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

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

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

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In his new book, Richard Sugg presents A Century of Supernatural Stories, a collection of compelling nineteenth-century newspaper accounts of seemingly supernatural phenomena. 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.

And yet the myths about cannibals in the furthest reaches of the New World only got started in earnest when cannibalism—sanctioned by church, state, and science—became a thing in the Old World. A certain urban squeamishness, possibly on behalf of the imagined modern reader (some 2012 Daily Mail readers apparently stoutly refused to believe that Good King Charles II used corpse medicine) pervades some of the accounts as the 20 th century is approached.

Amazing combination of scholarship and intelligent writing to discuss the European use of the human body in early modernity up until today which puts into perspective the whole notion of cannibalism usually applied to American or Asian populations during the age of discoveries. It is quite clear from his ease with his array of authors that he is competent in his field, and he has produced a wide ranging and at times compelling book.

The icing on this jumble cake is the insertion in many of the chapters of little pieces of creative writing, in which Sugg (in the present tense; that most aggravating of docu-drama styles) relates historical fictions of his own devising. It helps to have someone around who can make a dry joke or two to defuse the scatological wretchedness of many of these ancient, once-storied practices. 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).This book is full of rich detail, making you both recoil and yet read on, fascinated by our ancestors’ imaginative ways to try and heal the sick.

Does that suggest that your devoted reviewer has been less than wholly entranced by Richard Sugg’s opus?

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'. Images Donate icon An illustration of a heart shape Donate Ellipses icon An illustration of text ellipses.

The great irony is that some of it worked and that some of it is being rediscovered with a sort of wonder that those old ancestors could possibly have known such a thing – an angle that is touched only briefly by this book. 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. A Century of Supernatural Stories - Spectral cats; magical candles; parents murdering their fairy children. Certainly this would not give formal medical recipes or procedures, but it might show where some of the earlier ‘rich persons’ medicine had gone.Most of the bodies in question are dead, a fair number are not, and some are intriguingly ‘not very dead’. Or was it those who, in their determination to swallow flesh and blood and bone, threw cannibal trade networks across hundreds of miles of land and ocean[. Richard Sugg’s account of the surprise of medical historians at not knowing some of the things he has found out is worth reiterating: high time the medical historians set aside the squeamish old prejudices about investigating what the modern period sees as the nastier side of the profession and got down to documenting it properly. Kings Drops’ a remedy of almost mythical potency, was derived from ground human skull and much favoured by Charles II.

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