The Uncomfortably Common Practice of Medicinal Cannibalism

Would you eat the flesh of a dead person to cure the flu? Ill individuals are often willing to look anything for a cure, and the practice of medicinal cannibalism was quite popular in England for several centuries.

But how exactly did sick people get hold of human flesh? And what types of corpses were especially good for you?

The Uncomfortably Common Practice of Medicinal Cannibalism

Importing mummies
The practice of medicinal cannibalism (also called iatric cannibalism) is a bizarre belief from early European culture. The belief held that the consumption of mummified bodies, or other parts of the deceased, cured ailments in the living.

Medicinal cannibalism became a part of mainstream medicine, with 18th Century English physician Robert James's Pharmacopoeia Universalis citing that the flesh of a mummy resolves blood clots, coughs, menstrual problems, and speeds the healing of wounds.

Accepted cannibalism led to a booming industry, as exporters raided tombs in Egypt beginning in the 11th Century to sell across Europe. As the supply of mummified remains became scarce in the 1600s, physicians looked to the recently deceased for specimens. Corpses of strong men and women held higher demand, as their "strong" flesh would overcome the sick and weak flesh of the living. By curing the bodies of "strong" men akin to a ham or making "mellified man" by dipping corpses in a mixture of honey and herbs, physicians of the day created additional human flesh for medical consumption.

The Uncomfortably Common Practice of Medicinal Cannibalism

A drink made of distilled human skulls

Charles II of England paid a small fortune for recipe to make a tincture from human skull. Deemed "The King's Drops", Charles II made use of the resulting alcohol mixture frequently, often sipping on the liquid after making it in his personal laboratory.

Skulls acquired for use in "The King's Drops" came from Ireland via clandestine gravediggers.

Come to a beheading, get healed
Epileptics jostled for position at the front of a crowd during beheadings, with the epileptics believing contact with the oncoming spurts of blood would cure their malady. Sick people also consumed menstrual blood, when available.

Placing considerable faith in the curative powers of blood, a desperate Pope Innocent VIII consumed the blood of three young boys while on his deathbed.

People of the era viewed consumption of blood and fat as a rather simple cure, with the blood of Charles I wiped up on dish rags after his beheading and passed on to the ill. In another application, individuals with rashes or open wounds rubbed the fat of the deceased on their skin to hasten healing.

While the practice of medicinal cannibalism faded away in the early 1800s, the tradition is not dead. In a substantially less morbid turn, a handful of 21st Century mothers and fathers prepare and consume the placenta of their newborns, continuing a practice that puts faith in the curative properties of human flesh.

The top image is a painting depicting the execution of Robespierre, a painting currently held in the French National Library/PD. Image from InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr is of a mummified corpse from Egypt held at the British Museum. Image of Pharmacopoeia Universalis is within the public domain. The book Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, is an amazing resource for more insight into practice of medical cannibalism. Sources linked within the article.