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  • Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture
  • Julie Davies
Noble, Louise, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Early Modern Cultural Studies), Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011; hardback; pp. 256; R.R.P. US$85.00; ISBN 9780230110274.

Many are likely to conceive of a topic such as cannibalism as the study of an alien past – a barbaric practice of a bygone era. Indeed, even replacing the more sensational term ‘medicinal cannibalism’ with the clinically dry ‘corpse pharmacology’ does little to lessen the aversion to these practices, especially knowing exactly what the practice entails.

As implied in the title, this book explores the tradition of ‘corpse pharmacology’, that is the medicinal use and ingestion of specially prepared body parts and excretions in early modern England and the fascination that these practices engendered in the literary culture of the time. Louise Noble approaches the study in a way that, from the outset, draws insightful analogies between the often legally questionable early modern trade in ‘recycled medical corpse matter’ (p. 2) and current trade (both the legal and illegal) in [End Page 237] medical cadavers, biological material, and organs central to today’s ‘medical economy’ (p. 2; see also Chapter 1).

In her exploration of the natural philosophy and metaphysics that supported the belief in the efficacy of the corpse-based remedies (mumia), Noble craftily and smoothly links the discussion of medicalized corpses to both historical and modern religious, political, and cultural implications of such practices. Through these lenses, she offers enlightening insights into the social and cultural functions of cannibalism, including the polemic tensions between Protestant utilizers of medicinal mumia and the Catholic Eucharist rituals, and contemporary debates over the extent of the legal rights people are (or are not) allowed to exercise over their bodies today.

This leads to one of the surprising and innovative aspects of this study. Noble uses the themes identified in the early modern context in conjunction with Jonathan Gil Harris’s theory of the temporality of matter and the bioethical studies of Nancy Scheper-Hughes, to create signposts for future discussions relating to the navigation of today’s moralizing debates over the medical appropriation of corpses and human tissue. In the modern context, the author primarily focuses on ethical questions surrounding organ transplants – a practice that has been likened to a form of cannibalism – and particularly controversial incidents such as the state-mandated harvesting programmes that were reported to have occurred in Chinese prisons in 2005.

Despite such a weighty agenda, Noble intentionally takes an important cue from the early modern medical authors, and refrains from over-sensationalizing the topic, a wise decision given the nature of the material with which the reader is often confronted. Yet methodologically, Noble goes beyond the sterilized context of the recipe books and pharmacopeia with interesting effect. She successfully uses these and other traditional historical sources (such as trial records) to contextualize her study and ground her arguments.

Much of the work, however, focuses on examples of medicinal cannibalism in literary texts. Through the cultural creations of such impressive figures as Shakespeare, Jonson, Spenser, and Nashe, Noble explores the social and cultural reactions to and anxieties about the use of mumia. The author very convincingly relates these fictional constructs to the interplay between the medical practices and ‘processes of social disenfranchisement, judicial violence, scientific experimentation, and religious reform’ (p. 13). These theories and interpretations are then supported well with a reassuring balance of non-medical writings of philosophical heavyweights such as Da Vinci (p. 17) and Montaigne (p. 61). [End Page 238]

In balancing the use of fiction, philosophy, and historical records, Noble’s work bears out Marshall Sahlins’s notion that ‘cannibalism is always “symbolic” even when it is “real”’ (p. 8). Indeed, it is this notion that helps Noble overcome what was undoubtedly the biggest conceptual hurdle for the work: establishing a convincing analogy between early modern discussions of the usage of mumia and modern medical practices that make use of harvested human materials.

Unfortunately, the author seems very hesitant to offer any substantial arguments regarding what, in the end, the early modern analogy might actually offer the modern bioethicist. The reader...


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pp. 237-239
Launched on MUSE
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