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Richard Sugg, Durham University

The Aztecs, cannibalism and corpse medicine (2)

This is Part 2 of Dr. Richard Sugg’s specially prepared feature on the Aztecs, cannibalism and (European) corpse medicine...

Pic 1: Modern novelty ‘Blood mug’
Pic 1: Modern novelty ‘Blood mug’

At this time medical thought held that fine spirits of blood, like a kind of vapour or steam, allowed the soul to dynamically pervade the entire body. The most effective way to consume them might be via fresh blood (hence Ficino’s idea of youthful blood as a vital rejuvenating force). But when we look more closely we find these mysterious spirits of the immortal soul lurking within almost all known forms of corpse medicine. Egyptian mummies, for example, had strangely defied decay for perhaps three thousand years. Was this because the vital spirits were still somehow lodged within them? There is no doubt that Paracelsus held them to be still trapped within the recently-dead corpses which he recommended as source material. We saw that these should be young, and perished of a violent death. This was because the subject would then have died in full health and strength. More precisely, they should not have bled to death, because then their spiritual potency would have smoked away, and the flesh be worthless.

Pic 2: detail from Portrait of John Tradescant the Younger attributed to Thomas De Critz (National Portrait Gallery)
Pic 2: detail from Portrait of John Tradescant the Younger attributed to Thomas De Critz (National Portrait Gallery) (Click on image to enlarge)

Some thinkers held the finest, most sacred spirits of the body to be lodged in the brain. This would explain the value accorded to the skull over other bones. Spirits could be seen as having vapoured up into the skull after death. And that notion also underpinned the powers of skull-moss for certain practitioners or patients. Some believed that, if a man was hanged, the spirits would remain trapped in the skull for up to seven years. In this age of astrology, the raw soil of the exposed skull would then be ‘fertilised’ by a kind of seed flowing down from the stars, and the moss would grow accordingly. Rather differently, Boyle believed that this moss would halt bleeding without even touching the affected part of the body. How was this possible? In modern scientific terms, we cannot be quite sure. But from Boyle’s point of view there is one obvious answer. Spirits were still emanating from the moss, invisibly crossing the air, and thereby effecting the cure (which, Boyle insisted, he and many other men of credit had witnessed several times.)

Pic 3: 15th century document showing the position of humours in the body (Wellcome Library)
Pic 3: 15th century document showing the position of humours in the body (Wellcome Library) (Click on image to enlarge)

Corpse medicine had always had a few vocal opponents. It was denounced in the sixteenth century by the German botanist Leonhard Fuchs, and the French royal surgeon, Ambroise Paré. But this opposition was neither general nor effective until the very middle of the eighteenth century. Only now, in the age of Samuel Johnson and of George II, was medicinal cannibalism at last attacked and discredited by educated physicians and scientists. Interestingly enough, it was also just around this time that the mysterious potency of the body was undermined in a rather different way. As anatomical enquiry became more widespread and more probing, the long fascinating search for the site of the soul was increasingly abandoned. Once the sacred spirits of the blood had ceased to be a serious medical or theological idea, the body itself was no longer ‘good enough to eat’.

Pic 4: ‘¡Y tenía corazón!’ - anatomist after autopsy (1890) by Enrique Simonet y Lambardo (Museo de Málaga)
Pic 4: ‘¡Y tenía corazón!’ - anatomist after autopsy (1890) by Enrique Simonet y Lambardo (Museo de Málaga) (Click on image to enlarge)

Once, then, spiritual powers flowed in and out of human bodies, vibrating through the most lowly flesh like a kind of supernatural electric current. It was this sacred forcefield which made corpse medicine something more than barbaric superstition. And it may also have been a similar kind of holy aura which underpinned the activities of New World cannibals, and of that remarkable Mexican civilisation centred on the extraordinary city of Tenochtitlan. Corpse medicine was a highly popular and profitable therapy at the time of Michelangelo, Titian, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. In decades which saw some of the greatest buildings, paintings, sculptures, poems, plays and choral masses of all human history, one of the most powerful taboos was being routinely violated by priests, doctors and monarchs. We seem, surprisingly, to find that W.H. Prescott’s bemused exclamation is as applicable here as it was to the Aztecs themselves: ‘Surely, never were refinement and the extreme of barbarism brought so closely into contact with each other!’

Richard Sugg is Academic Fellow in Literature and Medicine at the University of Durham’s English Studies department. He is the author of ‘John Donne’ (Palgrave, 2007) and ‘Murder after Death: Literature and Anatomy in Early-Modern England’ (Cornell University Press, 2007). His current projects include ‘Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires’, which looks at European medicinal cannibalism in the early-modern period, and a history of body-soul relations, ‘Blood and Smoke’, from 1500-1700.

‘John Donne’ by Richard Sugg
‘John Donne’ by Richard Sugg (Click on image to enlarge)

(1) Inga Clendinnen, ‘Aztecs: an Interpretation’ (Cambridge University Press, 1991) 18.
(2) Details and quotations from Clendinnen, 17-18.
(3) Clendinnen, 87-110; 3.
(4) ‘Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society’ (Austin, 2001).
(5) Thomas Hutchinson ‘A History of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’, 2 vols (1764), I, 296.
(6) For this and other intriguing beliefs about corpses in the period, see: ‘The Life of the Corpse: Division and dissection in late Medieval Europe’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 50 (1995), 111-132.
(7) Mabel Peacock, ‘Executed Criminals and Folk Medicine,’ Folklore 7 (1896): 268-283, 270-1.
(8) ‘Anthropophagy in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism’, American Anthropologist 90 (1988), 405-9, 407.

‘Murder after Death’ by Richard Sugg
‘Murder after Death’ by Richard Sugg (Click on image to enlarge)

Pic 1: photo by Ian Mursell
Pic 2: photo by Sean Sprague
Pic 3: photo by Ian Mursell
Pic 4: photo by Ian Mursell
Pic 5: scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
Pic 6: copyright-free Wikipedia image, from
Pic 7: book cover, from
Pic 8: scanned from the Codex Magliabecchiano, facsimile edition, ADEVA, Graz, Austria, 1970
Pic 9: by kind permission of Glasgow University Library, Dept. of Special Collections
Pic 10: on kind permission by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Pic 11: photo by Ian Mursell (National Portrait Gallery, London)
Pic 12: copyright-free Wikipedia image by Joshua Sherurcij, from
Pic 13: copyright-free Wikimedia image, from
Pic 14: copyright-free Wikimedia image, from
Pics 15, 16 and 17: photos by Ian Mursell, Museum of the Royal Phamaceutical Society of Great Britain, London
Pic 18: from the Project Gutenberg e-book ‘Lavengro’ by George Borrow
Pic 19: from
Pic 20: photo by Ian Mursell (‘The Heart’ exhibition, Wellcome Collection, London).

Pic 1: from
Pic 2: photo by Ian Mursell (National Portrait Gallery, London)
Pics 3 and 4: photos by Ian Mursell (‘The Heart’ exhibition, Wellcome Collection, London).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 25th 2007

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Mexicolore replies: Thanks, Xavi, for correcting us on this! We’ve changed the caption now...