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

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John Henry, University of Edinburgh, notes that “Richard Sugg’s excellent book opens up a lost world of magic and medicine. Most of the bodies in question are dead, a fair number are not, and some are intriguingly ‘not very dead’. Lighting these pages is the uncanny glow of a lamp powered by human blood, or torches made from human hands. It is concerned with ‘the largely neglected and often disturbing history of European court medicine: when kings, ladies, gentlemen, priests and scientists used and consumed human body parts to treat a broad variety of common ailments of the time'. 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.

Its more usual, non-regal sources of supply were derived from European battlefields and execution scaffolds via the courtly laboratories of Italy, France and Britain. Richard Sugg has written a thorough and engaging examination of pre-modern corpse medicine, paying special attention to literary and cultural history. I learned a lot that you can make Candles out of human fat, that there's a complex chain of retail businesses in corpse medicine throughout the 12th to 19th century. This rich and authoritative account of beliefs about the medical efficacy of dead bodies is a fascinating, if gruesome, eye-opener. I am the author of eleven books, including Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires (Routledge, 2011; 2nd edn 2015; Turkish translation 2018), Fairies: A Dangerous History (Reaktion, 2018) and The Real Vampires (Amberley, 2019).In this comprehensive and accessible text, Richard Sugg shows that, far from being a medieval therapy, corpse medicine was at its height during the social and scientific revolutions of early-modern Britain, surviving well into the eighteenth century and, amongst the poor, lingering stubbornly on into the time of Queen Victoria. 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. Where a handful of anecdotes might serve to make the author’s point, he continues to provide more and more, creating a mountain of documentation and turning what was once stunning in its cruelty or filthiness into something just boring. Certainly this would not give formal medical recipes or procedures, but it might show where some of the earlier ‘rich persons’ medicine had gone.

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. However, the items in regular use in expensive, upper class medicines in the earlier part of Sugg’s chosen period (bones, blood, live pigeons etc. 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. If you like this topic, you might also enjoy reading some extracts from Richard Sugg’s new collection of Victorian supernatural stories.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.

Sugg refers to its use by John Donne in the 17th century, and supposes that he was better able to deal with the idea because he was (as a clergyman) able to embrace the pigeons as God’s creatures. Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires charts in vivid detail the largely forgotten history of European corpse medicine, when kings, ladies, gentlemen, priests and scientists prescribed, swallowed or wore human blood, flesh, bone, fat, brains and skin against epilepsy, bruising, wounds, sores, plague, cancer, gout and depression.

Mumia – of unknown origin, truth be told – was still available from 18 th century apothecaries, and ground up mummy for artist’s pigments, although no longer sold, is still around. Presented along with Sugg’s own interpretations of what the strange events, and the way they were perceived, might tell us both about the society of the.

In 1864, as reported by a newspaper of the time, a young servant died after a dressing-up prank went horribly, terrifyingly wrong. The new third edition of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires is not only much cheaper, but substantially updated.There was without doubt a chasm between rich and poor during the entire pre-NHS period (and only slowly diminishing post the foundation of that service). I also enjoy how us Europeans are forced to reconcile with the fact that we are huge hypocrites and as beastialistic as all other people on earth. One wonders whether Sugg, for all his bravado, is not just a little bit worried that his readers might find him dull.

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