Jacobean dramatist John Webster approached the taboo and the questionable with inexhaustible determination, plunging the contemporary reader into those dark, uncomfortable spaces we prefer to skirt around, never lingering for too long for fear of what we might uncover. For Webster, a preoccupation with the gruesome side of mortality manifests particularly strongly in his references to the practice of mummy, or corpse medicine (tinctures made from dead human flesh and bones), in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Contrary to such a perceivably unthinkable medical practice being attributed to British “medieval” history, corpse medicine continued to be practiced well into the early modern period, where it reached its height of popularity and “scientific” refinement. Webster’s references to this controversial practice invokes notions of the physicality and visceral tangibility of mortality, the intersection of science and faith, and the pressing moral question of whether cannibalism is okay if it means you get to swallow the human soul.

Compiling the history of thanatology, or death studies, and burial practices in Western Europe, Thomas W Laqueur argues that “the practice of cannibalism for the nutritional value of the dead collapses the boundary between nature and culture” (4). While speaking from a specifically Western European and contemporary understanding of the cultural value and importance attached to the dead and the preservation of the dead, Laqueur’s statement nonetheless prompts us to re-examine how early modern Britain apprehended the use of the corpse from both a medical and sociocultural perspective. Corpse medicine at this time saw the prescription, application, and consumption of human flesh, fluids, blood, bone, and organs harvested from the dead. From Charles II making his own corpse medicine and Charles I being made into corpse medicine (Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires 6), to the poor collecting the fresh blood of executed criminals in the hopes of curing epilepsy, corpse medicine was widely understood as an accepted therapy by which to cure a range of both physical and psychological afflictions. Interestingly, the normalisation and popularisation of medicinal cannibalism—a term which must necessarily be understood as specifically referring to the consumption of the human body, but which still operates under the larger label of corpse medicine—was in part facilitated by the concept that the human body is filled with divine power. Richard Sugg explains that the human body in early modern theology and medicine “represented the pinnacle of natural creation, God’s finest piece of artistry” (Mummies 264). The human body was a vessel within which the concepts of “the body” and “the soul” were mediated by the “spirits”, or “a mixture of air and blood: that is, not just any blood, but blood in its most rarefied, vaporous state” (265). These spirits were prioritised by corpse medicine for their great life-giving force, a force with many medicinal and supernatural uses. Corpse medicine, then, largely functioned under the belief that one could theoretically “swallow the human soul” (“Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture” 830), imbibing these spirits through various chemical or alchemical means in order to tap into the body’s divine power.

From Charles II making his own corpse medicine and Charles I being made into corpse medicine (Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires 6), to the poor collecting the fresh blood of executed criminals in the hopes of curing epilepsy, corpse medicine was widely understood as an accepted therapy by which to cure a range of both physical and psychological afflictions.

In The Duchess of Malfi, Bosola sounds the death-knell of the Duchess by comparing her to “a box of worm-seed, at best but a / salvatory of green mummy. What’s this flesh? A little / cruded milk, fantastical puff-paste” (4.2.137-39). For Sugg, “the phrase ‘green mummy’ offers a sharply pithy glance at the medical exploitation of human beings, presenting them not as holistic individuals, but as medicine-in-waiting, a kind of generalised crop, ripening suitably only in death” (Mummies 316). In this moment, Bosola reduces the Duchess to the absolute physicality of her body, reiterating what Sugg goes on to describe as the “alienating powers of corpse medicine” (316). Bosola negates and isolates the notion of “self”—insofar as the “self” is understood as that which constitutes a person’s perceived sense of identity and consciousness—by emphasising and prioritising the body. The Duchess is, at worst, a body subject to its inevitable mortality (inescapably fated to become, as Bosola crudely notes, “a box of worm-seed”), and at best a usable and profitable medicinal resource. Bosola goes so far as to directly compare the Duchess’ body with foodstuff, likening it to “cruded [curdled] milk” and “fantastical puff-paste”. In doing so, Webster effectively toes the narrow moral line between the ostensibly acceptable medicinal cannibalism and the morally reprehensible non-medical cannibalism, the latter associated with many highly racialised and derogatory accounts of American and Australasian indigenous peoples circulating at the time (386). To consume human flesh as one would foodstuff is to participate in Laqueur’s “collapse of nature and culture”, but to consume human flesh as a medicinal therapy, to swallow the distilled divine power of those “spirits” that saturate the body, is to participate in a rational, naturalised process of healing. Supposedly.

Another requisite of corpse medicine that Webster touches upon is the belief that for a corpse to be at its most profitable, the corpse should have experienced a violent death of some kind, such that the spirits of the body are agitated into their most concentrated state. Sugg explains: “Violent or terrifying death makes the human body into a kind of self-contained laboratory, in which the spirits linking blood and soul are conditioned into their highest medical potency” (“Medicinal Cannibalism” 830). In The White Devil, Isabella feigns rage at Vittoria by declaring that she would “dig the strumpet’s eyes out, let her lie / Some twenty months a-dying, to cut off / Her nose and lips, pull out her rotten teeth, / Preserve her flesh like mummia” (2.1.245-248). Like the Duchess, Vittoria is consigned to her absolute physicality and the commodification of her body for mummification. The manner in which she is broken down to parts is fuelled by Isabella’s (false) desire for judicial recompense in the wake of Vittoria’s affair with Isabella’s husband, with Vittoria’s nose and lips cut off and her teeth pulled from the mouth of her corpse in an act of extreme violence “befitting” a criminal. Like felons that are hanged, drowned, or decapitated, Vittoria’s body at the hands of Isabella’s imagined attack would be at its most valuable—for nothing agitates the spirits of the body quite like having one’s eyes dug out from their sockets while still alive. 

There is even a reference to the previously mentioned consumption of the hot blood of felons as a solution to epilepsy (Sugg, “Medicinal Cannibalism” 826) in the servant Zanche’s provocation: “I have blood / As red as either of theirs; wilt drink some? / ‘Tis good for the falling sickness” (5.6.224), where “falling sickness” is an early modern term for epilepsy. Epilepsy was understood as a disease of the soul (Sugg, “Medicinal Cannibalism” 830), and therefore necessitated consuming the spirits of the body at their most potent and fresh. For the poor, many of whom could not afford the distillations, powders, and salves produced by chemists and practitioners of corpse medicine, this meant collecting and consuming the fresh blood straight from the execution scaffolds. Implicit in this therapy is the understanding that the dehumanisation of criminals meant the moral absolution of those who exploited and cannibalised their corpses, a matter which did not sit well with many as corpse medicine began to enter the eighteenth century. 

For the poor, many of whom could not afford the distillations, powders, and salves produced by chemists and practitioners of corpse medicine, this meant collecting and consuming the fresh blood straight from the execution scaffolds.

Remarking on Lodovico’s banishment from Rome, Gasparo scathingly remarks: “Your followers / Have swallowed you like mummia, and being sick / With such unnatural and horrid physic / Vomit you up i’th’kennel” (Webster, The White Devil1.1.15-18). The comparison of Lodovico’s murderous doctrine to mummy, and the subsequent ruin of his followers’ sycophancy in their consumption of that doctrine without question, is not done for simple dramatic effect. In fact, Gasparo’s disgust at “such unnatural and horrid physic” anticipates eighteenth-century opposition to the practice. Sugg notes that immense social and mental changes kickstarted the movement towards modern thought in Britain: “Religion was tamed. Superstition was derided. Disgust and gentility became more pervasive. Medicine sought to present itself as increasingly scientific and enlightened” (Mummies 308). While corpse medicine did have its opponents during its popularity in the early modern period, eighteenth-century responses to the practice become less about an uneasy ambivalence than it did to an open hostility towards what was largely understood by physicians and patients alike as a shocking, immoral therapy that, more significantly, did not work. The changing nature and perception of the human body and the embarrassing ethical conundrum of navigating a “backwards” recent past resulted in many eighteenth-century men and women often largely ignoring what was, to them, anathema to British modernity (379). 

For eighteenth-century and post-eighteenth-century British physicians, philosophers, and otherwise privileged and educated citizens, taking the moral high ground, for a given value of “morality”, in the wake of Enlightenment thinking often meant carefully omitting what Webster made explicit. Webster’s references to corpse medicine in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi reminds the reader that this “unmentionable” medical practice could not be so readily relegated to highly racialised non-Western European cultures or to a distinctly “medieval” period of British history, when, as Sugg so aptly puts it, “few would have guessed that the real cannibals—those operating a vastly more widespread, systematic, commodified, and proto-scientific form of man eating—were in fact the Europeans themselves” (“Medicinal Cannibalism” 831).


Aiden is an English Honours (Literature) and art history minor student at UBC. A disgruntled horror writer and local cryptid, they are frequently found arguing about paranormal podcasts in darkened cafés and frightening baristas with their high tolerance for caffeine and regret. Can and will get into a fist fight with Shakespeare in the presumed afterlife.


Works Cited

Laqueur, Thomas W. The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Sugg, Richard. “Medical Cannibalism in Early Modern Literature and Culture.” Literature Compass, vol 10, no. 11, 2013, pp. 825-35, doi:10.1111/lic3.12109. Accessed 15 Apr. 2019.

—. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. 2nded., Rouledge, 2016.

Webster, John. “The Duchess of Malfi.” The Renaissance and the Early Seventeenth Century, edited by Joseph Black et al., 3rded., Broadview Press, 2016.

—.The White Devil.Edited by Christina Luckyj, New Mermaids, 2008.

Images

Cannibalism in Russia and Lithuania 1571 via Wikimedia Commons(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cannibalism_1571.PNG). Public Domain.

Four stages of cruelty – the reward of cruelty via Wikimedia Commons(https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cruelty4.JPG). Public Domain. 

Don Pedro Pacieco opper krygs bouwmeester des H. van Alva … Opgehangen tot Vlissingen in den Jaare 1572 via Wikimedia Commons(https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a9/1690_Don_Pacieco_mr.jpg). Public Domain.