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.

Medical folklore about blood dates back to Homer's Odyssey.

Henry Fuseli, Tiresias appears to Odysseus during the sacrificing (1780-1785) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia

Aretaeus of Cappadocia; By Cesaree01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Handkerschief in Othello

Igor Bulgarin / Shutterstock, Inc. Members of the Dnepropetrovsk State Opera and Ballet Theatre perform ” Othello ” on May 14, 2011 in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine

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).





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Law Marries Folklore in the Chicken Coop

A birch broom, functioning as the vintner's bush, signals the opening of a farmstead tavern in Germany.

A birch broom, functioning as the vintner’s bush, signals the opening of a farmstead tavern in Germany.

People love them. Restaurants hate them. And that’s why the law had to step in.

A German vintner's bush tavern in a wine cellar.

A German vintner’s bush tavern (Besenwirtschaft) in a wine cellar.

When a European vintner suspends a bush, broom, or ivy bunch outside his door, that signals the sale of homemade wine and cheap, country food on his farm. The “vintner’s bush” is, according to the American Journal of Folklore, one of the oldest folklore customs still extant. Some people say it dates back to the Romans.

But the popularity of these temporary homestead taverns raises the ire of restaurant owners. To strike a balance between preserving both culture and competition, the law protects the vintners’ age-old right to self-market wine without a restaurant or liquor license, but to keep the vintners from undercutting restaurants, it restricts vintners’ opening periods, seating, and menus. Winemakers must also comply with hygiene regulations, and that has led to some interesting innovations in their dining areas.

A refurbished chicken coop accomodates diners.

A refurbished chicken coop accomodates diners.

Traditionally, a German vintner served up his wine, sauerkraut, and sausages in his own house. Families cleared all the furniture from their living rooms and bedrooms to set up makeshift tables and chairs for their guests. Because few families keep their living quarters clean enough to meet modern hygiene requirements, most vintners renovate and maintain a room exclusively for their guests. Remodeled barns and wine cellars are popular. In the summer, some vintners set up in their gardens. One German winemaker used the knight’s hall in a castle. I once ate in a refurbished chicken coop.

A museum in Lower Austria surveyed vintners for an exhibition about the vintner’s bush. It found that 10% of vintners were using their driveways, 18% a press house or cellar, and 31.5% an addition to their house.

What was the funkiest dining setting you’ve ever experienced?

As for me, I’d have to say the chicken coop.


Some literature on point:

Henry Carrington Boulton, The Vintner’s Bush: A Survival of Twenty Centuries, Journal of American Folk-Lore XV: 40 (1902)

Werner Galler, Buschenschank in Niederösterreich [Bush Taverns in Lower Austria], Sonderausstellung des Niederösterreichischen Landesmuseums 4 (1974)

(c) Ann Marie Ackermann, 2014

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