Sunday, 19 June 2022

Early modern corpse medicine

I recently read a book called Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires, by Richard Sugg. Despite its title, it's not about monsters. Instead, it's a history of what Sugg calls 'corpse medicine' - the early modern practise of using bits of dead people in attempts to cure the living. Sugg can be a bit credulous in places, but he does a good job of establishing that human blood, fat, and bone saw fairly widespread use in both European folk remedies and 'academic' medicine during the period, giving rise to a range of often gruesome medical practises that, in some cases, lingered on as late as the nineteenth century.

Here are the most gameable bits.


Skull Moss: The theory went like this: during life, your brain is constantly sloshing around inside your skull, marinading the bone in brain juice (AKA 'vital spirits'). So after you die, some of the life-giving power of your brain juice should logically still inhere in your skull. You could just grind up a skull and use the resulting powder as medicine, and indeed many people seem to have done exactly that. But the best way to get the power out is to take a human skull and grow moss on it, preferably by moonlight or starlight. The moss sucks the power of the vital spirits out of the skull, and you can then powder and eat the moss as a remedy. 

Plot seeds: 

  • 'My loved one is sick! Bring me the powdered skull of something with really powerful brain-juice! Maybe a wizard or a dragon or something.'
  • 'Actually, what we really need is their whole skull, so we can grow moss on it in the light of the full moon. That won't be a problem, will it?'
  • 'And we need the brain-juice to be super-fresh, so you'll need to either find one that's just died, or kill one for us yourself. Remember - the skull must be intact! No headshots!'
  • If your PCs end up building some kind of freakish garden full of moss growing on the skulls of everything they've ever killed, then so much the better!

Strangulation boosts skull quality: If someone dies by hanging or strangling, then at the moment of their death their life force will obviously be trapped inside their head, unable to escape down into their lungs. This means they will die with a head full of super-charged brain juice, making their skull (and any skull moss subsequently grown on it) extra-potent for medical purposes. There was consequently a brisk trade in the skulls of the hanged.

    Plot seeds: 

    • 'We need the skull of a [wizard/dragon/whatever] that died by strangulation. Any other death makes them useless to us. Here's a noose. Good luck!'
    • 'Did you hear? They're hanging Horatius the Hexmaster tomorrow! Everyone's going to want his skull! We need a plan to get in first...'

    Subdermal talismans: One particularly hardcore early modern soldier apparently wore a lump of skull moss under the skin of his own head, presumably by cutting a flap of skin off his forehead, pushing the moss under it, and then sewing up the wound and letting it heal. Probably the intention was to fortify his own skull with a double-dose of life-giving brain-juice. Apparently it worked, too, protecting him against being injured by sword-blows to the head. 

    Plot seeds:

    • PCs should absolutely be encouraged to sew lumps of skull-moss from all the scariest things they've killed under the skin of their own heads. Give them mechanical bonuses for doing it. You should be able to spot a real monster-slayer from all the weird scarred-over lumps bulging out of their foreheads.
    • An enemy with a sufficiently impressive skull-moss collection might be almost unkillable, requiring PCs to specifically cut away their subdermal talismans to render them vulnerable to harm - tricky if they're also wearing a helmet!


    Wound salve: According to the early modern doctrine of sympathy, a connection existed between a wound and the weapon that caused it. Rubbing a 'wound salve' made of human blood, fat, and skull moss on a bloodstained weapon would make the wounds caused with it heal, no matter how remote the victim might be.

    Plot seeds:
    • 'I can't treat this injury - the poison is far too powerful! Find me the knife that made it! I'll treat that, instead!'
    • Wounds could be used as a means of ensuring loyalty at a distance. 'Oh, that wound looks pretty mortal, doesn't it? But as long as you keep making payments, I'll keep applying wound salve to the knife I just stabbed you with...'
    • Sugg doesn't discuss it, but there was also believed to be a 'powder of sympathy' which, if stabbed with a weapon that had been previously used to wound someone and which was still stained with their blood, would cause that person to experience sudden pain, no matter where they were on Earth. The potential value of such powder as a weapon (or, indeed, as a long-distance signalling mechanism) should be obvious!
    A cure for bad blood: To reconcile enemies, take blood from both of them and mix it with fertile soil, then grow herbs from the soil and feed the herbs to both enemies. This mixing of their life forces will soften the enmity between them. 

    Plot seeds: 
    • This scenario basically writes itself. 'Here's a bag of dirt, a bag of seeds, a sharp knife, a bottle, and a cookbook. Now get out there and end that feud!'
    • Good luck convincing someone who knows you've been consorting with their mortal enemy that you've got a totally innocent reason for first cutting them open and stealing their blood, and then coming back and feeding them a bowl of herbs with questionable origins!
    Blood lamps: Take a lamp, fill it with human blood drawn from one person, and then light it. The light from the lamp will reflect their condition - if it burns clear and bright they're probably OK, but if the flame wavers it means they're troubled, and if it goes out suddenly for no reason it means they've died. Presumably the lamp required periodic blood top-ups to renew its connection.

    Plot seeds: 
    • A ruler or spymaster might maintain whole rooms full of blood lamps, one for each person they want to keep tabs on. Plenty of opportunities for sabotage by spiking one person's lamp with someone else's blood!
    • 'I know he says he's fine, but how's he really doing? Here - take this lamp, steal some of his blood, and pour it into it. I just want to make sure that he's actually OK...'

    The Hand of Glory does appear in the book, but is surely too well-known to need writing up here.


    Dead man's hand: One seventeenth-century doctor recommended treating piles and swellings with the sweat of a dying man. This was obviously a pretty time-limited resource - if he's genuinely dying, you've only got so long before he tips over into being dead - but luckily, there was an alternative: you could rub them better with a dead man's hand! (Presumably he had a preserved one that he used for this purpose? I imagine it mounted on a stick for easier rubbing...)

    Plot seeds: 
    • A particularly stubborn disease might need rubbing with a particularly powerful severed hand - perhaps one belonging to a dead cleric, wizard, etc. If you can grab some of his sweat while he's dying, that's a bonus!
    • A curse or monster might inflict terrible swellings on those who oppose it, requiring the PCs to rub one another down with severed hands in mid-melee!

    The executioner's other trade: Each human body was believed to possess a certain allocation of life force, which leaked away through age and sickness - thus the bodies of young people (especially healthy young men) who died suddenly by violence were held to possess great power, as so much unspent life force remained bottled up within them. Many early modern executioners thus carried on a thriving trade in the blood, bones, skin, and fat of their victims, all of which were believed to possess healing properties and even to be able to ward off black magic due to the life force with which they were charged. The fresher these body parts were, the better - people desperate for cures would sometimes come to beheadings with cups, ready catch and drink the victim's blood right at the foot of the scaffold. 

    Plot seeds: 

    • A corrupt magistrate might be in league with the local executioner, having specific people executed on trumped-up charges because he believes their body parts are likely to fetch a particularly good price on the open market.
    • In a region plagued by witches, different families might compete fiercely for bits of each person executed (and agitate constantly for more executions), seeing such corpse-talismans as their best hope for protecting their families from dark sorcery.
    • A PC suffering from a magical curse or disease might learn that their only cure is the freshly-spilled blood of an executed man. When's the next execution happening, again? And they'd better be ready to fight for a spot at the foot of the block - they won't be the only ones there waving empty tankards around and trying to guess the likely trajectories of arterial spray...
    • PCs tend to inflict a lot of violence and untimely death - what if they start selling the blood and bones of their victims, too? How will the local executioners react to someone trying to break into 'their' trade?

    Blood against age: Drinking the blood of the young and healthy was thought to grant strength to the old and infirm. Normally the 'donor' was paid, though rumours circulated that some rulers had young victims abducted and murdered for the sake of their life-giving blood.

    In-game uses:

    • 'No, I need someone really healthy. Get me... like... a barbarian champion, or something. Then tie him down so I can drink some of his blood!'
    • Campaign start concept: the PCs are a bunch of random travellers kidnapped because their hardy, athletic frames make them ideal targets for the local lord's medical vampirism. Now they need to break out of his horrible castle before he drains them all dry like the ghastly, thirsty, geriatric monster he is. Good thing they're all such vigorous specimins!

    A cure for flatulence: Tired of farting at inconvenient times? Try wearing gloves made of human skin! For some reason they're good for the joints, as well! 

    (We can only hope that not too many people tried putting this one into practise, although the idea of human leather doesn't seem to have disturbed our ancestors as much as one might expect. Books continued to be intermittently bound in human skin well into the nineteenth century.)

    Plot seeds:
    • 'So what you need to do, right, is wait until he begins his big speech, and then pull his human-skin gloves off! His uncontrollable flatulence will finish his career on the spot!'
    Preserved scalp of the Red Barn Murderer, Richard Corder, and a book of his crimes bound in his skin. From 1828.

    Mummy: The crushed flesh of Ancient Egyptian mummies was believed to have many healing properties - so much so that demand for it soon outstripped supply. Egyptian corpse-merchants made up the shortfall first by substituting 'natural' mummies (the dried-out corpses of travellers killed in desert sandstorms) for the ancient kind, and then by just buying up as many bodies as they could, drying them out in giant ovens, and exporting them as 'mummies'. Paracelsian medicine maintained you could make a home-grown version just as good as an ancient one by taking the freshly-killed body of a young man who died by violence, leaving it out overnight, cutting it into strips, and macerating it in wine. So as well as moss-covered skulls, dead men's hands, human-skin gloves, crushed-up mummies, and pastes made from human blood and fat, the workshops of early modern doctors may also have contained shredded corpses in wine. For, y'know, medical reasons.

    Plot seeds:

    • 'Find me a genuine ancient mummy, with a pyramid and everything! Then crush it up so I can rub it on my injuries. You can keep the inevitable cursed gold for yourselves.'
    • PCs may kill a lot of people, but they probably don't carry giant urns of wine around on adventures with them. So for an extra pay-off, why not drag all those corpses back to the local wine-merchant and have them made into medicine? Let's just hope no-one asks any awkward questions about why you're dragging all these hacked-up corpses around...
    • With all these mummies being traded back and forth, how long can it be before an undead one gets mixed in with the rest, and wakes up just as it's being unloaded from the ship? Imagine how angry some ancient priest-king will be upon discovering he's narrowly avoided being ground up for medicinal purposes...
    • Some early modern doctors also broke into barrow mounds in search of ancient dead people to grind up into medicine. Think of all the furious barrow wights!

    The Black Doctors: Suspicion of the medical profession seems to have run deep in rural Scotland. There parents would warn their children of 'the Black Doctors', medical murderers who lurked around looking for potential victims. When they spotted a likely target they'd sneak up behind them and slap a black adhesive patch over their nose and mouth, suffocating them and preventing them from calling out, then drag them off to make healing broth from their bodies and bones. (Very similar stories circulated in early Victorian London, where medical murder-gangs were rumoured to garrote pedestrians and throw their bodies down through hidden hatches into ever-boiling cauldrons in the tunnels below.)

    Plot seeds: 

    • Hunt down the medical murder-crew preying on the local population! Then struggle with your conscience over what to do with all the cannibalistic healing broth you've just acquired from their hidden lair!
    • Actually, those suffocation-patches sound pretty handy for adventurers, too...

    20 comments:

    1. It still weirds me out that actual Egyptian mumies were grinded out for paint : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mummy_brown

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      1. It was! Burne-Jones famously buried his Mummy Brown paint in his back garden when he discovered it was made out of ground-up dead people!

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      2. I must admit I've always wondered: what did he THINK "mummy brown" was? (although I suppose he could have been confused by the mineral origin of "caput mortuum")

        Love the article by the way, I had run into some of this before but by no means all.

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      3. Glad to hear it! And you're no longer appearing as 'Unknown', which is a plus!

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    2. Excellent stuff, really wonderfully put together. Don't forget the very real medical murderers of Nineteenth Century Scotland (although they were for anatomy rather than medicine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burke_and_Hare_murders)

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      1. Indeed - and there were other cases, too, like the Italian Boy murder in London. Fears of being 'burked' clearly bled into older fears about murderous and cannibalistic 'black doctors' among the folklore of the Victorian poor - heightened by the fact that the bodies of paupers who died in Victorian workhouses really were confiscated for anatomy on an industrial scale, leading to persistent suspicions that they were being deliberately murdered by the authorities so that the surgeons could get their bodies more quickly...

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    3. Landsknechts alledgedly beliefed that grease made from human fat, offers magic protection against bullets.

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      1. That'd fit. Sugg cites Spanish conquistadores extracting human fat from their dead enemies, and Dutch surgeons doing the same to dead Spanish soldiers in the Netherlands, presumably due to a belief in its healing or protective properties.

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    4. In any setting with a pseudo-Christian or pseudo-Catholic Church, I can imagine there would be a lot of tension between them and doctors. In some areas, Priests accuse physicians of being little better than tomb robbers or Necromancers, while more liberal ones Priests simply say that they spread superstitious nonsense and that everyone knows the best way to ensure good health is to make offerings to the Church.

      Then again, such folklore and superstition existed alongside religion for years, so perhaps not.

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      1. Historically there was a lot of tension between doctors and clergymen for precisely these reasons - doctors were always being suspected of being reductive materialists, seeking purely physical cures and causes for human suffering. The force of Browne's 1643 'Religio Medici' ('religion of a doctor') comes from the fact that doctors were traditionally thought to *have* no religion. And the avidity with which doctors sought out corpses to cut up - first for corpse medicine, later for anatomical study - put them at odds with popular religious cultures which taught that the dead should be left in peace, and if possible kept intact for their resurrection on the day of judgement. Clashes between corpse-hungry doctors and furious clergy determined to protect the sanctity of their churchyards could make for good adventure fodder!

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    5. [quote] In a region plagued by witches, different families might compete fiercely for bits of each person executed (and agitate constantly for more executions), seeing such corpse-talismans as their best hope for protecting their families from dark sorcery. [/quote]

      I like this one because ot explains how families fearful of covens of dark sorcerers themselves turn into covens of dark sorcerers. "Look, we wish we didn't know about the Ones Beneath and had never heard of It that Sleeps Not. But we do know them, and they know us, so put on the sigil and start chanting, because now we're committed."

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      1. I love this. It's a very scalable explanation for cultism. And to think I tied myself in knots to cook up a wfrp scenario where the demonologists had credible motives. Thank you :-)

        ps the great thing about It that Sleeps Not is that its logical opposite, It that Sleeps, is 100% as scary. So thank you also for the spark of a dark vs dark cosmology that might be fun to play with.

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      2. And there's its other logical opposite, It that Wakes Not, which is also equally scary.

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      3. I dunno. It That Sleeps and It That Sleeps Not both sound pretty creepy, but It That Wakes Not just sounds like my cat on a warm day.

        Cults as tragic but comprehensible responses to cruel realities rings terribly true to me - a kind of metaphor for the way that sufficiently intense violence distorts everything around it. Almost no-one *wants* to waste their life chanting in a dark temple. But people do what they have to in order to get by.

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      4. I think I'd feel relatively safe paying little attention to It that Wakes Not. Apart from giving it the occasional stroke and scratch behind the ears. It that Thinks it's Dinnertime, on the other hand...

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    6. Worldcat has a real problem finding this book anywhere (apparently the closest library with a copy to me, a person living in the Mid-Atlantic States, is in London), but I did find that Suggs has another book that might contain things of gaming interest: The Smoke of the Soul - Medicine, Physiology, and Religion in Early Modern England

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      1. Hm! My university library has a copy, so I might give it a read and report back!

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    7. As a professional gardener, I am having my doubts about the ability to grow moss by moonlight. But that's of course the least of the issues here.

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      1. You're a professional gardener? That's so cool! Most of us bloggers just sit at desks all day...

        Indeed - one wonders how the process really worked. Probably they just weren't actually very good at keeping their skull-moss planters fully shielded from the sun!

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    8. On the Doctrine of Sympathy, there's also the old traditional belief that a murder victim's wounds will bleed afresh when the murderer draws near. Handy way to shift the blame if you've got access to illusion magic, a hand pump, or a pig's bladder and a hollow straw. Not that my PCs have ever tried it. Nope.

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