Medical cannibalism: how in medieval Europe people ate people and it was the norm

Headaches, bleeding, and hurting joints were all treated with herbs other than paracetamol throughout the Middle Ages. Human remnants, such as bone powders, fat, blood, and flesh, were often used. According to Paracelsus, Saints swallowed pus and licked bleeding sores as a panacea, who recommended human flesh as a cure. It was astonishing how readily medical cannibalism was able to be forced on strong Christian morals, and it proved to be so tenacious that even in the nineteenth century, the usage of tattered mummies and the “unboxing” of sarcophagi at parties seemed to be merely a cute abnormality.

Why do people eat their own kind?

We should start with the self-evident fact of our time: cannibalism is absolutely unacceptable, unethical, and incompatible with human nature. It must be removed entirely and irreversibly from our society at large.

Anthropophagy is divided into four categories, according to scientists:

  • The case of rugby players who died in a plane crash in the Andes or in more familiar, and from this even more tragic situations such as the famines in the Southeastern areas of European Russia in the early 1920s and 1930s, people have eaten their own kind in times of extreme hunger;
  • Jeffrey Dahmer and Alexander Spesivtsev were both convicted of cannibalism, which was performed by mentally ill people and often had s3xual connotations;
  • In South America and Australasia, for example, ritual sacrifices and/or subsequent consumption of human remains are common among the Indian tribes, whose victims might include a large number of “stray” visitors both during the time of the beginning of the creation of new countries and more recently;
  • Eaten pieces of the human body, physiological fluids, and secretions are applied to the skin to treat and prevent different ailments, which is referred to as “medical cannibalism.”

When did the transition from bloody rituals to healing occur?

It is hard to point exactly when this occurred since the reasons for which human remains were used were often combined, particularly in the case of ceremonial and medicinal cannibalism, as previously indicated. The consumption of human flesh has been practised since ancient times by many tribes, including the Guayanas, the Bahamians, Venezuelans, and American Indians, to absorb the dead’s power, wisdom, and health. Depending on the situation, this could be a deceased comrade or spouse (in the case of a husband or wife, the remaining spouse was allowed to taste the gen!tals of the dead), an exceptionally skilled enemy killed, or even a younger child who was sacrificed and fed to an elder child if the older one became ill.

In addition, new leaders consumed the genitals of their predecessors to benefit from their predecessors’ knowledge and expertise. As well as for physical healing, the flesh of the dead was prepared for mental healing in times of great sorrow for a relative or close friend who had passed away from this world: the entire tribe, including the youngest members, ate a piece of the deceased’s flesh to be healed of sadness and to absorb his life energy.

These beliefs about the cycle of life, the possibility of borrowing someone else’s experience through direct physical absorption, combined with an extremely low level of knowledge about the anatomy and physiology of the body and medicine, allowed ritual-healing cannibalism from less developed cultures to infiltrate into classical, more educated, and intelligent civilizations, such as Greece and Rome.

Man heals man by man

Galen, a Roman physician of Greek descent, is said to have established the groundwork for the pseudoscientific use of portions of the human body in medicine. Galen was one of the first commentators to advocate for the use of human blood in medicine. Following this, Greco-Roman physicians started to construct medicines based on various substances such as meat, urine, dung, and human milk. One of the most popular was a powder made from burnt human bones, used to treat epilepsy (she always frightened people with her inexplicability) and arthritis. In particular (since the time of Pliny, the Elder), the blood of defeated gladiators was valued; it was used both as a cure for the same epilepsy and as a natural stimulant for warriors.

There is an interesting contradiction here: while the same Pliny opposed the use of any parts of the human body or its secretions for medical purposes, attributing such behaviour to wild and uneducated barbarian cannibals, a little more than a century later, this practice began to be accepted as a standard medical practice. Nobody, on the other hand, ceased criticizing pagans and savages anyway.

Rise of elite and not-so cannibalism

Even though the Romans suppressed the inclination to eat human body parts for medical reasons, it has survived and flourished in Christianity. All that changed was the form of such cannibalism, which once again took on a more religious colour. Still, it became an alternative: flesh and blood of Christ offered up at the Eucharist were no longer regarded as symbolic but rather genuine.

Aspects of the phenomena of holiness are also strongly related to forbidden topics, which are paradoxically seen as benign in this context. Adherents of such ideas went on a quest for water from the baths in which the saints cleaned their bodies, for their feces and other secretions, and eventually for the saints’ corpses, which they attempted to take into their mouths when they died in battle. The belief is held that certain relics can emit scented oil-like compounds, which (again, for the sake of spiritual and physical well-being) should be ingested or applied topically during rituals to the skin.

The agony of the Catholic saints serves as another instructive example: in their quest to alleviate human suffering by means of their own, they not only froze, starved, and beat themselves to death, but they even engaged in various types of cannibalism to achieve their goals. Among those who did this were Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, who licked decaying sores and consumed pus, and Catherine of Siena, who licked the diseased flesh of lepers. Other Italian saints were able to consume lice contaminated with skin particles from the bodies of the poor, spit into their mouths, or breathe into their mouths.

Parallel to this, the cannibalistic medical sector continued to expand in the daily lives of regular Europeans, even though it was loathed by the church and the general public (you, after all, already knew how things transpired). Throughout Europe by the 16th century, including England, Germany, and Hungary, human blood was being consumed, and the city people would often congregate around the gallows to have a chance to fill their bowls with the blood of those who had just been killed or to wet their bread with it.

The most vital fluid in the human body became useful for himself and people in his immediate vicinity, who used it to cure virtually anything, from aforementioned epilepsy and other neurological ailments to consumption and impotence. For example, the infamous Countess Bathory took old people on their deathbed to at least delay their death, like Pope Innocent VIII, who was fed the blood of 10-year-old boys (though he and the boys eventually died).

Is there no new blood? The fact that several technologies for preserving its purported healing properties appeared simultaneously was not in doubt. Blood was distilled by Saint Albert the Great, blood was used to produce marmalade by the Franciscans, and in difficult situations, blood could be ground into a powder.

Indeed, in addition to blood, a wide range of human-derived pharmacological components have been employed in medicine, including fat, skin, bones, hair, nails, earwax, breast milk, the umbilical cord and placenta kidney stones, and urine (among other substances). Even towards the end of the Middle Ages, ladies in childbirth may be given to drink their husband’s urine to reduce discomfort.

Human skin was also used to treat labor pain by applying it to the belly, and it was also worn around the neck to prevent thyroid disorders from developing. Human fat was widely regarded as a potent treatment for illnesses of the joints, TB, and wounds, among other things. It may also be used topically, as in the case of Sir Théodore Turquet de Mayerne, physician to various English and French monarchs, and Oliver Cromwell. He recommends an analgesic plaster made from hemlock, opium, and human fat to relieve pain. An alleged “thieves’ candle” was made of fat and, when used in conjunction with the hand of glory (the limb of an executed criminal, from whose fat the candle was also made), was capable of immobilizing any witnesses to the theft, or, according to other versions of the legend, its light was only visible to the thief himself.

Bone powders were kept in a separate room, with the skull being the most highly prized, and from these, the most costly and “effective” medications were made. During the reign of King Charles II of England, “royal drops” were created by mixing alcohol with a crushed skull, which the aristocracy considered to be an equivalent of today’s vitamins and was consumed with wine or chocolate. And the moss of the genus Usnea, which was scraped off the skulls, was found to stop bleeding and cure wounds
on the skin. And, by the way, it worked. True, it was possible to do without the dead; it’s just that this plant itself has antiseptic and other useful properties.

And the executioners became almost the most respected and, at the same time, hated people of that time because you could buy fresh blood from them for a small fee. They also supplied makeshift pharmacies with human bodies for further sale.

But the main ingredient for medicinal preparations (this was especially pronounced since the 15th century) were completely different remains, originally from mysterious Egypt, which are currently known to us under the name “mummy.”

Since antiquity, it has been known that bitumen may be found in the natural environment in Arab nations, northern Africa, the Himalayas, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. The people were quick to recognize the presence of such material. According to the locals, Shilajit is the excrement of rats, birds, and bats that have fermented at the cave’s bottom. It results in a mineral-organic resin that is extremely similar to bitumen in appearance. While the term “bitumen” already refers to a viscous or semi-solid type of oil, it is also referred to in this context by the archaic term “asphalt.”

However, there is one thing that these two substances have in common: they were both seen to be very valuable, even miraculous, in their abilities. In both internal and exterior applications, these resins were used to treat peptic ulcers TB, maintain immunity and function of the gastrointestinal system, and as an ointment for wounds and fractures and as a component of cosmetics. Back in the first century, the Greek doctor Pedanius Dioscorides commented on the curative capabilities of Middle Eastern bitumen; several Arab scientists made similar claims a few centuries later, and it was during the Crusades that Europeans learned about a new wound remedy.

Following the widespread dissemination of information about therapeutic bitumen, growth in demand for this substance from Europe surpassed the supply from Persia and nearby areas. As a result, those seeking to profit from the sale of panaceas ventured into Egypt’s territory, where they discovered another substance that was strikingly similar to bitumen: a viscous resinous exudate found in the cavities of embalmed and desiccated bodies, which could be extracted in large quantities from the country’s soil.

It might be a more old, costly, and noble composition for embalming based on myrrh, aloe, saffron, and other spices. It could be a more recent concoction including asphalt containing less of these ingredients. However, such a substance was more than suitable for the Western consumer, resulting in an enormously busy trade and extraction of corpses that started shortly after. The black exudate of the bones was likened to the qualities of a mummy, and these conceptions progressively came together as a consequence of inaccuracies in the translation of Arabic writings, which resulted in the dried ancient remains themselves being referred to as mummies as a result of the confusion.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe had been engulfed by a widespread craze for the use of mummies: the wealthy used expensive resin (the king of France, Francis I, always carried one with him), while the rest made do with powder made from the remains or an incomprehensible oily tinted substance that was difficult to identify. In this way, individuals attempted to better their health and connect with the historical legacy of the famous and wealthy pharaohs (and this is all with the most religious life views, do not forget).

However, there would never be enough pharaohs to go around for everyone. As a result, many “medicines” contained, at best incomprehensible mummies of simpler Egyptians or the remains of caravans that had become disoriented and died in the sands, and at worst, withered bodies of animals, modern poor people, and executed criminals, or boiled fat from freshly buried bodies. Only through time did some of the customers become aware of this fact; for example, the German doctor to the King of Navarre, during a talk with the merchant, realized that he had been manufacturing mummies for sale on his own for a long time.

Because of this, although there was still a majestic halo of millennia of heritage and wisdom from an ancient civilization surrounding the Egyptian mummies, analogs began to appear that were both closer and cheaper.

Treatises on medicines from human flesh as Hannibal Lecter’s cookbook

By the 16th century, the use of bituminous resin by Europeans was increasingly losing its sacred medical significance, and the replacement of the concept of asphalt resinous mummy with dried remains prompted a rethinking of the very idea of such treatment with human flesh. Here the outstanding doctor Paracelsus came on the scene with his statements that the flesh itself, which contains all the elements of the macrocosm, is important for healing and that the most important thing in a pharmaceutical mummy is not its age but purity – a person had to die from unnatural causes and be at the same time healthy enough.

The countryman of the great doctor, Oswald Croll, was responsible for developing Paracelsian notions. In addition to supporting the concept of a mummy as a corpse that died abruptly, Croll also developed a recipe for dried human flesh, which was purportedly effective in curing diseases.

However, the vast majority of mummy users remained to think that they were ingesting the original “medicine” rather than the dried material from the gateway, even though most drugs were being manufactured from the latter at the time. Following is an acknowledgment from the Samuel Johnson Dictionary:

“Our apothecaries supply the flesh of whatever bodies they can get, fill them with… ordinary bitumen… and add aloe and some other cheap ingredients. Send them to bake in the oven until the juices and the embalming substance are absorbed.”

The fact that it was a single derivative of the body, that is, it comprised the advantages of each component, which would normally have to be taken individually, meaning that the consumer got a universal cure for practically every sickness in the world, was another advantage of this substance. In any case, it’s worth noting that the powder, despite its human origins, is much less heinous to swallow than a pound of human fat or fresh blood procured from a local executioner or healer.

Yes, and even in all this mummy hysteria, there were, albeit not the loudest, but still good opinions that all this was some kind of game throughout the whole time. Someone like the English botanist John Gerard or the French naturalist Pierre Belon pointed to the mistranslation and the healing properties of bitumen, not corpses, and someone in practice was convinced that such therapy was ineffective and stopped prescribing the mummy to his patients, as the French surgeon Ambroise Pare did.

With the development of education, science, and other elements of the society we are used to, the practice of using human flesh as medicine has increasingly lost popularity, giving way to more modern methods of treatment (which were also far from always practical). Mummies were increasingly prescribed by healers, akin to familiar witches who would spit in your ear to treat a heel spur and recommend drinking baby urine to cleanse you of filth.

And the extraction of mummies in Egypt continued already for the benefit of the pigment manufacturing industry: the “brown color of the mummy” was obtained by rubbing the dried bodies of people and animals, and this paint was quite popular until the 20th century. In the Victorian era, wealthy people had a hobby that consisted of publicly unpacking mummies when bandages were removed from the body at a noisy, crowded party. They looked at what was inside. And indeed, for every wealthy Englishman, it was considered an indicator of status to have an Egyptian mummy in his collection. These hobbies of the English aristocracy left their mark on the work of many writers of that time, one of them was Edgar Allan Poe.

It is thought that by the 1930s, the medicinal usage of mummies had come to an end, with one of the final examples appearing in a German medical catalog in 1924, according to historical records. Human fat has been available for a bit longer, and a placenta-derived variant was used in ointments and creams until the 1960s. Still, these formulations are no longer available on the market due to FDA regulations.


There will be a certain amount of subjectivity in this discussion, but this issue has personally harmed me, the author, on an inside level. In this case, we are not even talking about disgust but rather about a persistent sense of ridiculousness about what is taking place.

The phenomena of medical cannibalism itself were remarkably easy to incorporate into societies that associate themselves with different currents of Christianity, despite its extreme rarity. More than that, they took an active role in it via various expressions, giving birth to a type of double faith and doublethink. It also played a cruel joke on the people subjected to a harsh colonial policy that started during the age of the Great Geographical Discoveries and lasted throughout the imperial era of the nineteenth century.

When combined with other reasons, the occurrences of ceremonial cannibalism among the indigenous peoples served as an excuse for the Europeans to degrade them, treat them harshly, and wipe out whole tribes of their population. A similar process was taking place among Europeans, except they were more detached and did not place as much emphasis on the personality of the consumed. For some reason, the notion of human remains as a commercial item gave cannibalism a “civilized connotation,” as opposed to savagery, and made it seem more acceptable.

Because of the fascination with mummies, a large portion of the world’s archaeological legacy dating back thousands of years was dug up, removed, and destroyed. It wasn’t always because some precious remains were in costly sarcophagi loaded with jewels. It is important for the study of antiquity and simple funerals of regular people, as well as certain tablets with hieroglyphs attached to them, but Egypt has been completely destroyed by the hundreds of years of commerce in mummies, which has delayed the pace of research into the local culture for decades.

Note* Always consult your doctor or other qualified health care professional for any questions you may have about your health or condition. Never disregard a health care professional’s advice or delay getting it because of what you read on this website.
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