Unveiling the Bizarre History of Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe

Intriguingly, British royals, renowned for their opulent feasts and extravagant palates, harbored a peculiar penchant for human flesh. A rather unsettling revelation, one might say, but this extraordinary insight into the annals of history stems from a book on medicinal cannibalism. The pages of this book unveil a dark and curious chapter, shedding light on a practice that persisted until the close of the 18th century.

The Prevalence of Medicinal Cannibalism

The author, Richard Sugg, asserts that this unusual practice wasn’t confined solely to the monarchs; it was, in fact, prevalent among the affluent and educated populace throughout Europe. Even as they decried the barbaric cannibalism of the New World, Europeans were actively engaged in ingesting, applying, and even wearing various human body parts as medicinal remedies. According to reports by The Daily Mail, these included powdered Egyptian mummy, human fat, flesh, bone, blood, brains, and skin.

Bizarre Medicinal Applications

It may astonish you to learn that moss collected from the skulls of deceased soldiers was utilized to treat nosebleeds. Dr. Richard Sugg at Durham University has documented the peculiar assortment of remedies derived from the human body. He explained that flesh, bone, or blood was frequently employed in treatments. This revelation shatters the common belief that cannibalism was limited to the New World and exposes its presence in Europe.

Prominent Figures and Their Involvement

Strikingly, historical figures such as James I, Charles II, Francis I, and Queen Mary, among others, were either consumers or prescribers of corpse medicine. Even renowned personalities like Elizabeth I’s surgeon John Banister and Robert Boyle were connected to this eccentric practice. This chapter of medicinal history raises several significant social questions, reflecting the influence of European science, publishing, trade networks, and educated theories.

Ethical Dilemmas of the Past

In hindsight, the procurement of body parts for medicinal use appears highly unethical. During the peak of medicinal cannibalism, body parts were routinely pilfered from Egyptian tombs and European graveyards. Astonishingly, one of the major imports from Ireland to Britain was human skulls. Whether this historical practice was more or less ethical than the modern black market for human organs remains a subject of debate.

Global and Historical Scope

The book chronicles numerous examples of medicinal cannibalism, from the execution platforms of Germany and Scandinavia to the courts and laboratories of Italy, France, and Britain. It extends to the battlefields of Holland and Ireland and even explores tribal man-eating practices in the Americas. The painting depicting the 1649 execution of Charles I, where spectators soaked up the king’s blood with handkerchiefs, highlights the extent to which this bizarre practice prevailed.

Blood as a Curative Elixir

For example, blood from criminals’ executions became a popular treatment for epilepsy in continental Europe. In Denmark, young Hans Christian Andersen witnessed parents giving their ailing child the blood collected at the scaffold. Hangmen and their assistants routinely caught the spurting blood in cups. Even a vagrant once seized a beheaded body and drank its blood before it hit the ground at a sixteenth-century execution in Germany. Remarkably, the last recorded instance of this practice in Germany occurred in 1865.

Royal Enthusiasm for Medicinal Cannibalism

James I refused to partake in the consumption of human skull, but his grandson, Charles II, embraced the idea. Charles II went so far as to purchase the recipe for a concoction known as “the King’s Drops” for approximately £6,000. This fluid remedy derived from human skull was employed to treat epilepsy, convulsions, head-related diseases, and as an emergency intervention for the terminally ill. Astonishingly, it was the very first treatment administered to Charles II at the onset of his final illness in 1685, and it was also used during the death of Queen Mary in 1698.

Exploring Medicinal Cannibalism

Dr. Sugg’s research into this peculiar facet of history will be featured in an upcoming Channel 4 documentary with Tony Robinson. The program will include reconstructions of older cannibalistic medicines using pigs’ brains, blood, and skull.


The book “Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires,” published by Routledge in June 2011, unveils a largely forgotten history of European corpse medicine, from the Renaissance era to the Victorian period. This peculiar and unsettling chapter of history stands as a testament to the complexities of human behavior and the evolution of medical practices through the ages.

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