In our culture, we have a deeply ingrained aversion against ingesting other people’s bodies and bodily substances. Or don’t we? It seems a bit random, as exchanges of certain bodily fluids between partners are generally accepted as long as it happens in private, as are blood and organ donations. Yet the idea of ingesting (preparations of) human flesh, bones, blood, hair, nails, urine, and other excrements evokes associations with cannibalism, which is a big taboo. However, historically speaking, this aversion is fairly recent and the practical uses of death human bodies were quite varied.
For example, as my colleague Lindsey Fitzharris pointed out on her brilliant blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice earlier this year, anthropodermic bibliopegy, or book covers made of human skin were quite mainstream items once, particularly around the French revolution. And it didn’t stop at book covers: up until the eighteenth century, human remains were regularly used in drugs. Richard Sugg wrote a fascinating book about this, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires. The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, London 2011). Sugg’s work is based mainly on English-language sources, but ‘corpse medicine’ was a phenomenon through all of Europe, and the Low Countries were no exception.
Tim Huisman in his 2009 book on the Leiden anatomical theatre, The Finger of God (Primavera Press, p.50), mentioned that Otto Heurnius (1577-1652), the keeper of the anatomical theatre, was particularly pleased when he obtained an Egyptian mummie in 1620. Not just because it was such a great showpiece, but also because the mummified
human flesh was thought to have great healing qualities – even better than human flesh from Tenerife, Napels or the African desert. According to Heurnius, this was due to the specific mix of spices used in the embalming process.
So I was not entirely surprised this week when I found various recipes listing human bodily tissue in the Collectanea chymica Leidensia (1684, various reprints), a book consisting of drug recipes by Leiden University chemistry professors compiled by an English student. Cadavers, mummie, embryos and human blood are all listed as simplica (base ingredients), apparently without causing any controversy.
The recipe for preparing ‘mummie’ on page 317 in the 1693 edition calls for the flesh of a human who died a violent death (“Carnis hominis, violenta morte perempti”) and the resulting preparation was apparently very helpful in internal lesions, hemorrhaged lungs and ‘marasmo’ or loss of strength, to name a few ailments. Strange as it may sound to us now, the idea was probably that a person who died a violent dead was most likely not very calm at the time of his death, and that this excitement could be preserved in his flesh and subsequently transferred successfully to the body of the patient, where it would have a healing and invigorating effect.
A morbidly fascinating topic, yet the pressing question that is raised by the ubiquitous seventeenth-century drug recipes involving human bodily material is of course: where did it all come from? Obviously there weren’t enough Egyptian mummies around, as the recipe quoted above describes making ‘mummie’ out of the flesh of any person who died a violent death. Sugg suggests convicted criminals, which is a realistic possibility, because they were also used for anatomical demonstrations. However, those were scarce too, and although it is not clear how often human-based drugs were prescribed, it is possible that material was sometimes delivered on demand…