In Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, 2011) Richard Sugg, an expert in the fields of medical history and literature based at Durham University, investigates a previously unexplored facet of medical history. The word “corpse medicine” might trigger associations of well-known accounts of bodysnatchers providing surgeons with much-needed cadavers to perform autopsies on, but as the term “medical cannibalism” reveals, the scope of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires is much more specific, as Sugg focuses on instances of what he defines as “cannibalism” for medicinal purposes. As such, Sugg’s study not only represents a significant contribution to our understanding of medical history, but it also provides a “revision of the history of one of our deepest taboos” (3) by looking at how, from the age of the Renaissance to the Victorian era, European medicine deployed the systematic consumption of various human body parts, organs and bodily fluids in its attempt to reinstate health.
Apart from offering a highly extensive overview of how various body parts and cadavers were acquired, processed and used for medical treatment in Europe from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires offers a revelatory criticism of the discourse of cannibalism itself. Sugg highlights that the practice of “medical cannibalism” was the most prevalent and accepted when stories of “New World” cannibalism caused the greatest outcry in the “Old World.” Significantly, Sugg shows how the very discourse of cannibalism and by extension, barbarism functioned as a “potent form of colonial propaganda” (4) and was used as a justification for colonialism: “once labelled [as cannibals], and effectively dehumanised, tribal peoples in the Americas, Africa and Australasia could be ‘legitimately’ civilised, colonised, or outrightly destroyed” (113). One of the greatest merits of the book is that it reveals that the society which condemned forms of cannibalism as savage and uncivilised, was engaged in a practice which was quite similar, albeit in a medical framework, and that the two customs overlapped not only in time, but sometimes in their logic as well. Sugg claims that “at the broadest level of religious politics, Protestant–Catholic relations in the mid-sixteenth century mirror the psychology of exo-cannibalism with uncanny precision. The implicit message of cannibal violence was this: we deny your identity; we deny your reality as human beings; and we will prove this by the way in which we treat you” (129). By pointing out this paradox, Sugg calls our attention to the fact that the discourse of cannibalism as savagery was systematically used to other, marginalise and ultimately exploit non-European communities.
A further highly valuable aspect of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires is how its author positions himself within the discourse of medical history. Sugg is very critical of what he terms the “great whitewash of medical history” (257), by which he means the systematic erasure of the centuries-long significance of corpse medicine from traditional and authoritative accounts of medical history. Not only does such an eradication offer us an “oddly sanitized view” (3) of the history of illnesses, healing and ideas of medicine. Moreover, in its attempt to establish itself as unquestionably objective and rigorously scientific by casting practices of “medical cannibalism” as acts of mere superstition, dominant authoritative discourses of medical history also delegitimize forms of knowledge, belief systems and cultural attitudes that were fundamental to people who lived in the period when “corpse medicine” was prevalent. As Sugg asserts, instances of “medical cannibalism” were not anomalies regarded as morally and medically dubious. On the contrary, “during the continental Renaissance and the Tudor and early Stuart eras, corpse medicine was far from being the preserve of quacks or superstitious peasants” (37). Ironically, “medical cannibalism” was especially widespread in the age referred to as the “scientific revolution”—thus, similarly to the paradoxes of the discourse of cannibalism, modern medicine’s appeal to the idea of science as an objective and unquestionable knowledge system is ridden with aporias.
As such, Sugg’s study is an important intervention in the field of medical history, since it presents a rich and revelatory exploration of a significant period of medical history, the practices of which dominant medical discourse tried to suppress and erase. The monograph is thoroughly researched and engaging, and despite its seemingly shocking topic, would be an enjoyable read to academics and non-specialists alike.
Boglarka Kiss gained her MA in English literature and Hungarian literature in 2010 at the University of Debrecen (Hungary); currently she is a PhD candidate. Her PhD dissertation, “Integrity, Monstrosity and the Female Body in Sylvia Plath’s and Anne Sexton’s Poetry” investigates the notions of health, pathology, embodiment and medicalisation in Plath’s and Sexton’s oeuvres. Boglarka has published widely on contemporary Hungarian and English prose and poetry. Currently, she is based in Exeter (UK).