Written by Marnie Camping-Harris
In our modern understanding, cannibalism is commonly described as being a savage and barbarous act. However, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this view of cannibalism was not so clear cut, as seen with the consumption of human body parts being accepted under medical terms and reserved only for those wealthy or influential enough to receive such treatment. Before this time, other cultures had acknowledged the apparent positive outcomes of medical cannibalism. The Romans would drink the blood of slain gladiators in order to absorb their vitality. Healers from ancient Mesopotamia and India also believed in the utilisation of human body parts in the medical treatment of individuals, noting how they were able to cure them of various diseases.
Within early modern Europe, the acceptance of medical cannibalism was first popularised in the sixteenth century by the Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus (c.1493-1541). Paracelsus believed that the consumption of part of the human head would be able to fix a problem in the cranial region of a sick person. He alleged that the best skulls to be ingested were those specifically of men who, in their prime, had died a violent death. Another claim of Paracelsus was that human blood was good for drinking; it was utilised in order to cure a sick individual or to regain vitality, and it was even suggested to procure the product from a living body. The main reasoning behind these cannibalistic opinions was the belief that human remains, whether they be blood or bone, contained the spirit of the body. Even after death, the religious hold of the church remained over people, as the notion of the spirit made these remains appear miraculous at the time, and with the spirit of the body they were able to cure or help the majority of ailments. The religious concept of the divine right of kings also involved the human body, as the public believed that a king’s body held miraculous qualities due to them being chosen by, and made in the image of, God. The Royal Touch was popularised in the sixteenth century and, as the name suggests, it involved the monarch laying their hands on an ill individual with the aim of curing them, regardless of class. However, King Charles I’s execution in 1649 changed this belief into a more cannibalistic one; with avid spectators mopping up his blood with handkerchiefs, believing that it would cure them from their ailments and diseases.
In England, a form of medical cannibalism was famously introduced by Jonathan Goddard (1617-1665). Goddard was an English physician, known for being both an army surgeon to Oliver Cromwell’s troops as well as his personal doctor. Similarly to Paracelsus, Goddard believed that the crushed-up skulls of those who suffered a gruesome death had significant health benefits when ingested; the alleged cures were not only reserved for ailments of the head and brain, but also for neurological disorders such as epilepsy. Goddard also desired that the skulls he used to be specifically from Ireland; his reasoning for this largely stemmed from his additional desire for skull moss to be incorporated into his concoction. Not only were skulls believed to serve as incredible cures for a multitude of illnesses, but skull moss had apparent healing abilities as well; for instance, theologian Richard Baxter (1615-1691) used skull moss to help his nosebleeds. In Ireland, the practice was to not bury the heads of their enemies as a warning, therefore, moss would grow over the unburied skulls, making skulls from Ireland more desirable. Goddard’s concoction of five pounds of crushed human skulls and skull moss came to be marketed as ‘Goddard’s Drops’. He branded them as miracle drops, claiming that they could cure any and all ailments. Goddard’s reputation stemmed from his membership at the Royal Society, which is where, no doubt, King Charles II discovered this apparent miraculous cure and decided to purchase the concoction for £6,000 – rebranding it as the ‘King’s Drops’.
King Charles II is not only known as the party king by scholars, but also as an intellectual who was highly interested in alchemy and chemistry. He notably chartered the Royal Society in 1662, making it the most prestigious and, in today’s terms, oldest scientific society in Britain. Historians attribute Charles’ interest in science to his tutor William Harvey (1578-1657). Harvey was the first known physician to describe the body’s circulation and blood properties in complete full detail. Moreover, during his exile in France after his father’s execution, he assisted his friend the Earl of Buckingham in scientific experiments, and on his return to England scholars describe Charles as being a competent chemist, with contemporaries being astonished at his vast knowledge. Not only was he competent in this field, but Charles was seriously engrossed in the art of chemistry and alchemy. At the Palace of Whitehall, he had a laboratory installed that was within easy access from his bedroom. It was this keen enthusiasm for science that led him to establish the Royal Society, as he wanted to create a space for a more academic and learned approach to science. Therefore, it was of no surprise that Charles was intrigued by Goddard’s claims and discoveries. Personally, he fully believed in the concept of the drops, adding the powder to either wine or chocolate and sipping the mixture throughout the day. Charles also allegedly used the drops on unsuspecting courtiers, with the help of his private secretary William Chiffinch, in order to procure secrets from them; claiming that they would have miraculous qualities in this department as well. Unsurprisingly, however, the majority of modern scholars believe that the ingestion of these miracle drops actually sped up Charles’ death, as on his deathbed the doctors were pouring around 40 drops a day down his throat.
After Charles’ death in 1685, the ‘King’s Drops’ continued to be marketed, still being heralded as a miraculous cure, and only available to the wealthy and important. In a desperate attempt to save her life, the royal doctors turned to the drops again to cure another monarch: Queen Mary II. Nevertheless, the drops did not work, and Mary died in 1694. The last documented skull sales were recorded as late as 1778, yet medical cannibalism as a whole came to a standstill in England in the nineteenth century.
On reflection, not only was medical cannibalism evidently immoral, but at its height it was completely hypocritical. It was during the sixteenth century that English and European powerhouses were beginning a quest of global exploration. With this exploration came the colonisation of the Americas. This is where the hypocrisy comes to stage, as the colonisers used their branding of the natives as savage cannibals as an excuse to commit a multitude of atrocities. Closer to home, the legend of Sawney Bean was being popularised in Britain around the sixteenth century, claiming that he and his clan had murdered and eaten over a thousand people in 25 years. This not only made the idea of cannibalism completely barbaric, but also feared, therefore begging the question as to where the line for cannibalism was and if there even was one. If eating people directly was wrong, why was the ingestion of blood and human skulls allowed and deemed miraculous?
Cristina Carvalho, “Charles II: A Man Caught Between Tradition and Science” in Via Panorâmica (2014)
David Hanrahan, Charles II and the Duke of Buckingham (Sutton Publishing, 2006)
Jenny Uglow, A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game (Faber & Faber, 2009)
Samuel Pepys, Diary of Samuel Pepys (1669)
Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, 2011)
Sahir Pandey: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/king-s-drops-0017023
Maria Dolan: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-gruesome-history-of-eating-corpses-as-medicine-82360284/
Richard Sugg: https://www.historyireland.com/skulls-for-sale-english-conquest-and-cannibal-medicines/
Featured image credit: King Charles II (1660-5). John Michael Wright or studio. Oil on canvas. Image accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:King_Charles_II_by_John_Michael_Wright_or_studio.jpg.