Corpses. For most people, they're synonymous with illness, decrepitude, and either baroquely romanticized or grimly un-romanticized ruin. But for the cultural elite of the 16th and 17th centuries, corpse medicine – and Victorian mummy parties – were all the rage. Is eating humans healthy? According to England's King Charles II (who drank a special kind of booze fermented in human skulls), the answer was certainly yes. Many European doctors of the era, not content with the mere practice of eating honey mummies, ground them into a kind of topical "powdered bandage," which was supposed to staunch bleeding. And that's nothing compared to what certain sanguine 16th-century peasants did in the aftermath of public executions. Read on to find out more about medieval corpse medicine, Victorian corpse medicine, and the uses (and misuses) of dead bodies throughout history.
As you read, you might ask yourself: Does this count as justified cannibalism? Before you answer yourself, remember this: blood transfusions, eating placentas, and organ transplants are all, technically, contemporary examples of corpse medicine.
Many think of scrapple – or even its more upscale cousin, pâté – as being a little too harrowing to eat, given that they're made of organs and meat parts and then formed into a loaf-style solid, but both pale in comparison to some of the remedies espoused by 17th-century French physicians. According to Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: the History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, to treat something like epilepsy, for example, a tincture of "hardened" human flesh... cut into small, four-ounce pieces, steeped in wine, and then set in "a large vessel of horse dung" was the perfect recipe. But there's one catch – in order for the tincture to be really strong, it had to be made from "the flesh of a young man who hath died a violent death, together with the membranes, arteries, veins, nerves, and all the pith of the back." The idea was to combine the strength of a horse with the strength of a gladiator, so never mind having a weak stomach.
The whole thing may or may not have started in 1492, when a stricken Pope Innocent VIII was fed the blood of "three young Shepard boys," and all three parties perished.
After that – failed experiments notwithstanding – blood marmalade seemed to become a monastery specialty, of sorts. A 1679 recipe from a Franciscan apothecary says to:
"let [the blood] dry into a sticky mess [and then] place it upon a flat, smooth table of soft wood, and cut it into little slices, allowing its watery part to drip away. When it is no longer dripping, place it on a stove 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 been sieved, seal it in a glass jar. Renew it in the spring of every year."
Winter as the season of death vs Spring as the season of renewal? Maybe not so much.
Honey's health benefits have been well-established, but for practitioners of ancient Arabian and Chinese medicine, the sweet substance (when steeped in corpses, that is) was practically an antidote to death itself. However, unlike the corpse-to-soul transition, the conversion process didn't begin at the point of death. As the Smithsonian explains it,
"Certain altruistic volunteers, usually aged holy men from Arabia, sacrificed themselves by ingesting nothing but honey until they sweated honey, shat honey, bled honey: Until they died. Their sugar-crystallized bodies were then immersed in huge jars of honey for a century. The end result: human rock candy—'mellified man'—a miraculous remedy for broken bones."
So much for rock candy being bad for one's teeth.
Forget living off the fat of the land: the fat of corpses may be more reliable. According to the Smithsonian, human fat – preferably harvested from corpses – is a salve everybody should have in their medicine cabinet. After all, "human remains were considered potent because they were thought to contain the spirit of the body from which they were taken" – and what is fat but the distillation of human remains? Therefore, lard taken from (once) robust persons was routinely used:
"to treat the outside of the body. German doctors, for instance, prescribed bandages soaked in it for wounds, and rubbing fat into the skin was considered a remedy for gout."