Physicke from Another Body

Michael Neill

  • Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture by Louise Noble
    Palgrave Macmillan, 241 pp, £52.00, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 230 11027 4
  • Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians by Richard Sugg
    Routledge, 374 pp, £24.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 415 67417 1

The 17th-century church of St Michan’s in Dublin is a dull enough building, known for the curious human remains preserved in the exceptional dryness of its ancient crypt. When I was taken to see the celebrated ‘St Michan’s mummies’, 60 years ago, I already knew of the church from M.R. James, whose tales of supernatural terror entirely possessed my nine-year-old imagination. We entered the crypt, and it was as though my schoolfellows and I had stumbled into the pages of ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ or another of the horrid inventions in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Led past stacks of disintegrating coffins, from which skulls and yellowing bones spilled across the dusty floor, we were introduced to the crypt’s principal attraction: the strangely preserved corpse of the so-called Crusader – a gigantic figure whose piously crossed legs had been broken to fit them into his narrow sarcophagus. The leathery cadaver was propped in a sitting position, so that visitors could shake his carefully extended right hand, its taut skin burnished to a nicotine-coloured gloss. The sacristan, with ghoulish satisfaction, informed us that this hand was so worn from years of morbid greeting that it would soon have to be replaced. Noticing that he did not say from whence the substitute might be obtained, we instinctively clenched our fists and thrust them as deep into our pockets as they would go. Satisfied with the effect, the old man moved on to the climax of his gothic routine: ‘Now, boys,’ he announced in his adenoidal Dublin brogue, ‘you might have noticed the very large number of cobwebs decorating the coffins down here – they are made by a most unusual race of spiders, creatures peculiar to this crypt. There’s nothing at all in these dark passageways for them to eat – so it has been generally concluded that they must be a breed of CANNIBAL SPIDERS!’ We trembled.

A hundred years earlier, Bram Stoker must have been subjected to a similarly unsettling encounter, for it was from his childhood recollection of St Michan’s that Dracula seems to have grown (the vampire-hunters enter a mouldering vault stacked with coffins, its walls ‘fluffy and heavy with dust, and in the corners … masses of spiders’ webs’). Stoker’s fantasy that the bodies of the dead might be magically restored to life by the ingestion of fresh human blood was also nourished, paradoxically enough, by his interest in medical science. In Dracula, the doyen of vampire lore, Professor Van Helsing, is a scientifically curious physician who studies the ancient medical texts housed in the library of the British Museum. It was in such tomes that Stoker himself would have learned of the bizarre practice of which Count Dracula’s sanguinary self-medication is a grand guignol variant – the systematic consumption of human tissue for therapeutic purposes. ‘The old physicians,’ Van Helsing’s colleague Dr Seward tells us darkly, ‘took account of things which their followers do not accept, and the professor is searching for witch and demon cures which may be useful to us later’.

It is to the investigation of such demonic remedies that the groundbreaking work of Louise Noble and Richard Sugg is devoted. The belief that a wide range of maladies could be cured by the consumption of human remains – principally in the form of so-called ‘mummy’ – persisted in Europe for at least six centuries. Although the administration of such ‘cannibal mixtures’ was sometimes criticised – the author of one anonymous 17th-century manuscript called it ‘dismal vampirism’ – the virtues of ‘mummy’ or ‘mumia’ were proclaimed in standard pharmacopoeia and extensively promoted by physicians, apothecaries and barber-surgeons throughout the Christian West. Imported from the Middle East, the drug originally consisted of a mixture of pitch and asphalt, materials traditionally used in the mummification of dead bodies, but by the 12th century mumia had come to refer to the processed remains of Egyptian mummies themselves. The miraculous preservation of these ancient corpses was attributed to the operation of a life-force whose curative properties could be transmitted to a patient through ingestion. Such notions were encouraged by the influential writings of the second-century Greek physician Galen, the father of early modern medicine, and were particularly favoured by the followers of the 16th-century Swiss medical practitioner and natural philosopher Paracelsus, who advocated the use of mummy as a sovereign remedy for numerous afflictions.

The drug was sometimes associated with the dark arts, as it is in Macbeth, where ‘Witch’s mummy’ is among the ingredients of a concoction so powerful that it can raise Banquo from his grave; but its advocates included some of the most distinguished physicians and scientists of the 16th and 17th centuries – prominent among them Queen Elizabeth’s surgeon, John Banister, as well as Francis Bacon, Sir Kenelm Digby and Robert Boyle. Mummy continued to be dispensed well into the 18th century, when Robert James’s Pharmacopeia Universalis (1747) advised:

Mummy resolves coagulated Blood, and is said to be effectual in purging the Head, against pungent Pains of the Spleen, a Cough, Inflation of the body, Obstruction of the Menses and other uterine Affections: Outwardly it is of Service for consolidating Wounds. The Skin is recommended in difficult Labours, and hysteric Affections, and for a Withering and Contraction of the Joints. The Fat strengthens, discusses, eases pains, cures Contractions, mollifies the Hardness of Cicatrices, and fills up the pits left by the Measles. The Bones dried, discuss, astringe, stop all Sorts of Fluxes, and are therefore useful in a Catarrh, Flux of the Menses, Dysentery, and Lientery, and mitigate Pains in the Joints. The Marrow is highly commended for Contractions of the Limbs. The Cranium is found by Experience to be good for Diseases of the Head, and particularly for the Epilepsy; for which Reason, it is an Ingredient in several anti-epileptic Compositions. The Os triquerum, or triangular Bone of the Temple, is commended as a specific Remedy for the Epilepsy. The Heart also cures the same Distemper.

Its efficacy as a treatment for epilepsy was particularly insisted on; and Shakespeare’s own son-in-law, the physician John Hall, records its use in a ‘fume’ to be inhaled at the onset of a fit. No wonder, then, that in Othello Desdemona seeks to bind her epileptic husband’s head with a handkerchief that, we later learn, was ‘dyed in mummy’ by the Egyptian sorceress who sewed it.

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