Louise Noble, an English lecturer in Australia, wondered why “mummy” was used in a John Donne poem and discovered: “that word [mummy] recurs throughout the literature of early modern Europe…,” reveals Maria Dolan in a recent Smithsonian article, “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine.” But why? The discovery that informed Noble, “…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.”
Dolan observes who participated and what human ingredients were most coveted by our European ancestors:
“…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…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.”
“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..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.'”
It’s not lost on Dolan with human organ trafficking, we may not be as removed as popularly thought from the sick and poor, who waited for some fresh blood after an execution? Noble sees a disturbing similarity to our past, “‘it’s that idea that once a body is dead you can do what you want with it.’”
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