Flipboard: The Medieval Period: 9 Brutal Stories That Describe How Crazy It Was

The European and English theaters of anatomy where medical dissections were performed, usually on the bodies of executed criminals, were potentially a regular source for corpses destined for processing and maketing as mummy.  In fact, the 16th century understanding of the word anatomy includes “mummy,” creating a semantic link between the act of dissection, preserved bodies, and corpse drugs.  The recommendation of the eminent physician Antonio Brasavola (1500-1555) “When an executed criminal is dissected some of his fat should be preserved for pharmacological purposes-posits the corporeal leftovers of a brutal judiciaty system, and the scientific curiosity it service, as highly suitable material for the production of corpse remedies.  Certainly, Ben Jonsons satire on medicine recognizes the anatomists as traders in human fat when Volpone identifies “some quantity of human fat….which we buy of the anatomists” as a secret ingredient in the “Oglio del Scoto.” Executions of large numbers of people ensured a ready supply of Crolls ideal corpse: one that had met a sudden violent death.

There is little to suggest that citizens were executed for the medical corpse market; rather, it seems more likely that the market capitalized on a system that provided a convenient source of bodily matter.  Jonsons cynical portrayal of the mountebank, Volpone, and his bottled cure-all elixir critiques the exploitative nature of this market, and the theater provided a public forum for writers such as Jonson to articulate opinions of this kind.  His satire plays to an audience who would have been all too aware of the possible fate of the executed bodies of their fellow citizens; there were frequently fights over corpses at the execution site between the hangman, friends and families of the executed, and representatives of physicians.


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