a guest post by Bradley Irish
Content note: medical cannibalism
In the process of writing a book about disgust in Shakespeare’s world and works, I encountered a number of revolting things: the brutal mutilation of condemned criminals, the secret dissection of human corpses in private residences, the festering rot of infectious diseases. But I was perhaps most fascinated (and made most queasy) to learn about the contemporary practice that modern scholars call corpse medicine: that is, the early modern willingness to use the body parts of once-living people in pharmaceutical compounds that they both prepared and often ingested. While there is some fantastic scholarship on corpse medicine in Shakespeare’s England—such as Louis Noble’s Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture and Richard Sugg’s Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians – the concept was entirely new to me, and has been equally unfamiliar to many with whom I’ve shared my research. But as Wendy Wall puts it, not only does it seem like “human remains visibly circulated in the early modern world’, but surviving documents like contemporary recipe books and medicinal manuals actually suggest ‘how customary it was to think of body parts in the kitchen” of early modern residences. Corpse medicine, then, was a common feature of Shakespeare’s world—and the history of this remarkable practice is amply recorded by the Folger’s holdings.
The Folger is home to a large number of early modern recipe books and medical manuals, many of which have been extensively cataloged and transcribed. When you dive into these manuscripts, you can find countless examples of human body parts being utilized in the various remedies that are compiled. “For a corn” on the foot, for example, you might “rub the place affected with the bone of a dead man” (V.a.452, 86); to “stanch bleeding” of a wound, you might apply a compound containing “the Moss growing on dead mens sculls” (V.a.452, 406). I personally find that creepy enough—but what’s more, many recipes call for the actual ingestion of corpse matter, a more specific act that scholars have deemed medicinal cannibalism. We may look to one such “medicine for the Flux,” which advises to “lett the sick man drink” a boiled substance containing “as much dead mans scull made into powder as much as yow can putt upon a six pence” (V.b.400, 54). A “medecine for the blacke Iaunders” (i.e. jaundice) calls for “halfe a spoonefull of the powder” from “the scull of a dead mann dryed fayre” (X.d.469, 38). And “a Powder for the Mother” contains the grindings “of a mans Scull as much as at a tyme as will ly on a groate [a type of coin]” (V.a.21, 312). (Mother was another name for what early moderns called hysteria.)
But corpse medicine seems to have been most regularly used in remedies for various kinds of convulsions or seizures, symptoms of what Shakespeare describes as “the falling sickness” in Julius Caesar and as “epilepsy” in Othello. The use of human bones to treat epilepsy goes back to the classical period, and the practice stayed routinely prescribed in early modern England. For example, one “receipt for the falling sickness” uses “the powder of a dead mans scull” (V.a.452, 115); another requires “the substance, or oyle that is extracted from the skull of a dead man” (V.a.21, 3); a third asks for “a mans scull, un buried, one ounce” (V.b.366, 36); a fourth demands “thirty grains of the Moss of a dead mans scull” (V.a.396, 41v). Some mixtures, in fact, called for both “thirty grains of the Moss that grows on Dead mens sculls, And thirty Grains of the scull itself finely powderd (E.a.4, 255).
Many recipes for convulsions and seizures give more specific instructions about how the skull should be prepared. “The Scull muste be fyled very fyne and beaten very well in a morter” (V.a.388, 242), one tells us, while another calls for “the powder of mans skull finely beaten and searced” (V.a.361, 151r). Margaret Baker reminds that the “dead mans head” should “hath binn washed very cleane in water & dryed in a window” (V.a.619, 102). Katherine Brown recommends that we take “a mans skull that hath bin dead but one yeare” and “bury it in the Aches behind the fier, and lett it burne vntill it bee white” (V.a.397, 41v). And an anonymous compiler warns that “the skull… must be hung in a clean linen cloath before the fire, so as it may get but a moderate drought, before it be pulveriz’d” (V.a.697, 47).
Furthermore, the kind of skull mattered for falling sickness—though there was some controversy on the proper procedure. Many instructions require the skull of a particularly gendered corpse, but there was no consensus on how should this should relate to the patient’s identity; one recipe, for example, advises “the scull of a dead man, if it be a man that hath it; and a woman if a woman” (V.a.452, 113), while another says “for a Male, Take the Scull of a female…. And for a Female, the Scull of a male” (V.a.697, 47). More generally, however, it was recommended that “the Scull of a person strangled, or put to any violent death, is much better than theirs who dye of any disease” (V.a.697, 47).
And while body parts were surprisingly common in the early modern kitchen, they weren’t always on hand; one recipe for “Convulsion fitts” thus recommends the powder of “dead mans skull (if it may be had)” (V.a.361, 161r). There was however, always one option, at least for those who could stomach it: an anonymous writer’s instructions for a “falling Sicknes” remedy begins by saying “take the skull of a man that is verrie Throughly Rotted in the graue & with a hatchet or Chopping knife cut out nothing but the top of the Skull which is called the Scalpe a hand breadth & beate it into verrie fine powder” (V.a.21, 239). Most people, however, probably preferred commerce to scavenging, so Catherine Bacon helpfully reminds that “dead mens skull…you May have at the Apothecaries” (V.a.621, 120).
As should be clear, the use of human skulls in remedies for falling sickness was a primary site of corpse medicine in early modern England. But I would be remiss to not mention one other contemporary practice: the Renaissance use of mummia. The use of so called “mummy” originated in ancient practices of employing bituminous materials in medical compounds—but as Karl H. Dannenfeldt explains, a series of mistranslations and misunderstandings in the medieval period led to the early modern European habit of making medicine first from actual mummified Egyptian corpses, and then, from any kind of corpses that were available. Charred body parts sold as mummy were thus featured in storefronts across Renaissance England; in 1565, the surgeon John Hall noted that it was common “nowe among our Apothecaries” to feature in their shops “the very flesh of mans body, as it weare burned to a cole: for both whole armes and whole legges, haue been here not rarly seene, being dryed as blacke as a cole.” A remedy for “a vein that is broken” thus says to first “take mummy which is mans flesh which is to be prepared by the Apothecaries” (V.a.621, 123). Mummy is also well-represented in the Folger recipe holdings, whether in the instructions for a healing “plaister” that calls for “mummie half an ounce” (X.d.746, 1r), or in those for “A Secrett Quintessence” that requires “mummia one ounce” (V.a.456, 36r).
Finally, it must be noted that contemporary evidence suggests that early modern subjects had a very ambivalent attitude toward corpse medicine. This is specifically indicated in one recipe “to stop a flux,” which calls for part of “a Dead mans scull in Very fine powder”—but “let not,” the transcriber warns, “the party know to whom You give itt” (V.b.286, 89). So it’s not simply that people who lived in Shakespeare’s age had a different disgust threshold than many of us do today. While this is undoubtedly true to some extent, the fact remains that some, or perhaps many, individuals were still somewhat grossed out by corpse medicine—and they weren’t hesitant to complain about the “dead bodies [that] the Phisitians and Apothecaries doe against our willes make vs to swallow.”
While disgust seems to be a pretty ubiquitous feature of human psychology, the specific things that trigger disgust, and the degree of disgust that such things elicit, seem to change across time and place. That corpse medicine was a regular feature, however reluctant, of early modern life is a fantastic example of the malleability of disgust. As the recipe books in the Folger make clear, a sick person in Shakespeare’s England might end up encountering some medicines rather revolting to many of us living today!
Bradley J. Irish is an Associate Professor of English at Arizona State University. He is the author of Emotion in the Tudor Court: Literature, History, and Early Modern Feeling (Northwestern UP, 2018) and the forthcoming Shakespeare and Disgust: The History and Science of Early Modern Revulsion (Bloomsbury, 2023). He is currently writing a monograph on envy and jealousy in early modern literary culture.