Episode 351:

High-Five Halloween

The Great Famine of 1315


The History of the Mummy Trade


Episode 351: High-Five Halloween

On today's Halloween episode, Karen and Georgia cover the Great Famine of 1315 and the history of the mummy trade.

Listen on Apple Podcasts.

The Great Famine of 1315

The Great Famine of 1315 Notes:

Header Image Source: Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

Other Images: 

  1. Artwork from Biblia pauperum. The figure points to its mouth, depicting famine.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  2. The Temptation of St. Anthony by Jheronimus Bosch (c. 1530 - c. 1600) (Artokoloro / Alamy Stock)
  3. Illustration of Hansel & Gretel published in 1899 (World History Archive / Alamy)


"Seven hundred years ago this month, people across northern Europe saw a comet in the sky and feared the worst. They were already running out of food. It had rained too much in 1315—sometimes every day for weeks at a stretch. Wheat, barley, and oats rotted in the fields, and it was too wet to make hay. Then, after an unusually cold winter, the rains started again, and the 1316 harvest failed, too. Grapes in vineyards were covered with a fuzzy mildew, and, one observer wrote, “there was no wine in the whole kingdom of France.” There wasn’t much bread, either. The historian William Chester Jordan, in his book “The Great Famine,” recounts how Parisians first put to the wheel and then exiled a group of bakers whom they accused of bolstering their loaves with waste. Across the Continent, there was also a severe shortage of salt—used to make cheese and to preserve food—since there was not enough sun to dry the salt pans on the Baltic and North Sea coasts. In 1317, the rains came again. Storms washed away not only newly planted grain—which was already scarce, because farmers had begun eating their seed corn to survive—but also topsoil and dikes. Sheep and cattle, standing in cold, muddy pastures, began dying of infection. People died, too, from malnutrition and illness.

In some regions of Europe, the Great Famine of 1315-17 killed a tenth of the population, shattering social norms and local economies. Villages were abandoned, religious houses were dispersed, and minor feudal lords pawned their land to whoever could pay. Peasants and the urban poor were left to fend for themselves. And yet the Great Famine is not as well known as it might be; William Rosen, the author of “The Third Horseman,” calls it “the famine history forgot.” In part, this is because of what followed it: the Black Death, which reached Europe in 1347 and killed a third of the population; and the Hundred Years’ War, which was fought between 1337 and 1453, and was as brutal a slog as it sounds. Those catastrophes, though, were visited on a population that had been left physically weak and divided by the famine, which, in turn, increased the damage they did. If nothing else, the hard times of seven centuries ago demonstrate that hunger has both moral and political costs..."

— Source: “The Next Great Famine” by Amy Davidson Sorkin (New Yorker) 2016  

The History of the Mummy Trade

The History of the Mummy Trade Notes:

Header Image Source: Photo by Narciso Arellano on Unsplash

Other Images:

4. Apothecary vessel with inscription "MUMIA" dating to 18th century (Bullenwächter via Wikimedia Commons)

5. Lithograph depiction of people gathered to witness the unwrapping of a mummy, 1815-1825 (WBC ART / Alamy)


"Why did people think cannibalism was good for their health? The answer offers a glimpse into the zaniest crannies of European history, at a time when Europeans were obsessed with Egyptian mummies.

Driven first by the belief that ground-up and tinctured human remains could cure anything from bubonic plague to a headache, and then by the macabre ideas Victorian people had about after-dinner entertainment, the bandaged corpses of ancient Egyptians were the subject of fascination from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.
Mummy mania
Faith that mummies could cure illness drove people for centuries to ingest something that tasted awful.
Mumia, the product created from mummified bodies, was a medicinal substance consumed for centuries by rich and poor, available in apothecaries' shops, and created from the remains of mummies brought from Egyptian tombs back to Europe.
By the 12th century apothecaries were using ground up mummies for their otherworldly medicinal properties. Mummies were a prescribed medicine for the next 500 years.
A jar used for storing mumia. (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY)
In a world without antibiotics, physicians prescribed ground up skulls, bones and flesh to treat illnesses from headaches to reducing swelling or curing the plague.
Not everyone was convinced. Guy de la Fontaine, a royal doctor, doubted mumia was a useful medicine and saw forged mummies made from dead peasants in Alexandria in 1564. He realized people could be conned. They were not always consuming genuine ancient mummies.
But the forgeries illustrate an important point: there was constant demand for dead flesh to be used in medicine and the supply of real Egyptian mummies could not meet this.
Apothecaries and herbalists were still dispensing mummy medicines into the 18th century.
Mummy's medicine
Not all doctors thought dry, old mummies made the best medicine. Some doctors believed that fresh meat and blood had a vitality the long-dead lacked.
The claim that fresh was best convinced even the noblest of nobles. England's King Charles II took medication made from human skulls after suffering a seizure, and, until 1909, physicians commonly used human skulls to treat neurological conditions..."

Karen's Episode Sources

  1. “The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century” by William C. Jordan (1996)
  2. “The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century” by William Rosen (2014)
  3. “From the Brink of the Apocalypse” by John Aberth (2000)
  4. “Hansel and Gretel” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  5. “Last Things: Death & Apocalypse in the Middle Ages” by Caroline Walker Bynum and Paul Freedman (2000)
  6. “Market Failure during the Great Famine in England and Wales (1315-7): Re-assessment of the Institutional Side of the Crisis” by Philip Slavin (McGill University) 2013
  7. “The Great European Famine of 1315, 1316, and 1317” by Henry S. Lucas (Speculum) 1930
  8. “The Great Famine: 1315–1317” (Smith College)
  9. “10 Things to Know About the Great Famine” (Medievalists.net)
  10. “The Great Famine: 1315–1322 Revisited” by William Chester Jordan (Medievalists.net)
  11. “A quantitative hydroclimatic context for the European Great Famine of 1315–1317” by Seung H. Baek, Jason E. Smerdon, George-Costin Dobrin, Jacob G. Naimark, Edward R. Cook, Benjamin I. Cook, Richard Seager, Mark A. Cane & Serena R. Scholz. (Nature) 2020
  12. “The Great Famine of 1315 – Frequently Asked Questions” (Arizona Geographic Alliance / APS Foundation)
  13. “Inside the Walls: Exploring Medieval Towns” by Alixe Bovey (British Library) 2015
  14. “The Next Great Famine” by Amy Davidson Sorkin (New Yorker) 2016 
  15. “Life in Medieval Towns” (History Alive!)
  16. “The Great Famine: 1315 – 1317” by Donna Kimbap (About History) - https://about-history.com/the-great-famine-1315-1317/
  17. “Hansel and Gretel And Other Siblings Forsaken in Forests” by Amelia Carruthers (2015)
  18. “What was life like in medieval society?” (BBC)
  19. “Black Death” (History) 2010
  20. “The Medieval Chronicle” (The Medieval Chronicle Society)
  21. “How the Middle Ages Really Were” by Tim O’Neill (HuffPost) 2014
  22. “Abandoned Children and Wish Fulfillment: Hansel and Gretel” by Mari Ness (Tor) 2017
  23. “Medicine in the Middle Ages” by Sigrid Goldiner (Met Museum)
  24. “Life in Medieval Europe” (Library & Innovation Centre, Presbyterian Ladies’ College)
  25. “Medieval warm period” by John P Rafferty (Britannica)
  26. “Great Flood and Great Famine of 1314” by Ben Johnson (Historic UK)
  27. “Feudalism” (Lumen Learning)
  28. “Ergotism and Saint Anthony’s Fire” by Andrzej Grzybowski, Katarzyna Pawlikowska-Łagód, and Agnieszka Polak (Clinics in Dermatology) 2021
  29. “St. Anthony’s Fire, the Salem Witch Trials and the Beatles” by Joe Scwarcz (Macgill)
  30. “Everyday Life in the Middle Ages” (BBC Bitesize)
  31. “London’s Population” London Datastore
  32. “Peasants and their role in rural life” by Alixe Bovey (British Library)
  33. “History 3225 Reader: Medieval Britain, 500-1500” by Robert J. Mueller (Utah State University)
  34. “Who were the peasants in the Middle Ages?” by Lucie Laumonier (Medievalists.net)
  35. “In the 1950s, Hundreds of People Started Hallucinating Visions of Hell” by Sebastien Wesolowski (Vice)
  36. “Ergotism in Norway. Part 1: The symptoms and their interpretation from the late Iron Age to the seventeenth century” by Torbjørn Alm and Brita Elvevåg (History of Psychology)
  37. “The psychology of hunger” by Dr. David Baker and Natacha Keramidas (American Psychological Association)
  38. “Medieval Prices and Wages” by David Crowther (The History of England)

Georgia's Episode Sources

  1. “Unwrapping, Grinding Up, Eating – European History of Mummies Is Truly Disturbing” by Marcus Harmes (The Conversation) 
  2. “Why did people start eating Egyptian mummies? The weird and wild ways mummy fever swept through Europe” by Marcus Harmes (The Conversation) 
  3. “‘Mumia': The strange history of human remains...as medicine” by Dr Maria Cohut (Medical News Today) 
  4. “Mummy as a Drug” by Warren Dawson 
  5. “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine” by Maria Dolan (Smithsonian Magazine) 
  6. “Ground Up Mummies Were Once an Ingredient in Paint” by Rose Eveleth (Smithsonian Magazine) 
  7. “Egyptian Mumia: The Sixteenth Century Experience and Debate” by Karl H. Dannenfeldt 
  8. “Why Did People Eat Mummies?” by Jill Sullivan (The Haunted Walk) 
  9. “Using a mummy as a medicine” by Peter Homan (Pharmaceutical Journal) 
  10. “Mummies and the Usefulness of Death” by Mariel Carr (Science History) 
  11. The “Rare Historical Photos” website 
  12. “Victorian Party People Unrolled Mummies For Fun” by Dimitra Nikolaidou (Atlas Obscura) 
  13. “Disrespect and Desecration at Victorian Mummy Unwrapping Parties” by Wu Mingren (Ancient Origins) 
  14. “Egyptian Mummies – to unwrap or not to unwrap?” by Wu Mingren (Ancient Origins) 
  15. “Uncovering the Dead at a Victorian Mummy Unwrapping Party” by Natasha Wynarczyk (Vice) 
  16. “Real-life tomb raiders: Egypt's $US3 billion smuggling problem” by Walt Curnow 
  18. “Unexpected Places You’ll Find Mummies” by Audrey Farnsworth (Fodors) 
  19. “THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MUMMY BROWN” by Philip McCouat (Art in Society) 
  20. “The Thorny Ethics of Displaying Egyptian Mummies to the Public” by Doug Struck (Undark) 
  21. “7 famous mummies and secrets they've revealed about the ancient world” by Stephanie Pappas (Live Science) 
  22. “6 famous mummies and the fascinating stories behind them” (India Today)
  23. “10 Oldest Mummies in the World” (Oldest.org)