Strand 4: The Dead Sustaining Life: Criminal Corpses in European Medicine and Magic, 1700-1900.

Strand Researchers: Professor Owen Davies and Dr Francesca Matteoni, University of Hertfordshire

There is a long history of the medical use of 'criminal corpses'. The bodies of exected malefactors held particular potency in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While several of the magico-medical uses of criminal corpses have received attention by historians, folklorists, and anthropologists, they have never been studied together to reach a deeper understanding of the significance of the medical potency of the criminal corpse. Furthermore, the subject has been little studied by historians beyond the early modern period. Led By Professor Owen Davies, Strand 4 will investigate how the curative powers of the criminal corpse were harnessed in the historiographically-neglected period 1700-1900.

Etching by Francisco Goya, 1797
Etching by Francisco Goya, 1797

Using ethnographic sources, newspapers, and medical literature from the period, Strand 4 will explore the extent and nature of the use of criminal corpses to cure and protect the living in Britain, and Western and Northern Europe more generally. Identifying religious and cultural influences on the various healing and magical traditions will be central to the analysis. 








Strand 4 takes three methodological approaches:
Caldmore Hand of Glory
Caldmore Hand of Glory

  1. Regional comparative analysis. How far was the British healing/protective corpse tradition part of a broader set of shared medical practices and beliefs in northern Europe? Comparative analysis will also be informed by anthropological literature on the healing power of criminal corpses outside Europe.
  2. Historicising folkloric material: applying the methodologies and analytical tools of the historian to the voluminous but fragmented folkloric material, assimilating it with other historical sources and thus placing it in socio-historical contexts.
  3. Detailed case studies will be used to explore broader themes.

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