Literary resonances of the ‘corpse cure’ revealed

Published 20 May 2011

louiseLouise Noble, who has just published a book on the cultural context of “medicinal cannibalism” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, draws important parallels between the trade in human bodies to make medicines during that period and today’s global traffic in body parts.

By “medicinal cannibalism” she means the eating or drinking of medicines containing derivatives of human body parts or excretions.

“As is the case in today’s medical economy, the fragmented human body was a crucial commodity in the business of health in early modern England,” she says in the book, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture.

Dr Noble (pictured here), a lecturer in English at the University of New England, conducted extensive research on the subject in overseas libraries, including the British Library, the Wellcome Library and Cambridge University Library in England, and the Huntington Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library in the United States.

Medicinal Cannibalism outlines the use of “mummy” (a contemporary term for medicinal matter derived from a corpse) in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, and explores the imaginative resonance of this medical practice in some major works of English literature of the period. These works include several of Shakespeare’s plays, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and Donne’s Devotions.

“Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pharmacopoeias abound in references to ‘mummy’,” Dr Noble writes in the Introduction to the book. “The term identifies matter procured from both ancient embalmed bodies imported from the Middle East for the purpose, and local bodies – frequently the bodies of executed criminals sentenced to be anatomised and the bodies of those who were socially disenfranchised.” As well as ‘mummy’ itself, medicines included preparations of human urine, faeces, blood, fat and bone.

“A central tenet of this corpse pharmacology,” she explains, “is the perception that the human body contains a mysterious healing power that is transmitted in ingested matter such as ‘mummy’.” The literary imagery inspired by the consumption of human flesh in the pursuit of health – both physical and spiritual – extends as far as the sacrament of the Eucharist itself.

Dr Noble argues  that “what happens to bodies in today’s medical market is one moment – albeit a highly organised and sophisticated one – in a long historical continuum in which the human body and its products are exchanged and distributed in a complex medical economy”. And the fact that “mummy” was still being offered for sale by German pharmaceutical companies as late as 1912 is an illustration of this “continuum”.

Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of their “Early Modern Cultural Studies” series, has been accepted for review in the London Review of Books.