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...the intrinsic vitality of the human organism.
February 1, 2009 3:08 AM   Subscribe

Human fat was supposed to alleviate rheumatism and arthritis, while a paste made from corpses was believed to help against contusions.... For some Protestants,... , it served as a sort of substitute for the Eucharist, or the tasting of the body of Christ in Holy Communion. Some monks even cooked "a marmalade of sorts" from the blood of the dead.
. . . . The assumption was that all organisms have a predetermined life span. If a body died in an unnatural way, the remainder of that person's life could be harvested, as it were -- hence the preference for the executed.... In 1492, when Pope Innocent VIII was on his deathbed, his doctors bled three boys and had the pope drink their blood. The boys died, and so did the pope.
When we read about Burundians and Tanzanians murdering albinos to make "medicine" of their victims, we should not forget that European Medical Cannabalism was an accepted practice as late as the 18th Century.
posted by orthogonality (51 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
And we were making fun of leeches all this time.
posted by Talanvor at 3:53 AM on February 1, 2009


Wow, thanks for posting this, I hadn't even a clue this took place. Thinking about the way European people condemned others for their barbarism, half of me wants to go 'hah, hypocrites we are!', the other half something like, 'see, we're interesting and exotic too!'

Also, "a farrago of such feculence". Must try to use that somewhere.
posted by Sova at 4:51 AM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


European Medical Cannibalism was my favorite band until I saw this post.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:51 AM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I knew about this but not its extent. Thanks for the reference.
posted by jadepearl at 4:53 AM on February 1, 2009


Turns out they just weren't drinking the blood of kids that were young enough!
posted by lucidium at 4:56 AM on February 1, 2009


I guess it wasn't just the Jews...
posted by geos at 5:07 AM on February 1, 2009


It always cracks me up when someone will start going on about how civilized Europe is, compared to America or wherever. This is the continent of the Inquisition, Vlad the Impaler and innumerable other excessively brutal leaders of history and myth, and an incredibly long history of small-scale awfulness like, I now read, medical cannibalism.

Not that anyone else is any better really; but it is a good corrective to what is sometimes a rather excessive sense of cultural superiority.
posted by Forktine at 5:24 AM on February 1, 2009


London Witchcraft Murder Traced to Africa Child Trade; - wiki
posted by adamvasco at 5:29 AM on February 1, 2009


Actually, I'd rather forget about this - not because I want to believe that Europeans were innocent of this kind of thing, but because knowing that any of my species is capable of it is depressing.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:01 AM on February 1, 2009


Interesting article, I had never heard about this before. I guess it's just another one of those ugly little bits that get swept under the carpet of civilization. Or, what Forktine said.
posted by cbp at 6:07 AM on February 1, 2009


Sure, let's all draw comparisons between 300 year old European practices and the contemporary world.
posted by oddman at 6:36 AM on February 1, 2009 [8 favorites]


Aw heck, Tanzania. We were like that when we were young.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:46 AM on February 1, 2009


In 1492, when Pope Innocent VIII was on his deathbed, his doctors bled three boys and had the pope drink their blood. The boys died, and so did the pope.

"Hey, we're a superstitious species. It seemed like a good idea at the time." —Dr. Guilty
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:53 AM on February 1, 2009


This pops up as well, when discussing the rights of Ouighers and Tibetans in China - apologists for the Chinese regime point out, "Hey! The US did even worse stuff to the Native Americans, they are in no position to say anything!"

This is bullshit. Americans =are= in a position to say something, because they understand that what America did was wrong, most Americans recognize and acknowledge the immense injustice done to the cultures who were here first, and this means we have to fight for rights for Native Americans at home =AND= to let other people know that it was not and is not the right path to take.

If it was an evil and barbaric thing to do to someone in the 1700s, it sure as hell is now.

I make no excuses for what someone who may have looked like me and lived where my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather did, and I won't make any for someone who's alive right now.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:26 AM on February 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


So the blood libel against the Jews was actually a form of projection?
posted by jonp72 at 7:29 AM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Superstition is still alive, even though science has shed light on many myths and beliefs. Some people still treat others who are perceived as inferior as objects for personal betterment. Mix superstition with disdain for "lesser people," and you have some practices that sound beyond inhumane in relatively modern times.

Replace superstition with science, and you can have something like the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, which lasted from 1932 until 1972.
The study initially involved 600 black men – 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients' informed consent. Researchers told the men they were being treated for "bad blood," a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In truth, they did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study actually went on for 40 years.
Not exactly drinking the blood of virgins, but it took advantage of an uninformed population for the questionable benefit of others.

But as Slap*Happy noted, our recent actions are not justification for inhuman treatment to others. This terrible period in American history ended with financial reparations and lifetime medical benefits and burial services to participants, wives, widows and offspring.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:53 AM on February 1, 2009


Mmmm, Soylent Medicine.
posted by jamstigator at 8:09 AM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


An albino hand is selling for two million shillings (£1,200),' she said.

So the customers are upper-class members of Tanzanian society? I think it's interesting that the parts are being bought by well-moneyed individuals, and the article is kind of vague on that. It doesn't sound like we're talking about tribal people in a mud hut making the purchase.
posted by crapmatic at 8:56 AM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Romans drank the blood of gladiators as a remedy against epilepsy.

I don't know if that's better or worse than the anti-convulsants I've got now. Probably fewer side effects. Hey, I'd be willing to give it a try.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:05 AM on February 1, 2009


Apparently I have a semi-literate stalker; I got this message on another web site:
Not that you'll even bother reading this, cause you are a goddamn arrogant know-it-all, but your post of this on metafilter is rediculous [sic].

Please learn what the Tu Quoque fallacy is before shooting off your ignorant-assed mouth again. Apparently in your topsy-turvy, "orthogonality knows best" world white europeans [sic] a couple of hundred years ago cannibalised others means we should feel guilty when we judge others of doing the same thing. Cause you know, we shouldn't stop little African girls being hacked to death cause the bad whiteys did something bad many years ago.

When those girls are hacked to death for cannibal practices we should all stop and think for a second about how evil whites are as well AMIRITE. Cause that'll get us somewhere to solving the problem.

What a fucking idiot you are.
Of course, I'm not arguing that we shouldn't judge superstitious murderers, or even that we should feel guilty doing so. I feel absolutely no guilt saying that a Tanzanian witch doctor who makes "medicine" out of murdered albinos and a European "doctor" who makes "medicine" out of murdered gingers are equally evil and stupid.

What I am suggesting is that superstition and magical-thinking and cannabalism and treating fellow human as objects to be used are all human universals, not anomalies particular to one continent or people; what should be surprising is that some societies have suppressed these tendencies.
posted by orthogonality at 9:12 AM on February 1, 2009 [9 favorites]


Excellent post—I hadn't known about this. Thanks for the perspective.
posted by languagehat at 9:23 AM on February 1, 2009


Camporesi's book The Bread of Dreams features a chapter on this topic, and other tales of cannibalism in early modern Europe.
posted by munyeca at 9:40 AM on February 1, 2009


Exsanguination is supererogatory.
posted by Tube at 9:41 AM on February 1, 2009


Sure, let's all draw comparisons between 300 year old European practices and the contemporary world.

What is your point here? That "we" are inherently better because we have (mostly) stopped eating each other by now, and "they" haven't? 300 years is the blink of an eye compared to how long the human species has walked the earth. You might as well brag about how you were finally housebroken the day before yesterday.

If anything I'd say it looks worse for Europe 300 years ago and Rome a thousand years ago than Burundi and Tanzania today because they were supposed to have been the apex of civilization during their respective eras.
posted by fleetmouse at 9:41 AM on February 1, 2009


Hey, anyone seen Adipocere around here?
posted by isopraxis at 10:45 AM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


If anything I'd say it looks worse for Europe 300 years ago and Rome a thousand years ago than Burundi and Tanzania today because they were supposed to have been the apex of civilization during their respective eras

Alternatively, you could argue that Burundi and Tanzania should have the benefit of our now enlightened views.

I also note that the article does not suggest that murder was part of the body harvesting process (leaving aside the morality of execution).

Any history use of using body parts in eastern medicine?
posted by IndigoJones at 10:47 AM on February 1, 2009


Cultural relativism is stupid.

I think the general idea that needs to be said here is 'We don't care what the fuck your culture is, if you're dismembering or killing or altering someone's body without their consent, unless it is deemed to be medically necessary (no circumcision without, say, phimosis), DON'T FUCKING TOUCH THE PERSON!!!'
posted by kldickson at 10:58 AM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


It always cracks me up when someone will start going on about how civilized Europe is, compared to America or wherever.

It isn't that we are more civilized, it's just that, when we feel like it, we do civilization better.

And also, when we feel like it, we do genocide, slavery, and exploitation better. Cleverness is morally neutral.

(Of course, I'm including the United States as part of Western Civilization.)

What actually bothers me is that we can't seem to distinguish appropriate violence with immoral violence. We have people who abhor torture who also want to disarm the populace, placing the monopoly of violence entirely in the hands of those already doing the torturing.

You can't have peace without the ability to stomp on those who break the peace. And you can't have freedom by giving all authority to those who can and will redefine freedom. Every one of us is both a vicious animal and an empathetic being, and that balance exists in all layers and aspects of society, and it is necessary.

Albinos aren't being murdered because the people of Tanzania are backwards and stupid. They're being murdered because the people are cowards. They aren't rising to the meet that stupid evil with the appropriate level of violence. I am not an albino so I have nothing to fear. They are weak in both aggression and compassion, and in that sense, their culture is inferior to our own. We have every right to judge them because we already judge ourselves. We hold them to the same standard because we are both the same: human.

Our particular cultural weakness is when we use that smug superiority to limit ourselves. It is a projection of shame over past atrocities that can only lead to more atrocities. When we create a virtue out of defanging our innate aggression, we make ourselves every bit as powerless and cowardly as the albinos' neighbors. Every person who feels that violence is beneath them is in the thrall of someone else, or parasitizing those who would protect them.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 10:59 AM on February 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


What is your point here? That "we" are inherently better because we have (mostly) stopped eating each other by now, and "they" haven't?

I don't think that's the point at all. I think the point was that it was fucking evil back then when "we" did it, so it's fucking evil now when "they" do it, however the hell you want to define "we" and "them." (I'd prefer to define it thus: "we", as in "we humans" and "they", as in "we humans".)
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:00 AM on February 1, 2009


Any history use of using body parts in eastern medicine?

Penis hotpot is quite popular in China, but it's been losing ground to Viagra more recently. *NOT human, but still...
posted by gman at 11:07 AM on February 1, 2009


Whenever I hear this type of supposed equivalence - generally in the context of "Well, yes, X group does this now, but Y group did this during the Crusades/WWII/etc. so they can't point the finger!" - my reaction is never "Huh...that sounds well-reasoned" and always "I take that as an admission that group X is in fact backward by about 500 years."
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:49 AM on February 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Chinese practice of ko-ku, when a filial daughter or more rarely a son cuts a piece of flesh from themselves to make soup to aid an ailing parent.

See the appendix in "Male Anxiety and Female Chastity" by Rukang Tian, pp. 152ff for the details and the precedents.
posted by AArtaud at 11:54 AM on February 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


For some reason "a sort of marmalade" made me blanch more than any other part of the article.

I thought this part was really interesting:
Like the cannibals of the New World, the Europeans were fundamentally interested in the consumption of vital energy. For anthropologist Conklin, the European form of cannibalism is especially remarkable. Outside Europe, she notes, the person who was eating almost always had a relationship with the person who was eaten. Europe's cannibalism, on the other hand, was "distinctly asocial," Conklin writes, adding that human body parts were treated as merchandise: bought and sold for a profit.
Life already abstracted and made over to death: nascent enlightenment rationality, anyone?
posted by felix grundy at 12:16 PM on February 1, 2009


OK, we're actually arguing about whose cannibalism is better. As the sage John Hughes once wrote: There is the brink of insanity and then there is the abyss.
posted by jonmc at 12:42 PM on February 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


For some reason "a sort of marmalade" made me blanch more than any other part of the article.

choppa flesha ya ya dada (Hey hey hey)
medically , ya ya here (here)
eatchs flesha-blooda ya ya (oh yea)
make a sort of Marmalade ....

voulez-vous faire cuire moi, ce soir?
posted by jonmc at 12:59 PM on February 1, 2009


Anyone interested in exploring this topic further should check out Richard Sugg's article, 'Good Physic but Bad Food': Early Modern Attitudes to Medicinal Cannibalism and its Suppliers (Social History of Medicine, 2006; full text available for free via Oxford Journals). As Sugg shows, the strongest supporters of the use of human body parts in medicine were the Paracelsians, who took what we would regard as a more 'scientific' approach to medicine, with a greater emphasis on empirical observation.

A little Googling also turned up a very interesting blog post on Flesh-Eating Jews, quoting the opinions of various medieval and early modern rabbis on whether it was acceptable to use human body parts in medicine. Rabbi David ibn Zimra argued that it was perfectly OK, as the body had to be treated with embalming fluid in order to preserve it, so that 'it has returned to be a kind of tar and there is no prohibition of eating it'.

However, I'd hesitate to describe medical cannibalism as an 'accepted practice' when it was surrounded by so many taboos and anxieties. Most of the human body parts used in European medicine seem to have been harvested from Egyptian mummies (the cost of importing 'mummy' all the way from Egypt explains why it was such an expensive pharmaceutical ingredient), and considering how difficult it was for anatomists to get hold of human corpses for dissection, I doubt very much whether the bodies of the recently dead, even executed criminals, were routinely made available for medical use. The claim that 'for some Protestants it served as a sort of substitute for the Eucharist' makes no sense to me, and seems to be a misunderstanding of a passage in Sugg's article pointing out that Protestant writers sometimes justified the use of 'mummy' in medicine by comparing it to the spiritual healing power of Christ's body in the eucharist.
posted by verstegan at 2:44 PM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


300 years is the blink of an eye compared to how long the human species has walked the earth.

It's even less of a blink compared to the age of the universe. What the fuck is your point?

Is it that you approve of the murders of albinos, that we can't (for your own fucked-up reasons got from fucked-up reasoning) condemn the murders of albinos, or some other bit of moronic bullshit?

What happened in fucking EUROPE three hundred God-damned YEARS ago has ZERO bearing on when we (meaning ALL of us in the world who are not execrable barbarians) respond to outrageous atrocities.

You should be ashamed. And I mean deeply, deeply ashamed. To respond to atrocity with "well white people did the same thing three hundred years ago" is just- gah. This entire line of argument sickens.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:50 PM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


What I am suggesting is that superstition and magical-thinking and cannabalism and treating fellow human as objects to be used are all human universals, not anomalies particular to one continent or people; what should be surprising is that some societies have suppressed these tendencies.

Has anybody on Metafilter posited that these things are not human "universals?" I too am puzzled by the framing of this post and some of the comments here.

Of course we NOW can judge cannibals. Isn't that the only way of fucking stopping it? It is the horror of the mistakes of our collective pasts that give us the right AND the obligation to stop this shit. Saying "Well you Europeans shouldn't be so smug in your judgments since 300 hundred years ago, you did the same." Is kind of missing the point, isn't it.

We are "better" as a society than we were 30 years ago, let alone 300. It's a battle of inches. Not miles. You bet we have a long way to go, but there is nothing wrong in declaring we do certain things "better" now than Witch Doctors in Tanzania.

It's like when we say "Female genital mutilation is so fucked up!" and then inevitably somebody leaping into the discussion countering 'Oh yeah! Well, sexism is alive and well in the west. And what about the war in Iraq that killed women!"

Moral relativism in this regard is rather inert and silly.
posted by tkchrist at 2:55 PM on February 1, 2009


Oh. Other than that I liked the links a great deal. Very interesting. Thanks.
posted by tkchrist at 3:02 PM on February 1, 2009


the average american eats a half a pound of meat per day. if it became apparent that some part of that was human flesh, how many would give it up?
posted by kitchenrat at 4:40 PM on February 1, 2009


the average american eats a half a pound of meat per day. if it became apparent that some part of that was human flesh, how many would give it up?

What does that even mean?
posted by Baron Kriminel at 5:32 PM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have read references to "mumma" in some of my books about the Sephardic diaspora and their folk medicine traditions, which was apparently a medical concoction given to sick people, sometimes without telling them.

It was made of dried and powdered baby foreskins that had been removed during the Brit Milah, and was used by older Sephardic folk medicine healers up through the early twentieth century.

Gross, right? Well, but these days, some extremely expensive facial creams and anti-wrinkle lotions have the exact same ingredient (for its reputed regenerative properties). I'm on an iPhone right now and can't post links, but Google is your friend. You think Paris Hilton got that that famously smooth blank look solely through Botox?
posted by Asparagirl at 5:48 PM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


What scares me worse than blood-sucking vampire Catholic Popes is jonmc quoting Lady Marmalade. That gave me chills, bro.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:03 PM on February 1, 2009


kitchenrat: "the average american eats a half a pound of meat per day. if it became apparent that some part of that was human flesh, how many would give it up?"

Well, there are two critical pieces of information there: (1) how much human flesh, and (2) would it mean giving up bacon?
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:00 PM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, there are two critical pieces of information there: (1) how much human flesh, and (2) would it mean giving up bacon?

note to self: lose belly fat, pronto.
posted by heeeraldo at 7:58 PM on February 1, 2009



the average american eats a half a pound of meat per day. if it became apparent that some part of that was human flesh, how many would give it up?

What does that even mean?


I think it means that people tend not to ask the hard ethical questions about things necessary to their standard of living.
posted by magic curl at 8:07 PM on February 1, 2009


0xdeadc0de - i don't know that i fully agree with your comment, but what a beautiful and necessary paean to violence in this emasculated echo chamber.
posted by magic curl at 8:14 PM on February 1, 2009


Aw, gosh, thanks, though I take issue with the word emasculated. Violence isn't strictly masculine, though some of the worst forms of it are, which gives an unfortunate power to the metaphor of castration.

Of course, the point got muddled as I went on my tirade. The problem of superstitious barbarism isn't one of sophistication, as it has existed in all cultures, high and low, throughout all of human history. The real problem is a people's unwillingness to judge it and risk their necks to prevent it.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 10:07 PM on February 1, 2009


The "cannibalism" in the title is a somewhat loaded word. If we were to recast it in terms of "the medicinal use of cadavers"...

Well, it's still widespread practice in Western medicine to this day, isn't it? Organ transplantation, collagen grafts for burn patients sourced from cadavers (and as Asparagirl points out, foreskins).

The big difference is, of course, informed consent. In most cases.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:52 PM on February 1, 2009


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers has a chapter on medicinal cannibalism, mentioning Arabian human mummy confection among other unappetizing things. Europe is well represented, too. (It's an entertaining read.)
posted by parudox at 11:18 PM on February 1, 2009


Eat me!
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:50 AM on February 2, 2009


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