Book Review: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires

BookReviewLogoReview by Boglarka Kiss

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.

10596894Apart 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. Continue reading “Book Review: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires”

The Admission: A Rogue Academic on Fiction

AuthorThe secret is decidedly “out.” I write fiction. I even get it published. And it’s not literary fiction, either; I write young adult novels about a 16 year old boy suffering from a blood disorder (that may or may not be vampirism). But I am a scholar, too. I work in a museum. I teach a class on the history of science. I edit a medical anthropology journal. The cocktail party query “So what do you do?” is never easily answered, but I find that more often than not, I tell people I am some stripe of academic.

Let me tell you why that’s ironic. For one thing, I am an alternative academic, or “altac.” I have a PhD, but I left a tenure track job (on purpose) to pursue something else in a new field. I work as a research associate and guest curator now, in the Dittrick Medical History Center. I do public engagement, lectures, exhibit work, etc. A cursory glance at my twitter feed will tell you that I’m besotted–I love this job like none I’ve ever had before. But as my chief curator will tell you, museum staff aren’t always highly regarded by other types of historian academics. We are on the fringes, roaming, free-range mavericks. That is partly why I like it. So why–after leaving Academe proper–do I still use that as my moniker? Why not say, for instance, “I am an academic AND a fiction writer”?

I think there is a point in each child’s life when he or she wanted to be an artist. A little older, and maybe half of them would have traded artist for famous writer, just like the ones they read at bedtime… and even after bedtime, with the flashlight. Why do most people give up on that? Well, there’s the whole issue of talent, obviously. But I don’t really think that’s it. I think it’s the years of being told that you’ll starve to death. Or worse, the years of faintly patronizing refrains of “how nice.” We are encouraged to be practical and wage-earning. Pursue what will be taken seriously by others. Chase after careers with easily recognizable tags: Lawyer, doctor, accountant, investor, architect. We are not told to pursue art historian, philosopher, grocer, herbalist, writer, artist, or even home-maker. And we are completely discouraged from pursuing those careers without names, those collections of positions strung together with grant money and hope (ahem, that includes many a museum professional, by the way). So I got into the habit of hiding the fact that I wrote fiction. And this habit continued right into my academic career.

By the time I arrived in my tenure track position, I had learned that fictive output wasn’t terribly well respected even among those getting English degrees. As a matter of fact, I had a graduate colleague who claimed never to read popular fiction; what did the masses know about quality anyway? Even literary fiction is no guarantee of respect. I have a tenured colleague who, three novels later, still struggles to be taken seriously in her department. How is it that academic writers never feel safe admitting that they write? Surely we are helping to create this problem by downplaying the hours of work we’ve poured into something–oh, it’s nothing, it’s only fiction. One answer is that so many people claim to be writers, and we don’t want to get caught up in that. But isn’t that a bit like deciding not to read what’s popular just because it is popular?

So. Where do we find the proud writers? They are the ones with no inhibitions. Sometimes their work may not even be all that fabulous–but they are proud of it. Proud that they put pen to paper. We should be like them. That voice that whispers in your ear (and has since your dissertation) with derision and scorn must be gagged. This is fiction. These are the wide and welcoming plains. Sprint. Cartwheel. Stop the mincing stride that carried you through the minefields and dash with child-like abandon. We won’t always be brilliant. Our novels–my novels–aren’t going to end world hunger, but hey, my monograph isn’t going to do that either. Take the plunge. Broadcast the admission: I am a writer.

Are you?

HIGH STAKES Book I of the Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles is out now. Book II, VILLAGERS releasing soon. See the Goodreads page or find them on Amazon.