Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?


Why Did Seventeenth-Century Europeans Eat Mummies?

via: Res Obscura

In a previous post, I touched on the phenomenon of “cannibal medicine” in early modern Europe. It turns out that it was surprisingly common for medical patients in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to be prescribed drugs that contained human remains. These included everything from powdered human skull to more byzantine preparations like Oswald Croll’s infamous 1608 remedy which invites the reader to “take the fresh corpse of a redhaired, uninjured, unblemished man,” and “leave it one day and one night in the light of the sun and the moon, then cut into strips.”

Although historians like Richard Sugg have already written perceptively about medical cannibalism, the special role played by mummies in this story has always seemed intriguing and rather under explored to me. I spoke a bit about this at Yale’s History of Medicine colloquium last month, and thought I’d adapt some of my thoughts into a post.

mummies circle res

First off, it’s worth stressing that, historically speaking, there is nothing particularly bizarre about eating people. Perusing one of my favorite early modern drug manuals, John Jacob Berlu’s The Treasury of Drugs Unlock’d (London, 1690) makes it plain that a certain form of cannibalism was widely tolerated in Europe. Berlu’s guide to drugs is not at all exotic or show off-y – on the contrary, it’s a practical handbook aimed at working drugs merchants who needed to know basic facts about the wares they sold. Most of its entries involve relatively prosaic substances like tamarind, sassafras, cinnamon and elk antlers. But there are a few entries, like the one for “Cranium Humanum” shown below, which stand out to a modern eye:


Remember, this is a practical guide to consumable drugs. There’s no trace of Swiftian satire or exoticizing hyperbole here. Berlu really does appear to be recommending, in a matter-of-fact way, that drug merchants should rove Ireland looking for moss-covered criminal’s skulls, then sell them to apothecaries so they can be ground into powder and drunk by sick English people.
Thus it shouldn’t necessarily surprise us to find Egyptian mummies also appearing in lists of popular drugs and medical guides in the seventeenth century. As I mentioned in a previous post, Pierre Pomet, the apothecary of King Louis XIV, wrote extensively about the medical virtues of la mumie, even commissioning a detailed and not exactly accurate engraving of how he imagined mummies were prepared for burial:
Read The Rest Of This Interesting Feature HERE! Thank You Res Obscura for sharing this with us!
Written By

Sentient 51423

You May Also Like


Before I speak on this BBC Panorama documentary that aired in 2023, I need to explain my bias. Depression runs in my family. I...


Text: Jim Dyer via San Jose Mercury News By the summer of 1939, 12-year-old Mary Korlaske was stuttering so badly that she thought it...


On a Wednesday afternoon in November 1970, social workers at the Los Angeles County Welfare Offices sat at their desks processing mountains of paperwork,...


The best way to understand where we are in this moment is to look at our past. There’s been so much effort put into...

Copyright © 2020 CVLT Nation.