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Durham University

Research & business

Were Europeans the real cannibals?

One thing we are rarely taught at school is this: James I refused corpse medicine; Charles II made his own corpse medicine; and Charles I was made into corpse medicine. For well over two hundred years, even as they denounced the barbaric cannibals of the New World, educated Europeans applied, swallowed, or wore powdered Egyptian mummy, human fat, flesh, bone, blood, brains and skin. Along with Charles II, eminent users or prescribers included Francis I, Elizabeth's surgeon John Banister, Elizabeth Grey, countess of Kent, Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis, William III, and Queen Mary.

James I was very much in the minority in his day. In 1603, the year he came to the throne, one of the longest sieges in military history was grinding on in Europe, where the Spanish had surrounded Protestant Ostend. One eyewitness report of this struggle tells of how 'the surgeons of the town went thither ... and brought away sacks full of man's grease which they had drawn out of the bodies' of Spanish attackers, shot down just minutes before. As human fat was highly valued for the treatment of wounds, it was about as valuable as penicillin in those days. And what better poetic justice than to get your first aid off the people who were shooting at you?

And Charles I? We still have a painting of the king's 1649 execution which shows people mopping up his blood with handkerchiefs. Later, this was used to treat the 'king's evil' - a complaint more usually cured by the touch of living monarchs. Over in continental Europe, where the axe fell routinely on the necks of criminals, blood was the medicine of choice for many epileptics. In Denmark the young Hans Christian Andersen saw parents getting their sick child to drink blood at the scaffold. So popular was this treatment that hangmen routinely had their assistants catch the blood in cups as it spurted from the necks of dying felons. Occasionally a patient might shortcut this system. At one early sixteenth-century execution in Germany, 'a vagrant grabbed the beheaded body "before it had fallen, and drank the blood from him..."'. The last recorded instance of this practice in Germany fell in 1865.

Whilst James I had refused to take human skull, his grandson Charles II liked the idea so much that he bought the recipe. Having paid perhaps £6,000 for this, he often distilled human skull himself in his private laboratory. Accordingly known before long as 'the King's Drops', this fluid remedy was used against epilepsy, convulsions, diseases of the head, and often as an emergency treatment for the dying. It was the very first thing which Charles reached for on 2 February 1685, at the start of his last illness, and was administered not only on his deathbed, but on that of Queen Mary in 1698.

Well into the time of Dr Johnson you could still see entire human skulls gazing out at you from London chemists' shops. Some, like the one seen in the portrait on the book cover, would have a covering of moss. The chemist Robert Boyle used skull-moss one summer to cure his own severe nosebleed, and around this time many others in that plight could be found with their heads back, and the powdered moss stuffed into their nostrils. Britain took most of these skulls (which ideally needed to be unburied) from the battlefields of Ireland. In the time of George II they were such a significant trade commodity that there was an import duty on them of 1 shilling per head.

Much of this might sound rather hard to swallow. In the figurative sense, this is partly because the whole subject has been oddly whitewashed out of the history books by certain medical historians. In the literal sense... well, yes - but take comfort. For, having taken ‘the cadaver of a reddish man ... whole, fresh without blemish, of around twenty-four years of age, dead of a violent death (not of illness)', and exposed it 'to the moon's rays for one day and night', you would not actually have to chew him. All this would be painstakingly distilled into 'a most red tincture' which you could down in one gulp.

I can't tell you what this tasted like. However: having reconstructed some of these recipes last month with Tony Robinson (for a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary) I can assure you that distilled pig's blood smells very bad... Do not try any of this at home.