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.

The remedy was in such request that Sir Thomas Browne was driven to complain that ‘Mummie is become Merchandise. Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsoms.’ Given its astonishing range of supposed benefits, it is hardly surprising that, by the middle of the 16th century, demand for this exotic import far exceeded supply and its proponents began to look for sources closer to home. There was a ready supply of human remains in the corpses of condemned criminals, which – after serving as objects of demonstration for the new science of anatomy – could be turned over to an apothecary for processing into mummy. The French physician Ambroise Paré described a warehouse containing ‘a large pile of bodies’ whose owner, a merchant, claimed to have processed up to 40 corpses in only four years: ‘The bodies, now mumia, had been those of slaves and other dead persons, young and old, male and female, which he had indiscriminately collected.’ In 1546 the German physician Leonhard Fuchs still regarded this new form of mummy as disreputable, complaining of ‘the gory matter of cadavers received evidently from the gallows or from the torture wheel, spotted with the faeces of corpses in place of aloes and myrrh’; but enterprising practitioners, drawing on the Paracelsian notion that recently deceased bodies must contain more of the mysterious life-force than the desiccated cadavers of the ancients, emphasised the special vigour to be extracted from the remains of young men killed in the prime of life. In a text translated into English in 1670 (but dating from 1609), Oswald Croll offered advice on the most suitable candidates for pharmaceutical extraction: ‘Chuse the Carcase of a red [i.e. red-haired] Man, because in them the blood is more sincere and gentle and therefore more excellent, whole (not maimed), clear without blemishes, of the age of twenty-four years, that hath been Hanged, Broke upon a Wheel, or Thrust-through, having been for one day and night exposed to the open Air, in a serene time.’ Other authorities ascribed particular virtue to the bodies of pure young women: according to the early 17th-century physician Pietro della Valle, the best mummy was to be derived ‘from the maidens and the bodies of virgins’ – a view still held by Jean Baptiste de Roquefort in 1824, and one that helps to explain the magical aura surrounding Desdemona’s handkerchief. The peculiar vigour of youthful blood is remembered in Dracula, when Arthur Holmwood agrees with Dr Seward that the latter should offer a transfusion of his own blood to the ailing Lucy, ‘as he is the more young and strong’.

Othello is far from the only play or poem of the period to contain references to mummy. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff fears being transformed into a ‘mountain of mummy’; women in Donne’s ‘Love’s Alchemy’ are dismissed as ‘mummy, possessed’; Jonson’s Mosca proposes selling the aged Corbaccio ‘for mummia’, observing that ‘he’s half dust already’, while Volpone himself lists human fat among the ingredients of his wonder-working oglio del Scoto; in Webster’s White Devil, Isabella dreams of preserving the flesh of her rival, Vittoria, ‘like mummia’, while in The Duchess of Malfi, Bosola imagines the body of the woman he has come to kill as no better than ‘a salvatory’ (or ointment box) filled with ‘green mummy’ – as though, like the corpses of condemned criminals, hers would soon be made available as a source of balm. Editors’ notes to these passages seldom offer any more elaborate gloss than ‘medicine made from corpses’, as though this were perfectly routine.

Early moderns regarded other forms of cannibalism very differently, however. Othello affirms his own civilised Venetian identity by exoticising the monstrous savages he encountered in his wanderings: ‘the Cannibals that each other eat,/The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/ Do grow beneath their shoulders’. Paradoxically enough, the routine practice of corpse medicine coincided with a period of extreme anxiety about the cannibal indulgences of people outside European civilisation. The literature of voyaging and discovery exhibits an obsessive interest in the anthropophagous customs of New World indigenes, which are held up as proofs of irredeemable barbarity. Innumerable woodcuts and engravings show the butcher’s blocks on which luckless victims are dismembered, the fearful larders in which their body parts are hung, the grisly barbecues on which their remains are roasted, and the obscene banquets where eager diners gnaw on legs, arms and racks of rib. In representations of the four continents, America is typically identified by the signs of cannibal indulgence (weapons and severed body parts) alongside that emblem of native idleness, the hammock.

Such anxieties were not confined to the Americas: the association of barbarism and cannibalism was exploited in the propaganda war through which English commentators sought to demonstrate the savage character of the Irish. According to Sir John Davies, the attorney general for Ireland under James I, these people were ‘little better than cannibals, who do hunt one another; and he that hath most strength and swiftness, doth eat and devour all his fellows.’ Davies’s libel is ambiguously poised between the metaphoric and the literal, like Fynes Moryson’s comment that ‘in their hospitality … these wild Irish are not much unlike to wild beasts, in whose caves a beast passing that way might perhaps find meat, but not without danger to be ill entertained, perhaps devoured, of his insatiable host.’ Edmund Campion had already denounced the Irish as ‘eaters of man’s flesh [who] counted it honourable for parents deceased to be eaten up of their own children’; and Moryson, Lord Mountjoy’s secretary in the closing stages of the Nine Years’ War, professed to know of several examples of actual cannibalism. Observing that ‘the Rebels were driven to unspeakable extremities’ in the Ulster campaign by the systematic destruction of their crops, he recounts that a group of old women near Newry ‘used to make a fier in the fields, & divers little children driving out the cattel in the cold mornings, and coming thither to warme them, were by them surprised, killed and eaten.’ Even more shocking was the ‘most horrible spectacle’ allegedly encountered by Moryson’s brother, who found

three children (whereof the eldest was not above ten yeeres old), all eating and knawing with their teeth the entrals of their dead mother, upon whose flesh they had fed twenty days past, and having eaten all from the feete upward to the bare bones, rosting it continually by a slow fire, were now come to the eating of her said entralls in like sort roasted, yet not divided from the body, being as yet raw.

Moryson’s rhetoric ensures that the grisly detail of the scene overwhelms its ostensible pathos: it is not enough that these unnatural children are devouring their own mother, or that they do not scruple to eat even her intestines, but such is their brutishness that (in ultimate repudiation of civil custom) they gorge on them while ‘yet raw’. In this they outdo even the savage vindictiveness of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, who tricks the barbarous Queen Tamora into ‘eating the flesh that she herself hath bred’ by serving up the butchered remains of her two sons ‘both bakèd in this pie’.

Some did draw attention to the link between the use of mummy and cannibalism, like Leonhard Fuchs, who declared that no one could approve the remedy ‘unless he approves of cannibalism’. According to Henry of Navarre’s personal physician, a Jewish merchant had expressed revulsion at the practice, marvelling that ‘the Christians, so daintily mouthed, could eat the bodies of the dead’, while Montaigne’s essay ‘Of the Caniballes’ compares the anthropophagy of Brazilian Indians with the European use of mummy. Montaigne’s aim was satiric: he wanted to paint the internecine slaughter of the Wars of Religion as a form of cannibalism infinitely more vicious than the ritual eating of the bodies of one’s enemies. But for the most part, early moderns seem to have thoroughly repressed any sense that the ingestion of mummy constituted a form of cannibal indulgence. In this they might have been assisted, as Sugg suggests, by the physiological orthodoxy that regarded blood and breast milk as differing forms of the same substance: if it was legitimate to swallow the one, why not the other? Thus Robert Boyle, writing in 1665, could question even the usual abhorrence of savages for ‘feeding on man’s flesh and blood’ by reminding his contemporaries that ‘woman’s milk, by which we feed our sucking children, is, according to the received opinion, but blanched blood.’

Noble points out that these days we have our own convenient ways of arranging the boundaries of disgust. There is little difference in principle, she suggests, between the ingestion of mummy and the modern operations which allow human organs and body parts to be absorbed into the bodies of others. Transplant surgery is, according to Noble, a form of ‘late modern cannibalism’ – one to which most people display an indifference barely dented by the sinister rumours of harvesting in Chinese prisons or the futuristic horrors of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Sugg similarly invites his readers to see the transplant industry as part of the ‘afterlife’ of corpse medicine. But no matter how shocking the stories of impoverished people selling their kidneys, or political prisoners murdered for their organs, most of us continue to assume a fundamental distinction between the surgical implantation of human tissue and its consumption through the mouth.

Perhaps the early modern acceptance of medicinal cannibalism simply exemplifies the cognitive splitting that allows the most devoted animal lovers to remain shamelessly carnivorous. But while the human propensity for ethical self-contradiction may explain how early moderns could repress the knowledge of their own anthropophagy, it does not fully account for the eagerness with which they embraced the practice – especially given the fact that the taboo on cannibalism is so much more powerful than the ethical imperatives of vegetarianism. Building on an earlier essay by Sugg, Noble historicises the acceptance of medicinal cannibalism by showing how taboo itself could be mobilised to make the ingestion of mummy seem qualitatively different from the ravenous consumption of human carcases. At the centre of Christian worship, after all, was a ritual whose sacred power depended on its extreme violation of that taboo – the feast of Holy Communion through which, according to the early church father Tertullian, the faithful participated in ‘a paradoxical redemption of that most horrible of consumptions’.

The doctrine of transubstantiation, which magically transforms the wine and bread of the Eucharist into the blood and body of the incarnate deity, makes of the communion feast a rite of sublime anthropophagy. Noble sees an ‘uncanny similarity’ between this belief and the magical operations of corpse medicine: the Saviour, at once divine physician and sacrificial corpse, ministers to the spiritual health of his followers much as early modern physicians, with their phials of mumia, ministered to the bodily health of their patients; both practices, she writes, ‘are fuelled by a deep need to believe in the mysterious salvatory power of the human body – a need that is compelled by the inevitability of death … The flesh and the blood of Christ are both medicine and food for the devout – the divine manna that heals and nourishes not only the ailing spirit but also the ailing body of the communicant.’ As Sugg shows, corpse medicine itself drew on beliefs about the animating force of vital ‘spirits’, which meant that, in seeking to remedy the ailments of the body, ‘Christians were effectively seeking to consume the powers of the immortal soul.’

Protestant doctrine, with its tendency to reduce the Eucharistic feast to an enacted metaphor, might have been expected to weaken the analogy between mumia and the sacraments. Indeed Protestant polemicists often held the literalism of transubstantiation up to mockery, denouncing their Catholic enemies (in the words of one English sermon) as ‘cruell Canibali … barbarous Priests’ – a sneer which is turned back on the followers of Martin Luther in one striking mid-16th-century German woodcut in which Luther’s disciples perform a blasphemous parody of the Eucharist beneath an image of the Crucifixion: the reformer’s body, like Christ’s, has a spear thrust in its side, but it is stretched out on a table in the fashion of a public anatomy, while the celebrants of this monstrous Last Supper gnaw on the limbs; in the foreground is a bucket of body parts, presumably ready for processing into mumia. The woodcut exceeds its propagandist intention, Noble suggests, serving as a reminder that ‘the figurative boundaries between medical consumption of the human body, sacramental ingestion of divine matter and culinary eating of human flesh were permeable and difficult to sustain.’ As late as the end of the 17th century, a self-confessed Puritan like the Paracelsian philosopher Edward Taylor was still ready to deploy the analogy between the restorative capacity of mummy and the redemptive power of communion, when he spoke of Christ’s sacrificial body as ‘his own Mumia in which was the Divine and Humane Power’. Indeed such was the imaginative hold of traditional Eucharistic doctrine that the consumption of medicalised corpses often seems to be catering for what Noble calls ‘a residual Protestant hunger’ – a ‘painful nostalgia for the lost alimentary union with Christ’ that she discovers in the writings of Spenser and Donne. Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which include an extended reflection on the medicinal virtue of ‘Physicke … from another body … as by Mummy, or any such composition’, is particularly striking for the way in which it uses the vocabulary of corpse medicine to describe the Eucharist: Christ is ‘the great Physitian’ or ‘great therapist’ who offers his ‘Cordiall Blood’ for the ‘recoverie’ of the sick soul.

Traces of the early modern fascination with the medicinal potency of the human corpse can of course be discovered well beyond such sacramental contexts, in narratives that reveal its kinship with less sanctified forms of cannibal practice, including the rituals of New World savages, and even the famine cannibalism associated with shipwreck and siege. Noble finds evidence of this fascination in the gory revenge drama that launched Shakespeare’s career as a tragedian, Titus Andronicus. The inspiration for Titus’ murderous cookery is provided by Ovid’s story of Procne’s revenge on Tereus, and by the climactic feast of Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes; but, as Noble demonstrates, the culture of medicinal cannibalism gives the language of Shakespeare’s play a peculiar colouring – one which invites us to recognise not only that revenge itself ‘is medicine’, as she puts it, but that the violent action of the play constitutes a purgative physic applied to the ailing body politic of Rome. The punning description of Queen Tamora’s Moorish lover, Aaron, as a ‘barbarous beastly villain’, identifies the butcheries he supervises – including the mutilation of the hero’s daughter, Lavinia, as well as Titus’ amputation of his own hand – as a savage parody of the dissections conducted by London’s barber-surgeons, while Titus, who dismembers all three of Tamora’s children, becomes, as Noble writes, ‘the apothecary/surgeon, revealing his own recipe for “mummy”: “Let me go grind their bones to powder small,/ And with this hateful liquor temper it.”’

In a play that traces the process of degeneration by which Rome, the epitome of civilised order, is reduced to ‘a wilderness of tigers’, the peculiar horror of Titus’ revenge is ironically accentuated by the self-conscious sophistication of his culinary display. The violence of that contradiction recalls a passage in Montaigne’s essay in which he seeks to demonstrate that there is a ‘moral discipline’ underlying the practices of Brazilian ‘caniballes’ that lifts their seeming barbarity above the actual savagery of Europeans: their feasting is a solemn rite designed ‘to represent an extreme, and inexpiable revenge’. Montaigne then quotes, as ‘an invention that hath no shew of barbarisme’, a song in which prisoners awaiting slaughter taunt their enemies with the knowledge that ‘the substance of your forefathers’ limbs is yet tied unto ours’: ‘Taste them welle,’ the prospective victims urge, ‘for in them shall you find the relish of your own flesh.’ Montaigne contrasts this formal, strangely dignified celebration of revenge with the brutality of the Wars of Religion, with the famine cannibalism justified by Stoic philosophers, and finally with the casual treatment of human flesh by ‘Physicians [who] fear not, in all kindes of compositions … to make use of it, be it for outward or inward applications’.

The trope of European barbarism is given a new twist in The Sea-Voyage, Fletcher and Massinger’s radical re-visioning of The Tempest. Here, as Noble shows in one of her most engaging chapters, the dramatists indulge in darkly witty play on the links between sacramental, medicinal and famine cannibalism. A French group – piratical mariners, avaricious merchants, would-be planters and a glamorous captain with his female prize – are driven ashore on a ‘desart Island’, where they appear doomed to starve. Pretty soon their thoughts turn to forbidden meat: encouraged by the ship’s surgeon, they begin to dream of the culinary attractions of ‘an old suppository … best bladder … searcloths … pultesses … [and] the great Wen/[cut] from Hugh the saylers shoulder’, while the surgeon casts himself as the minister of a weirdly parodic transubstantiation:

Here’s nothing can be meate without a miracle.
O that I had my boxes and my lints now,
My stupes, my tents, and those sweet helps of nature,
What dainty dishes I could make of ’em.

The daintiest dish of all turns out to be the female prisoner, Aminta, whose luscious lips her besotted captor has already imagined, ironically enough, as ‘a Banquet, a refreshing Banquet’, but whose tender flesh the surgeon now conjectures may literally ‘be made good meat’. ‘She’s young and tydie,’ one of the castaways drools. ‘In my conscience she’ll eat delicately;/Just like young Pork, a little lean.’ ‘Are you not Christians?’ their terrified victim begs, only to be answered with another of the play’s sly Eucharistic jokes: ‘Why, do not Christians eat women?’ One of the gallant pirates then springs to Aminta’s rescue, offering to give her tormentors a taste of their own medicine by forcing them to ‘grow mummy’: ‘I’ll make you fall to your brawns, and your buttocks,/And worry one another like keen ban dogs.’ He will teach these ‘barbarous men’ ‘what ’tis to be damn’d Canibals’.

In the new world of Fletcher and Massinger, it turns out, there are no real ‘Canibals’, only European savages; indeed (like Prospero’s island) this is a world mysteriously devoid of natives: on another part of the island, ‘Divided only by this hellish River’, the play’s hero discovers a small tribe of amazons, but they prove to be a bevy of stranded Portuguese who have simply adopted the customs of the clan of warlike women that long ago inhabited the island. These creatures, too, prove hungry for human flesh: ‘imagination,’ they complain, ‘[is] all is left for us to feed on,/We might starve else.’ Drawing once again on the language of sacramental cannibalism, the play concludes with a banquet scene, featuring ‘A Table furnish’d’, whose bread and wine is declared to be a ‘Physick’ and ‘strong food’ more desirable than any ‘Ladies cheek’. To the sound of music ‘Fit for a bloody Feast’, the table’s place is then taken by ‘An Altar prepar’d’, on which the amazon queen plans to butcher her male prisoners. At the last minute, however, her purpose is deflected by a classic Fletcherian peripety, when, in place of the sacrificial feast, the women are left pleased and the men gratefully ‘refresh’d’ with the cordial elixir of one another’s living bodies.

The heroine of The Sea-Voyage only narrowly escapes becoming its sacrificial victim. The theme of the virgin as sacrificial remedy or pharmakon is the subject of Noble’s final chapter, with its intriguing analysis of Othello as a tragedy ‘haunted … by medical consumptions of the female corpse’. Often this haunting takes the disarmingly familiar form of erotic desire figured as hunger, whether in the debauched sexual banquetings imagined by Iago (‘The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts’), or in what Othello calls ‘the palate of my appetite’: ‘I had been happy if the general camp,/Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body.’ But such images are complicated by their subterranean connection with the Moor’s memories of actual cannibalism in a speech that might imply a dangerous affinity between this ‘erring barbarian’ and the landscape of savagery. Moreover, as Noble demonstrates, the tragedy is studded with reminders of corpse medicine and its ingredients – whether it be in Iago’s promise to transform Desdemona’s ‘virtue’ into ‘pitch’, in Othello’s ecstatic response to Desdemona’s ‘balmy breath’, or in his comparison of his own tears of penitence to ‘medicinable gum’.

Most conspicuously of all, of course, the ‘virtue’ of preserved bodies is associated with Desdemona’s handkerchief. ‘Dyed in mummy, which the skilful/Conserved of maidens’ hearts’, this love token is credited with a ‘magic’ that appears to derive as much from the dye as from the ‘prophetic fury’ in which its sibylline maker ‘sewed the work’. As a sovereign remedy for the falling sickness, mumia promised particular benefits when extracted from a maiden’s heart, so it can be no accident that it is with this ‘napkin’ that Desdemona, in the temptation scene, attempts to soothe the pain in her husband’s brow – this sudden headache is the first symptom of the epileptic fit into which Othello will be cast by his jealousy. Through her symbolic association with the handkerchief, Noble suggests, Desdemona is figured not simply as the usual erotic food for male desire but, as an ‘ingestible remedy’ – the only salve for the murderous jealousy with which she unwittingly infects her husband. The result is to leave the action caught in a tormenting paradox; for, as Noble writes, ‘ultimately, there is no masculine healing precisely because the belief that the female corpse offers a cure is actually a symptom of the very pathology that the fille vierge is supposed to cure.’

This account of Othello’s metaphorics of cannibalism exhibits Noble’s critical method at its most persuasive. In the final section of the same chapter it shows to rather less advantage. Here the virginal subject of Donne’s Anniversary poems, Elizabeth Drury, is construed as offering a spiritualised version of Desdemona’s curative magic:

      she that could drive
The poisonous tincture, and the stayne of Eve,
Out of her thoughts, and deeds, and purifie
All, by a true religious Alchimy.

In the description of her ‘virtue’ as an ‘intrinsique Balme, and … preservative’, able to ‘enbalme, and spice/The world, which else would putrefy with vice’, the dead Elizabeth becomes an instrument of spiritual mummification. For all that, the trope of corpse medicine never seems to operate in these poems at less than one teasing remove; so that Noble is finally compelled to admit that they ‘remain curiously empty of healing corporeal matter’. As a result, even sympathetic readers are likely to feel that there is something a touch disingenuous about her remark that these ‘frustratingly ambiguous’ poems ‘try so hard to elide the ingestible medical and Eucharistic corpses that shadow them, [and] which I have tried so hard to expose’. That confession may be symptomatic of a more general weakness in Medicinal Cannibalism: Noble’s opening chapters, with their revelation of the extraordinary pervasiveness of medicinal cannibalism in early modern culture, are genuinely fascinating and provide a platform for the kind of critical analysis that can suddenly render the most familiar text disturbingly strange. Yet this transformation takes place less often than one might have hoped, leading to the impression that Noble is having to work hard – too hard, perhaps – to make her case: this is not, I think, because she is mistaken about the importance of mummy, but rather because its use was so unremarkable that it seldom ignited the contemporary poetic imagination.

This is perhaps why Sugg’s book offers itself as a ‘history’ of corpse medicine. Though it is the work of a well-known literary scholar, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires invokes imaginative writing only to augment the evidence it draws from medical and scientific texts. But as a result it is able to offer a much more detailed account of this bizarre practice than Noble’s book. Sugg ranges from the classical and medieval origins of medicinal cannibalism, through its early modern heyday, its gradual disappearance from orthodox practice in the 18th century, to its curious afterlife as a cure for consumption in 19th-century Bavaria. It was included in a German pharmaceutical catalogue in 1908 and remained available in Near Eastern drug bazaars as late as 1929. Sugg is at pains to place the popularity of corpse medicine in its historical context, expounding the pseudo-scientific notions on which it was grounded, explaining the beliefs that enabled its advocates to separate it from New World cannibalism, and exploring the sources on which the trade in human remains depended. In the process he makes disturbing revelations about the eagerness of the English to see the numerous bodies littering the war-torn countryside of Stuart Ireland as ‘a reservoir of profitable corpse materials’ – especially the usnea moss that grew on unburied skulls. As his account of the popularity of skull moss indicates, Sugg’s interest in corpse medicine reaches well beyond mumia to inspect all those strange concoctions of human tissue and waste favoured by early modern pharmacology: blood, ground skulls, crushed brains and human fat, not to mention ‘hair, nails, lice, sperm, saliva, milk, sweat, tapeworms, stones, urine and excrement’, ingredients which suggest that the potions contrived by the Earl of Rochester in his notorious impersonation of a quack – as Dr Bendo – may not have had the purely satiric intention usually attributed to them. By the same token, Sugg’s vivid accounts of epilepsy sufferers rushing to consume the blood gushing from the bodies of executed felons gives an unexpectedly literal twist to Hamlet’s ‘now could I drink hot blood.’

The health-giving virtues widely attributed to such sanguinary draughts suggest, he writes, ‘an uncertain but intriguing link with the most successful demon of postmodern culture, the vampire’. This is a connection Sugg follows through the prescriptions of the 18th-century Irish clergyman and amateur physician John Keogh, whom he calls ‘the cannibal priest’, to Bram Stoker. As well as mummy for green wounds, distillation of brains for epilepsy, and pulverised heart for apoplexy, Keogh recommended warm blood as a tonic for the falling sickness. In folk-belief Keogh’s prowess seems to have endowed the blood of all his descendants with mysterious properties, so that in 1883 William George Black recorded that Dubliners regarded Keogh blood as a proven remedy for the toothache, while an acquaintance claimed to know of a Belfast Keogh ‘whose flesh had actually been punctured scores of times to procure his blood’. Black does not explain to what use the dour bloodsuckers of Ulster might have put his vital fluid, but such rumours may have provided additional inspiration for the Dublin-born Bram Stoker. In Stoker’s fantasy, the once seemingly rational prescriptions of corpse medicine enter the realm of sinister magic – a magic that, as Sugg reminds us, draws its erotic colouring from the gothic extravagances of late Romanticism. Where the medicinal cannibal sought to extract the vital spirits of a human body for purely curative purposes, the vampire desires ecstatic consumption of another’s soul. ‘For a society at once obsessed by and profoundly ambivalent about sex,’ Sugg writes, ‘tales of blood-drinking are no longer religious or medical or scientific. Rather, they are a way of experimenting with what is otherwise unspeakable.’ This longing for the unspeakable intermittently breaks through the reasonable surface of our own societies, allowing the practices of early modern physic their grotesque re-enactment in the self-loathing frenzy of the Japanese murderer Issei Sagawa, who believed that he would be reinvigorated by consuming the flesh of beautiful, tall European girls, or in the German cannibal Armin Meiwes’s cool advertisement for ‘a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed’.