People have resorted to cannibalism for a variety of reasons, many of which may defy human understanding. Whether an act of cannibalism was carried out for sustenance in a dire situation, as part of a ritual of some kind, or in a violent and criminal act, the consumption of human flesh by another human isn't something most people find out about without some sort of visceral reaction.
Stories about cannibalism during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are no exception. During the medieval and Renaissance periods, accounts of cannibalism come down from different sources with a hefty dose of bias. None of that makes the information less shocking and disturbing to read. Do you agree?
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Peter Niers And Peter Stumpp Ate The Hearts Of Fetuses Cut From Pregnant Women
Considered one of the deadliest serial killers of the 16th century, Peter Niers was a German bandit who was said to have eaten fetuses as part of his demonic behavior. Niers confessed to 75 murders under torture in 1577. He escaped, but was recaptured and executed in 1581.
It's believed that Niers killed as many as 544 people total, including 24 pregnant women. One of Niers's associates, Martin Stier, reportedly ate the heart of a male fetus as well.
A contemporary of Niers was Peeter Stubbe (Peter Stumpp), also called the “Werewolf of Bedburg." Also an admitted murderer, he took the lives of others while donning a wolf's fur he reportedly received from the devil when he was a child.
Panting hot and raw, which he accounted dainty morsels and best agreeing to his appetite.
Stubbe wasn't the only alleged werewolf said to have killed and eaten children. Additional accused werewolf cannibals include Michel Verdun and Pierre Burgot, both of whom were active in eastern France during the early 1500s.
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At The Siege Of Suiyang, As Many As 30,000 People Were Eaten
It's not a widely known battle in much of the Western world, but the Siege of Suiyang involved the Tang Dynasty in China and the army of the An Lushan rebellion. The rebellion began in 755 CE and, two years later, Chinese forces led by Zhang Xun and Xu Yuan (roughly 7,000 men initially) defended Suiyang against an opposing army that numbered over 100,000.
Reinforcements later arrived to aid both sides, but casualties inside the city were steep. The siege began in January and, by August, people inside the city were eating women, elderly men, and children to survive. Food was gone by October.
Rebels who breached the city walls claim only about 400 of the 20,000 civilians who had been in Suiyang were still alive.
When Suiyang fell, Zhang Xun was put to death. Resorting to cannibalism was thought to be his order. He even ordered his concubine to be the first eaten. It's not clear exactly how many people were consumed, but the dead numbered approximately 30,000 men, women, and children.
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Legendarily, Sawney Bean was the leader of a band of cannibals in Scotland who was active as early as the 1400s. The earliest sources that include information about Bean date to the 1770s, however, making it difficult to identify exactly when Bean lived - if at all.
A tanner from East Lothian by trade, Bean married and moved to a remote cave. Once there, Bean and his wife sustained themselves living off the land. When travelers happened by, Bean robbed and murdered them. He soon realized he could get rid of the evidence and consume protein all in one fell swoop by butchering and eating the bodies.
Bean and his wife had 14 children, all of whom were said to have been trained in murder. They were also raised on human flesh.
Bean's family of cannibal killers was undone when one of their would-be victims escaped and told authorities about the encounter. A band of men sent after the Beans was reportedly terrified when they found body parts curing and being cooked when they arrived.
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The Heretical Waldensians Were Burned By The Catholic Church For Cannibalism, Among Other Evil Acts
Waldensians were the followers of Peter Waldo, a late 12th-century preacher who advocated for poverty as a means to salvation. Deemed heretical in 1215, Waldo and his followers were considered outside of Christian teachings because they failed to accept episcopal authority.
As heretics, Waldensians were necessarily portrayed in Christian sources as heathens and criminals. Accusations of cannibalism accompanied claims that Waldensians were sexual deviants and guilty of infanticide.
By the mid-17th century, a massive persecution of Waldensians was led by zealous Catholic leader Charles Emmanuel II, the Duke of Savoy, who sent troops (led by the Marquis de Pianezza with the approval of the Papacy) to kill them. A Waldensian preacher, John Leger, described what has been called the Piedmontese Massacre:
Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, clasped by their tiny feet, and their heads dashed against the rocks... Their mangled bodies were then thrown on the highways or fields, to be devoured by beasts. The sick and the aged were burned alive in their dwellings. Some had their hands and arms and legs lopped off... Some were flayed alive, some were roasted alive, some disemboweled... Some were fastened down into the furrows of their own fields, and ploughed into the soil as men plough manure into it. Others were buried alive...
The contemporary poet John Milton also wrote about the atrocities in his sonnet, “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.”
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During The First Crusade, Christians Were Said To Have Eaten Muslims At Ma'arra To Survive
When crusaders arrived at Ma'arra in modern-day Syria in 1098 CE, it was after a lengthy siege of Antioch earlier that year. As winter approached and supplies dwindled, the crusaders began to siege the city in November. Inhabitants of the Ma'arra initially held off crusading forces, but the city fell in mid-December.
Once crusaders slaughtered residents (despite an agreement that granted them safe passage) and pillaged Ma'arra, many troops continued on to Jerusalem. Those who stayed in Ma'arra, according to sources, were so devoid of food that they resorted to eating the bodies of dead Muslims.
Radulph of Caen wrote about the alleged cannibalism in his chronicle:
they were compelled by want of food, to have passed over to eat human flesh… to have immersed the adults in the cacob of the heathen [boiled them], to have pierced the children with thorns [roasted them on spits], and to have devoured the burnt ones.
Another medieval writer, Fulcher of Chartes, included this in his account,
When the siege had lasted twenty days, our people suffered excessive hunger. I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut the pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth. So the besiegers rather than the besieged were tormented.
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Hans Staden wasn't the first European to talk about cannibals in South America (or the last), but his account was widely published, as opposed to Amerigo Vespucci's letters written around 1500, for example
Staden arrived in South America during the mid-16th century and served as a gunner at a Portuguese port. During his time there, Staden was taken captive by the Tupinamba people in modern-day Brazil. The German soldier only survived captivity, by his account, because he ingratiated himself with the Tupinamba ruler.
In his writings about the Tupinamba, he relays information about their customs - including what Staden considered a cannibalism ritual. Over the course of 10 months (Studen was later released to the French), he witnessed women carry a body to a fire:
…where they scrape off the skin… and stopping up the fundament with a piece of wood so that nothing may be lost. Then a man cuts up the body… whereupon the four women seize the four limbs and run with them around the hut, making a joyful cry. After this, they divide the trunk among themselves and devour everything that can be eaten.
Staden relayed these types of behaviors as part of Tupinamba warfare, but indicated “they are impelled by no other passion than that of avenging, each for his side, his own kinsman and friends who in the past have been seized and eaten.”
As explained by author Eve M. Duffy, the cycle of taking and eating one's enemy was about vengeance and remembrance alike.