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Health and Medicinemedicine

Corpse Medicine: When People Used To Eat Human Blood, Fat, and Mummies

The practice fell out of fashion the late 1700s.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockJul 29 2022, 10:55 UTC
A mummy lying on its back.
The original yummy mummy. Image credit: Andrea Izzotti/shutterstock.com

Eating corpses to gain their powers (or, at least, to heal ailments) has fallen out of fashion in recent years, but at its heyday you could find everyone from peasants to King Charles II chomping down on the deceased, for no medical benefit whatsoever.*

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The practice of eating blood as medicine – in Europe at least – may have begun with the Romans drinking the blood of gladiators to gain their strength (as well as to cure epilepsy). The fact that this does not cure epilepsy, and is what's medically known as "gross", demonstrates how medicine was not big into evidence-based practice back then. Drinking blood as a cure for epilepsy continued at least into 17th Century.

Physician Edward Browne described several executions carried out for treason, in which victims were beheaded while sitting in a chair.

"Another person also executed after the same manner; as soon as his Head fell to the ground, while the Body was in the Chair, a man ran speedily with a Pot in his hand, and filling it with the Blood yet spouting out of his Neck, he presently drank it off, and ran away," Browne wrote in 1677, "and this he did as a Remedy against the Falling Sickness."

By the end of the 17th Century, one Franciscan monk had started turning blood into a sort of meaty marmalade.

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That's all very vampyric, but what of eating the forbidden meat, you ask, probably while licking your lips? Ok there Hannibal, settle down. In Europe, it briefly became a thing to eat body parts – particularly the skull, ground up – as well as mummies.

Mummy was more prized for healing than cheaper meats which hadn't been preserved for thousands of years.

"We have two different substances preserved for medicinal use under the name of mummy, though both in some degree of the same origin," physician John Hill wrote in 1751

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"One is the dry'd and reserv'd flesh of human bodies, embalm'd with myrrh and spices; the other is the liquor running from such mummies, when newly prepar'd, or when affected by great heat or by damps: This latter sometimes forms in a liquid, sometimes in a solid form, as it is preserved in vials [or] suffered to dry and harden in the air."

Unfortunately, getting your hands on quality mummy was an issue.

"What our druggists are supplied with is the flesh of executed criminals," Hill wrote, adding that they would use any bodies that they could get, before taking them to be "baked in an oven till the juices are exhaled, and the embalming matter has penetrated so thoroughly, that the flesh will keep, and bear transporting to Europe."

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He adds in the same chapter, almost as a side note, that druggists kept vast quantities of human fat in order to treat rheumatism. 

Before it fell out of fashion in the late 1700s, chowing down on people burgers (or, at least, crushed up skull, fat, and mummies) wasn't just fringe medicine, but the big guns you bring out when the king is on his deathbed. King Charles II of England went through this, as he lay waiting to die, having "spirit of skull" forced down his throat by his attending physicians. 

The practice, thankfully, did fall out of fashion before scientific testing took place, and trial participants had to sit there wondering whether they were being given placebo mummy.

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*You could argue that people may have gotten a placebo effect from the corpses. Well, congratulations, you just defended feasting on the flesh of the dead.

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.


Health and Medicinemedicine
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