Blood in Medical Folklore: Why it Made Public Executions So Popular
As the executioner’s sword lobbed the man’s head off in an arching crimson spray, the crowd lunged forward. It wasn’t the sensationalism of a violent death that drew all the people clutching their white handkerchiefs. It was the blood. Bubbling from the criminal’s torso in two scarlet fountains, that blood promised healing power in medical folklore, and the crowd surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs in the magical red fluid. The roots of this medical folklore run deep – through two millennia and various cultures. And its impact on public executions lasted well into the 19th century.
Belief in the healing power of blood dates back to the ancient world. In 11th book of Homer’s Odyssey, the dead, starting with the Thebian Tirsesias, drank the blood of Odysseus’s sacrifice of sheep and it revitalized them. Human blood came into play in the Egyptian medical folklore described by Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia in the 1st century. It was dangerous for the common folk when an Egyptian king caught leprosy, wrote Pliny, because the royalty bathed in warm human blood to treat the disease. Both Pliny and a 1st c. AD colleague, Aretaeus of Cappadocia also recommended consumption of fresh blood from slaughtered gladiators or executed criminals as a cure for epilepsy.
The German physician Gunver Anna Maria Werringloer wrote a recent doctoral dissertation on the public treatment of the executed corpse in the 19th century. Medical folklore was one of the reasons why public executions were so popular, she writes. People thought both human blood and other body parts had the power to heal diseases, but it wasn’t any old blood that would do the trick. It worked best when it came from a healthy person killed suddenly. That drew the ill and infirm to public beheadings. Medical folklore turned the executioner’s block into a public pharmacy; in fact, people viewed the executioner as a healer. And few drops of blood apparently did the trick. People brought handkerchiefs to executions to absorb blood and saved them under their cupboards for good luck.
The practice had theological underpinnings. A 1699 German pharmaceutical handbook pointed out that because man was made in God’s image, his body parts offered healing value.
Germany wasn’t the only country whose folklore valued the blood dripping from the executioner’s block. Shakespeare worked the medical folklore about human blood into Othello: Desdemona treats the pain on Othello’s forehead with a handkerchief stained with the blood of virgins. Werringloer also reports the similar medical folklore in Switzerland, France, Austria, and Sweden: Even up until 1940, many people in these countries considered human blood a cure for epilepsy.
As odd as the practice seems today, it’s not all so different from some aspects of modern medicine. It’s not all so different from blood transfusions, points out medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. The period medical folklore casts a different light on the crowds that gathered to watch public executions. They were all there out of curiosity and sensationalism. The were the sick and dying, looking for another shot at life, they were parents seeking a cure for their epileptic children, they were trying to treat their diseases the best way they knew how.
What medical folklore cures have you heard about?
Literature on point:
Lindsey Fitzharris, “Drinking Blood and Eating Flesh: Corpse Medicine in Early Modern England,” The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice (Feb. 25, 2011).
Noble, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Springer, 2011).
Gunver Anna Maria Werringloer, Vom Umgang mit der Leiche im 19. Jahrhundert: Der Fall der Giftmörderin Christiane Ruthardt und die Tübinger Anatomie (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 2013).