Every now and then, I come across something incredible that I have never heard of before, and recently I had one of those experiences when I came across an article in the Smithsonian magazine entitled “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine.” The what? Yes, apparently not that long ago, people — kings and queens, priests and scientists — routinely ingested ground up bones, blood and fat as medicine for everything from headaches to epilepsy. This is discussed at length in two books: Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, and Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. This practice went on for several hundred years, peaking in the 16th and 17th centuries, and during that time mummies were stolen from Egyptian tombs, and gravediggers robbed and sold body parts.
“The question was not, ‘Should you eat human flesh?’ but, ‘What sort of flesh should you eat?’ ” says Sugg. The answer, at first, was Egyptian mummy, which was crumbled into tinctures to stanch internal bleeding. But other parts of the body soon followed. Skull was one common ingredient, taken in powdered form to cure head ailments. Thomas Willis, a 17th-century pioneer of brain science, brewed a drink for apoplexy, or bleeding, that mingled powdered human skull and chocolate. And King Charles II of England sipped “The King’s Drops,” his personal tincture, containing human skull in alcohol.