At one point in time, people believed that miasma, a poisonous gas let off by sewers or pits, was the cause of many diseases and that the four humors governed the ideas surrounding personal health and well being. There were also cure all’s composed of various familiar substances that might make a sufferer feel well again. In my neck of the woods, people carried small potatoes in their pockets to get rid of warts and put pebbles under their tongues that they’d found on the graves of pious men and women in hopes of curing rheumatism. Goose fat and scorched linen was used to “cure” many afflictions of the skin ranging from generally dry and itchy to scaly and rough, and stitching bible verses into the linings of children’s coats prevented a wide range of afflictions and created an aura of protection. It sounds batshit crazy, but there are people who still believe that some of the old “cures” used in isolated communities still work and those people still use them. However, something tells me that we’re no longer using ground up mummies to cure anything. It was called corpse medicine and it was absolutely a thing in the 16th and 17th centuries.
This is Humorous
There are four humors: Blood/Sanguine, Phlegm, Yellow Bile, and Black Bile and these four humors (according to Hippocrates) governed a large majority of early “medical” practices. Let’s take a peek at each individually, shall we?
Blood: Blood is found in veins and arteries (seems pretty normal, right?) and can also be referred to as Sanguine (Latin for to deal with blood.) Hippocrates believed that the liver was exclusively in charge of the blood making process within the body and that the amount of blood within a single individual could influence their complexion as well as their personality. Production of blood was linked to spring and summer and, as the seasons got warmer, the increasing heat brought blood to the surface of the skin producing sweat in an effort to cool off (likely why the blood humor is linked to heat and moisture.) If you had an excess of blood, it meant you were Sanguine and your personality would be jovial or charismatic. It could also mean that you were big into day dreaming and sociable toward others. Sanguine personalities often had red complexions, further leading *”physicians” of the time to believe that their evaluation of Sanguine individuals was correct. Bleeding was the general cure for too much of this humor.
*Please note that I’ve put the term “physician” within quotation marks. During this time, anyone could be a physician on a whim. There were “good physicians,” but nobody really had a clue as to the inner workings of the human body. Anyone could wake up one morning and decide to start treating patients. If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will. Moving right along…
Phlegm: You’ve likely become familiar with this humor while hacking up a lung during cold and flu season. Way back when, phlegm was associated with winter and cold weather. Makes sense. While it was cold and damp outside, people had a tendency to get sick and, of course, the phlegm itself was considered the cause of the illness (not a byproduct.) The treatment would be to avoid cold foods and liquids. If you’re sick, you don’t really have that get up and go, which is likely why people who were categorized as Phlegmatic were quiet and sluggish. The brain and lungs were said to produce this humor.
Black Bile: It just doesn’t exist within the human body. It is likely that clotted blood was mistaken for black bile and was categorized as such. It was believed that Black Bile was produced by the gall bladder and diseases of “fear and despondency.” This was later called melancholia (melancholy,) meaning sad. Black bile is associated with the earth and the season of autumn.
Yellow Bile: If you’ve ever gone a while without eating to the point of being physically sick, you’ve likely met this humor. Yellow Bile was associated with aggression and the element of fire. That makes sense because vomiting stomach acid can be very uncomfortable.
When treatments for certain ailments failed to produce a desired result or a cure, new methods of treatment were explored. Here’s where shit gets weird.
Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with the four humors, let’s look a little closer at the practice of corpse medicine. Now, corpse medicine is not about providing medicinal aid to corpses (because that would be silly.) “Here, Uncle Bob, take this cough syrup and bundle up before you catch cold!” I wish I could say that it’s not what it sounds like, but it’s absolutely what it sounds like. This one quacks like a duck…
Just imagine going to see your chosen “physician” to get treated for a severe case of gout. It is likely that you’d be prescribed a small tincture of powder. That powder would be the ground up remains of an Egyptian mummy.
Seriously. A mummy. I’m not kidding.
You could mix the powder with water or in alcohol (if you could afford such a luxury) and drink it down or add just enough water to make a paste and rub it on the affected area. People might even bake it into bread or stir it into whatever they were eating.
Mummies were stolen from their tombs, Irish burial sites were raided and, in an effort to provide a “cure” for what ailed ‘ya, some people even created a powder on their own in order to make a fast buck. It was probably just ground up bones and a little dirt, but the placebo effect was good enough for most people.
Eventually, the world of corpse medicine began to expand to other human remains. Let’s be honest, there aren’t that many mummies in the world and there certainly wasn’t enough supply for the demand. Grave diggers were employed by those willing to pay for corpses that had been recently buried. Now, when you went to see the “doc” for your gout treatment, you were likely prescribed fat from a human body. You’d be told to slather the fat onto the affected area and then wrap it. I wish I was making this up. Even the King himself (King Charles II) embraced corpse medicine as a way to treat what ailed him. Daily, he would take The King’s Drops, a small tincture that he carried on his person at all times consisting of ground human skull muddled into alcohol.
Perhaps the King could afford corpse medicine, but what about the lowly peasants? Basically, they had to fend for themselves. At public executions, the crowds would gather as close to the front as possible on the off chance that they might be hit with a spurt of blood at a beheading and dip handkerchiefs in the blood that pooled onto the scaffold. Just when you thought there was no possible way to make a beheading more gruesome. Some people paid a small amount for a cup of blood that they could then consume (apparently it was better/more effective warm.) For those who preferred to have their blood cooked, a recipe from a Franciscan apothecary in 1679 described how to make it into a marmalade.
Another reason why corpse medicine was so popular was because consuming the remains of another human being was said to be akin to absorbing that persons essence into yourself. If you consumed the blood of a robust young man or of a virginal young woman, that blood was said to have been especially potent.
According to Beth A. Conklin, a cultural and medical anthropologist at Vanderbilt University who has studied and written about cannibalism in the Americas,
“Even at corpse medicine’s peak, two groups were demonized for related behaviors that were considered savage and cannibalistic. One was Catholics, whom Protestants condemned for their belief in transubstantiation, that is, that the bread and wine taken during Holy Communion were, through God’s power, changed into the body and blood of Christ. The other group was Native Americans; negative stereotypes about them were justified by the suggestion that these groups practiced cannibalism. “It looks like sheer hypocrisy,” says Conklin. People of the time knew that corpse medicine was made from human remains, but through some mental transubstantiation of their own, those consumers refused to see the cannibalistic implications of their own practices.
Conklin finds a distinct difference between European corpse medicine and the New World cannibalism she has studied. “The one thing that we know is that almost all non-Western cannibal practice is deeply social in the sense that the relationship between the eater and the one who is eaten matters. In the European process, this was largely erased and made irrelevant. Human beings were reduced to simple biological matter equivalent to any other kind of commodity medicine.”
I know corpse medicine sounds crazy, but it actually kind of (stay with me here) made sense. In the 16th and 17th centuries, they weren’t even sure how blood was being circulated throughout the body, let alone what all of the organs inside the body were responsible for. Back then, this form of medicinal treatment made sense because the cure was applied to the afflicted body part. Have a headache? Maybe rub some of this on your head. Stomach upset? Drink a bottle of this. Have rough skin? Rub some of this on it. The cure and the affliction went hand in hand and, until we figured out a little more about the complicated machine that is the human body, that was all we had to go on.
According to Leonardo da Vinci, “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.”
Seems legit, Leo. Seems legit.
Your Fellow Haunt Head,
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