When syphilis broke out in Europe during the late fifteenth century, people debated the disease’s origins. Many believed that it had arrived from the recently encountered “New World” (Eamon 2), but Bolognese surgeon Leonardo Fioravanti (1517-88) proposed that the outbreak was caused by cannibalism that had occurred during the French invasion of Naples in 1494. According to Fioravanti’s theory, provisions were so scarce that merchants “began secretly to take the flesh from the bodies of the dead and use it to make certain dishes” for soldiers in both the French and Spanish armies. The soldiers, “having so many times eaten human flesh, began to be polluted in such a way that not a single man remained who was not full of sores and pains, and the majority became completely bald” (quoted and translated Eamon 10-11). To verify his theories, Fioravanti conducted a series of experiments in which he fed a pig, a dog, and a bird the flesh of their own species. Reportedly, the animals experienced the same symptoms as the soldiers: sores, pain, and hair loss. The Bolognese surgeon also cited the disease’s prevalence in the Americas, whose inhabitants were purported to routinely eat human flesh (11).
Although Fioravanti’s theory of the syphilis epidemic was not mainstream, several other authors also mentioned it, drawing from either Fioravanti’s work or from each other’s (Sandys 186; Sennert 14-15). In his natural history Sylua syluarum, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote:
“The French […] do report, that at the siege of Naples, there were certain wicked merchants that barreled up man’s flesh (of some that had been lately slain in Barbary) and sold it for tunny [tuna]. And that upon that foul and high nourishment, was the original of that disease. Which may well be; for that it is certain, that the Cannibals in the West Indies eat man’s flesh, and the West Indies were full of the pox when they were first discovered.” (Bacon 7)
In another section of his natural history, Bacon explained how cannibalism could lead to disease. It went against the principle that “there must be (generally) some disparity between the nourishment and the body nourished, and they must not be over near, or like” (229).
Others disagreed with this theory of syphilis’s origins. Alexander Ross (1591-1654) concluded that Bacon was “mistaken in thinking that the French-pox is begot by eating of man’s flesh.” He supplied numerous reasons for his thoughts, but most notably he disagreed with Bacon’s ideas about the harmful similarity of human flesh to the human body. In Ross’s view, “Man’s flesh of all other animals is counted the most temperate, therefore cannot produce such a venomous distemper so repugnant to man’s body.” Moreover, “man’s flesh is sooner convertible into nutriment [for humans] than of any other animal, because of the greater sympathy and specifical unity,” so “[i]t is against reason to imagine that the flesh of a man should rather breed this disease, than of an ox or a sheep” (Ross 236).
There is another perspective which supports the argument that early modern Europeans considered certain forms of cannibalism to be not only harmless, but even healthy—namely, the practice of medicinal cannibalism or corpse medicine, which “had been used since remote antiquity” (Sugg 226).
Early modern medicine utilized human flesh, bones, blood, and other parts of the body, and the use of such remedies was supported by various medical authorities and popular enough to be referenced in literature (Gordon-Grube; Himmelman; Noble; Sugg). Perhaps the most well-known of these remedies is mumia, or mummy. According to Karl H. Dannenfeldt, the use of human remains as mumia stemmed from “a complicated and confusing process of transference and substitution involving originally the [medicinal] use of bituminous products” like black rock-asphalt or pissasphalt (163). Through this process, mumia became identified with “the resinous, aromatic exudate which came from the bodies of the ancient Egyptians” and, subsequently, with the bodies themselves (165). In the sixteenth century, Swiss-German medical reformer Paracelsus and his followers redefined mumia to also include materials from the bodies of anyone who died by unnatural, violent causes (173).
Mumia was not the only early modern remedy that relied on human-derived materials. A medical recipe book compiled by distiller and translator John Hester (d. 1592) featured a chapter entitled “Of man, and the medicines that are made of him” (Bennell). These included “the Quintessence of man’s blood,” an almost miraculous cure for those near death; “a water and an oil” that can be distilled from “the liver of a man” and used to cure liver ailments; “a stinking water and an oil” distilled from “the flesh of man” that is good to treat wounds; and “a water and oil, and a salt,” distilled from “the forepart of a man’s skull” and beneficial against the falling sickness, or epilepsy (Hester 78-79).
In Hester’s view, these medicines worked because “every like rejoiceth with and helpeth his like, and therefore man serveth for man” (78). This reasoning is the opposite of Bacon’s, who held that it was unhealthy to have too much similarity between consumer and that which is consumed.
Of course, as is often the case with past and present medical practices, remedies like mumia could also be the subject of debate. Many authors complained about the existence of “false” mumia peddled by devious merchants and apothecaries, who procured it from illicit sources like the bodies of executed criminals and beggars (Dannenfeldt 168-71; Sugg 227-28). French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-90) lamented that “certain of our French apothecaries” stole “by night the bodies of such as were hanged and, embalming them with salt and drugs, they dried them in an oven, so to sell them thus adulterated instead of true Mummie” (448). With language that evoked the eating of human flesh, he continued:
“Wherefore we are thus compelled both foolishly and cruelly to devour the mangled and putrid particles of the carcasses of the basest people of Egypt, or of such as are hanged, as though there were no other way to help or recover one bruised with a fall from a high place [an ailment for which mumia was commonly suggested], than to bury man by a horrid insertion into their, that is, in man’s guts.” (Paré 448)
Early modern corpse medicine was rarely equated with or compared to cannibalism, except by critics like Paré. Richard Sugg suggests that one of the main reasons for this was the fact that corpse medicine “emphatically sacralised the human body,” its logic relying on the consumption of the human body’s spiritual essence (230). There may also have been a perceived difference between the consumption of human flesh as food and the consumption of human-derived drugs. In the words of Thomas Fuller, an English religious author writing in 1647, mumia made for “good physic but bad food” (quoted Sugg 233).
Perhaps the most basic conclusion from these debates about the healthfulness of cannibalism and the use of corpse medicine is that early modern Europeans recognized the human body to be both potentially harmful and beneficial. The body had a “capacity to contaminate as well as [a] capacity to heal” (Himmelman 92). Given the ambiguous status of the human body, its use in medicines might seem surprising. But the medicinal use of substances that could be at once damaging and beneficial was not limited to practices of corpse medicine: paracelsian medicine, which supported the use of mumia, also advocated for the use of remedies like antimony, which some considered to be poisonous (Sugg 234).
Featured Image: A skull: three views. Pencil drawing by Heinrich Appenzeller, 1558. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark.
Bacon, Francis. Sylua syluarum: or A naturall historie. London, 1627.
Bennell, John. “Hester, John (d. 1592), distiller and translator.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford UP, 2004. DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/13134.
Dannenfeldt, Karl H. “Egyptian Mumia: The Sixteenth Century Experience and Debate.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 16, no. 2 (1985), pp. 163-80.
Eamon, William. “Cannibalism and Contagion: Framing Syphilis in Counter-Reformation Italy.” Early Science and Medicine, vol. 3, no. 1, 1998, pp. 1-31.
Gordon-Grube, Karen. “Anthropophagy in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism.” American Anthropologist, vol. 90, no. 2, 1988, pp. 405-09.
Hester, John. The pearle of practise. London, 1594.
Himmelman, P. Kenneth. “The Medicinal Body: An Analysis of Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe, 1300-1700.” Dialectical Anthropology, vol. 22, no. 2, 1997, pp. 183-203.
Noble, Louise. ““And Make Two Pasties of Your Shameful Heads”: Medicinal Cannibalism and Healing the Body Politic in Titus Andronicus.” ELH, vol. 70, no. 3, 2003, pp. 677-708.
Paré, Ambroise. The workes of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey. London, 1634.
Ross, Alexander. Arcana microcosmi. London, 1652.
Sandys, Edwin. Sandys travels. London, 1673.
Sennert, Daniel. Two treatises. London, 1660.
Sugg, Richard. “‘Good Physic but Bad Food’: Early Modern Attitudes to Medicinal Cannibalism and its Suppliers.” Social History of Medicine, vol. 19, no. 2, 2006, pp. 225-40.