There is a common and ancient opinion that certain prophetic women who are popularly called ‘screech-owls’ suck the blood of infants as a means, insofar as they can, of growing young again. Why shouldn’t our old people, namely those who have no [other] recourse, likewise suck the blood of a youth? — a youth, I say who is willing, healthy, happy and temperate, whose blood is of the best but perhaps too abundant. They will suck, therefore, like leeches, an ounce or two from a scarcely- opened vein of the left arm; they will immediately take an equal amount of sugar and wine; they will do this when hungry and thirsty and when the moon is waxing. If they have difficulty digesting raw blood, let it first be cooked together with sugar; or let it be mixed with sugar and moderately distilled over hot water and then drunk.
Marsilio Ficino, De Vita II (1489), 11: 196-199. Translated by Sergius Kodera
If your world-building has a medieval flavor and you’re looking to add some period-authentic medicine, you need look no further than cannibalism. For more than 200 years, cannibalism was a routine part of medicine. Walk in to the shop of any apothecary (the equivalent of today’s pharmacist), and you would find, among other things, the skull of a man killed by violent death, human blood (which could include menstrual blood), human urine (separated by sex, and if the urine came from a woman, by whether she was a virgin or not), human fat, and mummia.
Perhaps the simplest form of this type of medicine was the skull and the moss of the skull. But not just any skull would do. It was widely believed that the skulls used should be from those who suffered violent death. There were disagreements of which type of violent death was best. The German professor Rudolf Goclenius (fl. c.1618) held that skulls should come from those who had been hanged. Flemish chemist, physiologist, and physician Jan (or Jean) Baptist van Helmont disagreed, claiming that a body broken on the wheel would do just as well. He also explained the skull was the most efficacious of all the human bones because, after death, “…all the brain is consumed and dissolved in the skull… by the continual… imbibing of [this] precious liquor” of dissolved brains “the skull acquires such virtues.”
One of the most important sources of skulls in England was Ireland. Sir Humphrey Gilbert slaughtered thousands of Irish men, women, and children during the late 1560’s, severing the heads of those he captured and place them in long rows, like a wall, leading to his tent. The skulls rotted and moss grew on them, and he began exporting the skulls to England, where they ended up being used as medicine by the English aristocracy. So much money was made by exporting the skulls that the English introduced an import tax of one shilling for each one. As late as 1778, the skulls were still liable for duty and were also listed amongst goods which were imported into England before being exported elsewhere.
One of the earliest descriptions of using human skull is from the 1651 book by John French, The Art of Distillation. One of the methods described in the book for turning human skull into spirit involved braking the skull up into small pieces, placing them a glass retort. Heat them in a “strong fire” which will eventually yield “a yellowish spirit, a red oil, and a volatile salt.” The salt and spirit are then further distilled for an additional 2-3 months. This spirit of the skull was said to be good for falling-sickness, gout, dropsy, and as a general panacea for all illnesses.
A different recipe for turning human skull into spirit was developed by Jonathon Goddard, Professor of Physic at London’s Gresham College, and was purchased by King Charles II for £6,000 (and enormous sum of money), which became know as “the King’s Drops.” This concoction was used against epilepsy, convulsions, diseases of the head, and often as an emergency treatment for the dying. Charles even manufactured and sold himself. Unfortunately they didn’t do Charles much good, as he died on February 6, 1685, after being treated with high doses of the distillation after falling ill four days earlier. The drops failed again in December of 1694, when despite having taken some of the King’s Drops, Queen Mary II died.
The moss of the skull, called usnea, was also important. Francis Bacon (d.1626), the father of scientific inquiry, probably started the trend in consuming fresher skulls with moss growing on them. Chemist and physicist Robert Boyle (d.1691) then found another use. One summer Boyle was badly afflicted by nosebleeds. During a violent bleed, Boyle decided to use “some true moss of a dead man’s skull” which had been sent from Ireland. The usual method was to insert the moss, often powdered, directly into one’s nostrils. But Boyle said he found that he was able to completely halt the bleeding merely by holding the moss in his hand, thus confirming that the moss could work at a distance.
Mummia, or mummy, was a powder made from ground mummies. There were broadly four type of mummy – the mineral pitch (also known as “natural mummy”, “transmarine mummy”, or bitumen), matter derived from embalmed Egyptian corpses (“true mummy” or “mumia sincere”), the relatively recent bodies of travelers “drowned” in sandstorms in the Arabian desert (“Arabian mummy”), and flesh taken from fresh corpses, preferably those of felons who had died no more than three days prior to the flash being collected, then treated and dried.
Mummy was thought to cure everything from headaches to stomach ulcers. For example, in 1747, successful London physician Robert James, in his book Pharmacopeia Universalis: or A New Universal English Dispensatory, wrote
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.
But the use of mummy as a medicine goes back much further. Thomas Willis, a 17th-century pioneer of brain science, brewed a drink for apoplexy, or bleeding, that mingled powdered human skull and chocolate.
In 1575, John Banister, Queen Elizabeth’s surgeon, describes a mummy plaster for a tumerous ulcer and a drink made of mummy and water of rhubarb for ulcers of the breast. In 1562, physician William Bullein published Bullein’s Bulwark of Defence Against all Sickness, which recommended mummy mixed with wild fennel, juice of black poppy, gentian, honey, and wild yellow carrots to make “Therica Galeni”, a treatment for ”the falling sickness… and convulsions”, headaches (including migraines), stomach pains, the “spitting of blood”, and “yellow jaundice”.
Earlier, anatomist and medical writer Berengario da Carpi (d.1530) made frequent use of mummy in medical plasters using a family secret recipe going back decades. His family insured they had sufficient amounts of mummy by keeping mummified heads in their house.
It is said that in July of 1492, the physician to dying Pope Innocent VIII bribed three healthy youths to help him save the pope. The youths were then bled, and the pope drank their blood, still fresh and hot. But the blood did not save the pope, and all three youths died of the bloodletting.
The belief that blood could cure disease goes back at least to Roman times. Between the first and the sixth century a single theological and several medical authors reported on the consumption of gladiator’s blood or liver to cure epileptics. The origins of this belief are thought to lie in Etruscan funeral rites. After the prohibition of gladiatorial combat in about 400 AD, an executed individual (particularly had he been beheaded) became the “legitimate” successor to the gladiator. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), one of the great historians of the Roman Empire, described the mad rush of spectators into arenas to drink the blood of fallen gladiators:
Epileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators, draughts teeming with life, as it were; a thing that, when we see it done by the wild beasts even, upon the same arena, inspires us with horror at the spectacle! And yet these persons, forsooth, consider it a most effectual cure for their disease, to quaff the warm, breathing, blood from man himself, and, as they apply their mouth to the wound, to draw forth his very life; and this, though it is regarded as an act of impiety to apply the human lips to the wound even of a wild beast! Others there are, again, who make the marrow of the leg-bones, and the brains of infants, the objects of their research!
Plin. Nat. 28.2
In the 16th and 17th centuries, various distillations of blood were used to treat consumption, pleurisy, apoplexy, goat, and epilepsy, as well as used for a general tonic for the sick. Moyse (or Moise) Charas, an apothecary in France during the reign of Louis XIV who compendiums of medication formulas, specified blood should be from “healthy young men”. Robert Boyle also had a lot to say about medicine, and was very interested in distillations of human blood. In 1663 he published Some Considerations touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy, in which he advises to
take of the blood of a healthy young man as much as you please, and whilst it is yet warm, add to it twice its weight of good spirit of wine, and incorporating them well together, shut them carefully up in a convenient glass vessel.
Poor people couldn’t afford physicians, and turned to other options for acquiring blood. English traveler Edward Browne reports that, while touring Vienna, he had the good fortune to be present at a number of executions. After one execution, he reports that “while the body was in the chair” he saw “a man run speedily with a pot in his hand, and filling it with the blood, yet spurting out of his neck, he presently drank it off, and ran away… this he did as a remedy against the falling-sickness.” In Germanic countries, the executioner was considered a healer; a social leper but with almost magical powers.
Human fat was mentioned in European pharmacopoeias as early as the 16th century. It was used to treat ailments on the outside of the body. German doctors, for instance, prescribed bandages soaked in it for wounds, and rubbing fat into the skin was considered a remedy for gout and rheumatism. But it could be used for other diseases as well. Human fat was frequently cited as a powerful treatment for rabies. Robert James, who we met earlier, published a book in 1741 on rabies. In it, he discusses the work of French surgeon J. P. Desault, including the remedy the surgeon had “…tried with constant success, and which I propose to prevent and cure the hydrophobia… the ointment made of one third part of mercury revived from cinnabar, one third part of human fat, and as much of hog’s lard.”
In Scotland, human fat was being sold and used as early as the beginning of the 17th century. An apothecary in Aberdeen, Scotland advertised advertised as part of his available medical ingredients “…human fat at 12s Scots per ounce”. The source of the fat was most likely executed criminals, as it was the most common source of fat available. But sometimes human fat came from much darker actions.
In July 1601, the Spanish began the siege of Ostend, one of the bloodiest battles of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish, and one of the longest sieges in history. An account of the battle tells of how on October 17, 1601, the Spanish ran in to a trap in an attack. Alll the attackers were killed, and afterwards “…the surgeons of the town went thither… and brought away sacks full of man’s grease which they had drawn out of the bodies.” It’s likely that the fat was then used to treat wounds from the battle.
Cannibalism as medicine may shock our sensibilities today, but it can be a useful starting point for developing medicinal practices in your world-building.
Bostock, John, 1855. The Natural History of Pliny the Elder. London, England: Taylor and Francis
Moog FP, and Karenberg A. Between horror and hope: gladiator’s blood as a cure for epileptics in ancient medicine. J Hist Neurosci. 2003 Jun;12(2):137-43.
Noble, Louise, 2011. Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan
Sugg, Richard, 2011. Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. Abingdon, Oxford, England: Routledge