Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians

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Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians

Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians

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In its quest to understand the strange paradox of routine Christian cannibalism we move from the Catholic blood-drinking of the Eucharist, through the routine filth and discomfort of early modern bodies, and in to the potent, numinous source of corpse medicine’s ultimate power: the human soul itself. It helps to have someone around who can make a dry joke or two to defuse the scatological wretchedness of many of these ancient, once-storied practices. His previous publications include: John Donne (Palgrave, 2007), Murder After Death (Cornell, 2007), The Smoke of the Soul (Palgrave, 2013), and The Secret History of the Soul (Cambridge Scholars, 2013). Thinking I had seen (in my mind’s eye) just about every horrific or bizarre spectacle of blood drinking at the scaffolds of Austria, Germany or Scandinavia, even I was impressed to read of the near riot in 1866, when desperate men and women crammed blood-soaked earth into their mouths after a rare Swedish beheading.

A certain urban squeamishness, possibly on behalf of the imagined modern reader (some 2012 Daily Mail readers apparently stoutly refused to believe that Good King Charles II used corpse medicine) pervades some of the accounts as the 20 th century is approached. The new edition with its expanded online content makes this book equally appealing to advanced scholars and students of history, medicine, and literature. But as mentioned, it could use some judicious paring in places, but also some expansion in others, especially near the end, where the treatment of the postmodern version—organ harvesting and sexually-inspired cannibalism (Lustkannibalismus? This rich and authoritative account of beliefs about the medical efficacy of dead bodies is a fascinating, if gruesome, eye-opener.

I now have the rights to The Smoke of the Soul and have almost completed a new trade version of this book. Or that rich men were willing to pay poor urchins to come to their estates, where their arms would be incised with razors and their blood would be drunk straight from the vein while still hot, warm, and pulsing. Readers with experience of folk belief systems will immediately recognise the pattern of practices moving through society and then persisting as home cures, to be derided finally as ‘magic’ when something new arrived. Indeed, prior to the discovery of inoculation and then later of penicillin, a great deal of what was once labelled ‘medicine’ could be seen as ‘magic’ by modern eyes, regardless of class distinctions. One wonders whether Sugg, for all his bravado, is not just a little bit worried that his readers might find him dull.

This is a classic Victorian poltergeist case, and given the technology available it seems hard to determine how it could have been perpetrated as a hoax. In our quest to understand the strange paradox of routine Christian cannibalism we move from the Catholic vampirism of the Eucharist, through the routine filth and discomfort of early modern bodies, and in to the potent, numinous source of corpse medicine’s ultimate power: the human soul itself.It survived well into the eighteenth century, and amongst the poor it lingered stubbornly on into the time of Queen Victoria. In this extract from his new book, Richard Sugg investigates the strange noises that haunted an entire neighbourhood in Windsor in 1841, as reported by a newspaper of the time.

Despite a clear fascination with his subject in the earlier periods and an articulate description of the almost science fictional 20 th and 21 st century horrors of organ harvesting, there seems to be a slight reluctance to accept that ordinary, harmless, normal people throughout the 19 th and 20 th century engaged in some form of home medicine, (magic? Dr Sugg (his Twitter handle) has amassed a large amount of information on a completely fascinating group of practices, all more or less connected with what may be termed corpse medicine: the devising of medical remedies from (usually) human bodies.And the range of sources is not confined merely to the English literature or to the English speaking world. Richard Sugg’s account of the surprise of medical historians at not knowing some of the things he has found out is worth reiterating: high time the medical historians set aside the squeamish old prejudices about investigating what the modern period sees as the nastier side of the profession and got down to documenting it properly.

The book’s breadth, from Renaissance to Victorian society, is impressive but it is the work’s macabre details which rivets readers to recorded medical uses of the human body. The icing on this jumble cake is the insertion in many of the chapters of little pieces of creative writing, in which Sugg (in the present tense; that most aggravating of docu-drama styles) relates historical fictions of his own devising.as usual, i find it interesting how big a part the catholic church had to play in encouraging medical cannibalism and other totally vampiric cures, but overall, it took me a very long time to get through this even with a lot of skimming. It features a blog on literature and books, book reviews, bookchat, podcasts and lectures on literature.



  • Fruugo ID: 258392218-563234582
  • EAN: 764486781913
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