MARK GREENER continues his examination of ‘corpse medicine’, the historic trade in body parts believed at one time to have had magical and healing properties.
Treatments made from corpses are among the most remarkable and most neglected chapters in medical history.
The mistranslation of ‘Mumia’, the Persian word for wax (see previous article on Mumia) fed into already widespread folk beliefs about the value of corpse medicine.
For example, The German Buch der Tugend (‘The Book of Virtue’), published in 1486, shows a woman ‘injuring’ a hanged thief’s remains. Charles Zika (The Appearance of Witchcraft, 2007) suggests she was possibly obtaining body parts, blood or semen, widely used by cunning women to cure epilepsy and by witches in magic, including spells for invisibility.
Many early examples of corpse medicine come from records of witch trials. So, most cases of using body parts to heal probably went unrecorded. Writing in the Lancet, Richard Sugg notes that Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, (1493-1541) said: ‘If doctors were aware of the power of this substance, no body would be left on the gibbet for more than three days.’
Nevertheless, around the same time, doctors also treated ill health with human remains. For example, Oswald Croll, also called Crollius (1580-1609) was professor of medicine and alchemy at the University of Marburg, and a leading European intellectual. Croll suggested making a mummy from the corpse of a hanged criminal. He believed that the remains of a man of ruddy complexion aged about 24 years produced the best results. A ruddy complexion suggested that the flesh would be healthier. Croll gives directions for the preparing the flesh – after the magician exposed the remains for two days to the influence of the sun and moon.
Indeed, the trend for corpse medicine continued until relatively recently. According to Sugg, Dr Toope, a physician working in Marlborough during the late 17th century, collected ‘many bushels’ (a bushel is the dry equivalent of eight gallons) from the ancient burial mound at West Kennet. Toope made ‘a noble medicine’ that he claimed ‘relieved many of my distressed neighbours’.
In Folklore, Mavis Peacock comments that in 1830, the execution of three men at Lincoln drew an immense crowd. Two women rubbed the dead men’s hands over their wens – probably goitre – or other diseased parts of their bodies. One brought a child for treatment. Peacock also cites Horace Murray who reported that during the 19thcentury epileptics in some parts of Denmark ‘stand around the scaffold in crowds, cup in hand, ready to quaff the red blood as it flows from the still quivering body’.