness and cures operate on the body. On the other hand, it is hard to get around the material evidence from apothecary jars, and the resolutely specific and tactile descriptions of dismembering and consuming human bodies in texts like Crull and Viridiarum Regale.
As my friend Rachel Herrmann put it in her research into cannibalism and starvation in colonial Jamestown — in the early modern era, humans truly were “the other, other white meat.”
Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, 2011)
Louise Noble, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture (Pallgrave, 2011)
The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice on “corpse medicine in early modern England.”
Rachel Herrmann, “The “tragicall historie”: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown”
Karen Gordon-Grube, “Evidence of Medicinal Cannibalism in Puritan New England”