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

mummies cannibals vampires_Richard SuggTuck into the second and revised edition of Richard Sugg’s book, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampireswhich shows the different ways in which the human body was prescribed and eaten as medicine by people throughout Europe, right up until the reign of Queen Victoria.

Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires charts in vivid detail the largely forgotten history of European corpse medicine, which saw kings, ladies, gentlemen, priests and scientists prescribe, swallow or wear human blood, flesh, bone, fat, brains and skin in an attempt to heal themselves of epilepsy, bruising, wounds, sores, plague, cancer, gout and depression. 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.

I was, in early days, taken aback to find out that there were hundreds of thousands of cannibal patients, cannibal doctors, and cannibal chemists lodged in the Courts, monasteries, universities and laboratories of early modern Europe

– Read more about Richard Sugg’s inspiration for his book in this article

Ranging from the execution scaffolds of Germany and Scandinavia, through the courts and laboratories of Italy, France and Britain, to the battlefields of Holland and Ireland, and on to the tribal man-eating of the Americas, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires argues that the real cannibals were in fact the Europeans. Picking our way through the bloodstained shadows of this remarkable secret history, we encounter medicine cut from bodies living and dead, sacks of human fat harvested after a gun battle, gloves made of human skin, and the first mummy to appear on the London stage. Lighting these pages is the uncanny glow of a lamp powered by human blood, or torches made from human hands. In its quest to understand the strange paradox of routine Christian cannibalism we move from the Catholic blood-drinking of the Eucharist, through the routine filth and discomfort of early modern bodies, and in to the potent, numinous source of corpse medicine’s ultimate power: the human soul itself.

John Henry, University of Edinburgh, notes that “Richard Sugg’s excellent book opens up a lost world of magic and medicine. This rich and authoritative account of beliefs about the medical efficacy of dead bodies is a fascinating, if gruesome, eye-opener.”

Cannibals in Brazil (1557). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Richard Sugg's book demonstrates that cannibalism was a European phenomenon as well, not something confined to the 'primitive' world.
Cannibals in Brazil (1557). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Richard Sugg’s book demonstrates that cannibalism was a European phenomenon as well, not something confined to the “primitive” world.

Richard Sugg says: “When writing the first edition of this book, I was continually shaking my head in amazement. And yet, researching the revised edition of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires, I was surprised to find myself still surprised. Thinking I had seen (in my mind’s eye) just about every horrific or bizarre spectacle of blood drinking at the scaffolds of Austria, Germany or Scandinavia, even I was impressed to read of the near riot in 1866, when desperate men and women crammed blood-soaked earth into their mouths after a rare Swedish beheading.”

Soon to be accompanied by a companion website with supplementary articles and interviews with the author, the second edition of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires is an essential read for anyone interested in the history of medicine, early modern history, and the darker, hidden past of European Christendom.

If you like this topic, you might also enjoy reading some extracts from Richard Sugg’s new collection of Victorian supernatural stories. Drawing on newspaper reports of the time, some of these stories seem to derive from human anxieties or natural causes, but others seem much harder to explain rationally…

The Ghostly Vicar - Many people are sceptical about the existence of ghosts, but one of the unusual features of ghost stories through the ages is the range of people who report seeing spectres, including those we might normally expect not to believe in them. This was the case with the family of a Wesleyan minister in 1893, which inhabited a... Continue Reading →
The Servant Who Was Frightened to Death - We often joke about being “frightened to death,” but it appears that in the nineteenth century some people really could be killed by fear. In 1864, as reported by a newspaper of the time, a young servant died after a dressing-up prank went horribly, terrifyingly wrong. In this extract from his recent book, Richard Sugg explains that the case shows... Continue Reading →
Door knocker on an old wooden door A Ghost in the Water Closet? - In this extract from his new book, Richard Sugg investigates the strange noises that haunted an entire neighbourhood in Windsor in 1841, as reported by a newspaper of the time. 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. So what... Continue Reading →
A Century of Supernatural Stories - Spectral cats; magical candles; parents murdering their fairy children. In his new book, Richard Sugg presents A Century of Supernatural Stories, a collection of compelling nineteenth-century newspaper accounts of seemingly supernatural phenomena. 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... Continue Reading →


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