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New Cannibal Markets

Jean-Daniel Rainhorn
Samira El Boudamoussi

Part 1. Trading in the Human Body

Rest in Pieces: A Short Genealogy of Cannibal Markets

Jean-Jacques Courtine

Texte intégral

1The possibility of transferring living human organs or tissues from one body to another did not occur before the nineteen forties, when blood transfusion became widely available. As a result, the presence in this publication of a cultural historian specialized in the body over a long time span may seem odd. In order to overcome this apparent paradox, I have taken the very title of our meeting—“a cannibal market”—quite literally, very seriously, and, of course, historically. And I have done the exact same thing with some of the propositions spelled out in the presentation of the project that gathers us here, in which several traits of a new global health-care market are defined: “Human body parts of socially disadvantaged persons are rented or purchased on a more or less legal basis. Commodification of human body parts is another feature of such a market. A new type of trade based on increasing social inequality in most societies and between countries is developing. The result is an economy that is not only comparable to a neocolonial one, but also to a kind of cannibal market.”

2“A kind of cannibal market.…” Let us begin by questioning the very metaphor central to the project’s presentation in a historical perspective: Is it relevant? Did such cannibal markets for body parts exist before the advent of mass blood transfusion in the 1940s, and, later, organ transplantation? Yes, they did, though of course in quite a different way. Were human organs commoditized in various markets before the days of contemporary biomedical technologies? Yes, they undoubtedly have been, continually throughout history. And finally, are there any historical precedents of the project of improving the health of some by using elements from the bodies of others? Yes, many, too many, indeed.

  • 1 Here, I will only focus on the first two areas, leaving the question of war and that of mass enter (...)
  • 2 The existence of which a posthumous collection of essays by Claude Lévi-Strauss (2013) has recentl (...)

3So we could say that the intuition that led the organizers of our meeting to characterize the new neoliberal and global market as “cannibal” rests on ancient genealogical foundations, the traces of which can be literally uncovered in different historical contexts (in the history of religion, that of medicine, that of war, and even that of mass entertainment,1 among others) and in different time periods. The metaphor is, for that matter, quite relevant, for if you follow this discursive thread, you end up in a dark side of history, unearthing the “shadow” or the “phantom” memory of Western cannibalism.2

4If we choose to explore the long genealogy of such a memory, what do we discover? We find out that there are innumerable historical instances when human bodies and organs have had a long afterlife—and not in Heavens, as some might expect, but on earth. And there they did not rest in peace, but rather, if you will allow me the expression, they rested in pieces. Or, more exactly, they traveled in pieces, which is what commodities do in any kind of market, and cannibal markets are no exception to that golden rule.

5Let me give you a few memorable examples of the strange itineraries followed by commoditized body parts in the modern period. There was, for instance, the case of the tribulations of Swedenborg’s (1688–1772) skull. The man was a famous mystic and interlocutor of spirits. His restless cranium had a busy afterlife, seeing its market value rapidly inflating in a time of phrenological mania and cabinet curiosities, the skull passing from one owner to another over two centuries to be eventually sold at auction at Sotheby’s for £1,500. Here is a typical example of the rhetoric of commodification of body parts from the auction catalogue: “[The skull is] of dark ivory color, jawbone lacking…, otherwise in very good condition with attractive patina” (Walford Davies 2013). Swedenborg’s Swedish brainpan may have crossed paths with that of René Descartes, which was separated from his body during his repatriation from Sweden to France in 1667 and finally sent back to the Natural History Museum in Paris, adorned with various inscriptions from successive owners. There is no need to insist here: from the eighteenth century onward, an informal but vast and versatile market for famous body parts existed where circulated Galileo Galilei’s middle finger, Ludwig van Beethoven’s eardrums, Walt Whitman’s brain, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s heart, and let’s not forget what was to be expected by any serious reader of Sigmund Freud in such a fetishist environment: the penis of Napoleon himself. Emperors never totally die: they leave behind withered fragments of their glory. The emperor had two bodies indeed.

6This compulsive craze for the remains of celebrities would be of little interest here if it did not point to the next step in our genealogical quest for cannibal markets: that of the continuation of the ancient commerce of religious relics at the time of the formation of a mass society in which celebrity was becoming a major currency. I have obviously no space here to dedicate to this very long history of sacred human remains, dating back to the oldest forms of religious and magical beliefs, way before their Christianization. If we limit our enquiry to Medieval and Modern Europe, suffice it to say that the trade in religious relics of saints and martyrs was a massive undertaking of collecting, fabricating, exhibiting and selling organs, bits and pieces of the body, to obtain all sorts of benefits. This is where religious genealogy encounters medical history: what was expected from the contact with the relic was healing. But this is also how such commodification of body parts in the religious commerce of relics meets with the underlying elusive question of ritual and therapeutic cannibalism: one can be cured by someone else’s body, as one could long ago be fed by it. The traffic in relics is a cannibal market, transferring to the living what was thought to be the strength, the power of the dead. The harvesting and commodification of sacred relics in traditional European societies was, long after anthropophagy, another symbolic way of using the bodies of the dead to keep the living alive.

7But, as far as we are concerned here, what the history of the trade in religious relics makes perfectly explicit is that, first of all, the sacred nature of the human body is no obstacle to commodification—just the opposite. And, second, the perception of this traffic as a cannibal market was already perfectly clear in the controversies that arose in the ideological fight between the clergy of the Roman and Protestant churches regarding selling relics and indulgences.

  • 3 For a more general view on this topic, see Boutry, Favre and Julia 2009.

8At the end of the fifteenth century, the Catholic theologian Petrus Albinianus commented on the matter: “The blood outpouring of Christ and the Saints is a treasure kept in the safe of the Church, and the Church has the key to that safe. Thus, when the Church decides, they can open the safe and have anybody they choose benefit from this treasure, by offering healing and indulgences” (Baud 1993, 151). So, beyond the invention of the first Christian blood bank and of Christ as first blood donor, this text clearly shows that the fragmentation of the bodies of saints as relics and the traffic in indulgences were perfectly compatible with commercial exchanges. Unsurprisingly, this became one of the central arguments of Jean Calvin’s violent diatribe against the adoration of relics in A Treatise on Relics ([1543] 1870). Let us summarize what Calvin had to say against it. First, worshipping and selling relics were execrable sacrileges because they were a continuation of paganism and idolatry within Christianity. Second, this commerce treated faith as a commodity. And third, all of this happened in what Calvin calls the “Pope’s kitchen.” He meant that the priests fed on relics, becoming as fat as pigs. This was one of his main arguments: the clergy in Rome was a cannibal clergy, the priests lived on the dead to fill the insatiable stomach of the Church. And, beyond the dead, they ate the poor themselves, “they skin them alive and keep on devouring them” (Calvin [1543] 1870, 220).3 This is why Calvinists considered the disenchantment of the saints’ bodies to be a key intellectual obligation, and why relics were desecrated, destroyed, and treated as rubbish during the Wars of Religion in France.

9These are old stories, you may object, stories of ancient cannibal markets, long gone. Are we so sure? The exact same metaphors were used during the French and the Bolshevik revolutions with the exact same consequences: the destruction of religious cannibal markets and their replacement with new ones for the benefits of the state. This did not, as we know, prevent the Soviet Union from reinstating the adoration of relics in its most archaic form by mummifying Comrade Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin, and offering up his living-dead body to be worshipped by the Soviet masses. This tribute demonstrated the indifference of old bones and dry skin to political ideology, as well as their power to behave like Russian dolls and generate another relic from within the one that has just been destroyed (Tumarkin 1983; Verdery 1999).

10But this is far from being the only resurgence of the metaphor of cannibal markets in Western collective memory. Another example is to be found in the history of medicine. Let me provide you, if I dare say it, with the bare bones of the story, which happened mostly in England, though there were other cases here and there in Europe. From the reign of Henry VIII, the only legal provider of bodies for dissection in England had been the gallows: corpses of murderers were given to anatomists for what was considered by popular wisdom to be a terrible post mortem punishment. Inevitably, over the course of the eighteenth century, an increased interest in human anatomy “promoted a black market in corpses. Anatomists offered money for them and were abundantly supplied. Dismembered, they sold to students at a profit” (Richardson 1987, 71). Human organs had become commodities on very dark markets indeed. At night, gangs of “body-snatchers,” otherwise known as “resurrectionists,” visited cemeteries in big cities and disturbed the peace of eternal sleep.

11The structure of the market was such that the fresher the meat, the higher the price. It was then just a matter of time before the idea arose that killing would be more profitable than digging. The commodities would still be warm when they reached the anatomy school, no questions asked. The infamous gang of Burke and Hare thus murdered sixteen people in Edinburgh, and so powerfully stirred collective imagination that the verb “burking” entered the English language of the time and that Mary Shelley found in these nocturnal activities a large part of the inspiration that led to the invention of her immortal Frankenstein.

12The authorities finally dealt with the problem. In 1831 a new anatomy bill was introduced to Parliament, providing the basis of modern law on the subject. It recommended that instead of giving hanged murderers, the government should confiscate bodies of paupers who died in workhouses and hospitals, too poor to pay for their own funerals. What had been a feared and hated punishment for murder became one for poverty. From that point on, schools of anatomy would consume the organs of the destitute (Richardson 1987; Shultz 1992; MacDonald 2006; MacDonald 2010; Ferber and Wilde 2011; Carney 2011). This immediately resuscitated in collective memory the metaphor the genealogy of which we are trying to retrace here. One editorial from The Lancet had this to say about it in 1832: “It is disgusting to talk of anatomy as a science while it is cultivated by means of practices which would disgrace a nation of cannibals.”

13And, as a matter of fact, this was one historical moment when bodies were treated as mere commodities: corpses were tagged, bought, sold, and delivered. Human bodies were stuffed into boxes and crates, treated like meat, carried in carts and on horseback, hidden under other commodities, damaged in transit. “They were dismembered and sold in pieces, or measured and sold by the inch” (Richardson 1987, 72). In this process of commodification in these cannibal markets, the bodies lost their names: anatomists called them “subjects”; resurrectionists referred to them as “things” (Richardson 1987, 72).

14This is why there is certainly a lesson or two to be learned from these fragments of history. The task of the historian is to give those collections of organs their names back whenever possible, and to insist that they should be remembered as the human subjects they once were. It is also to remind us that as human subjects, they were the only ones that should have had a right to the free disposal of their bodies. And finally, to claim that the human body is not, and should not be treated as commodity like any other, even if contemporary biomedical technologies tend to consider it as a purely material thing. The body is also a thing, but a thing unlike any other.

  • 4 Translated by the author of this article.

15Another lesson is older, and it can be found in Montaigne’s Essays. It is about what we have called here “shadow” or “phantom” cannibalism, the repressed memories of the original cannibalism of Europe and of its subsequent symbolic substitutes, which simply endlessly repeat, over and over again: “The cannibal is the Other, the barbarian, elsewhere to be found, far away, at the outskirts of the civilized world…” This was not Montaigne’s opinion, when he came to meditate over the violence of early colonization in the Americas: “I am sorry that we should be so blind to the barbarous horrors of our actions. I conceive that there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than there is when he is dead” (Montaigne [1854] 1979).4 Montaigne had undoubtedly a point, and recent twentieth-century unprecedented mass industrial cannibalism has tragically confirmed the accuracy of his judgment. The cannibal is not the Other; the cannibal temptation is still among us, casting its long shadow over today’s cannibal markets.



Baud, J.-P. 1993. L’Affaire de la main volée. Une histoire juridique du corps. Paris: Seuil.

Boutry, P., P.-A. Favre, and D. Julia, eds. 2009. Reliques modernes. Cultes et usages chrétiens des corps saints des réformes aux révolutions. 2 vols. Paris: EHESS.

Calvin, J.. [1543] 1870. A Treatise on Relics. Edinburgh: Johnstone, Hunter & Co.

Carney, S. 2011. The Red Market. On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Ferber, S., and S. Wilde. 2011. The Body Divided. Human Beings and Human “Materials” in Modern Medical History. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Lévi-Strauss, C. 2013. Nous sommes tous des cannibales. Paris: Seuil.

MacDonald, H. P. 2006. Human Remains. Dissection and Its Histories. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

—. 2010. Possessing the Dead. The Artful Science of Anatomy. Melbourne, VIC: Melbourne University Publishing.

Montaigne, M. de. [1854] 1969. Des cannibales. Essais. Book I, Chapter XXXI. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion.

Richardson, R. 1987. Death, Dissection and the Destitute. London and New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Shultz, S. M. 1992. Body Snatching: the Robbing of Graves for the Education of Physicians in Early Nineteenth Century America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company.

Tumarkin, N. 1983. Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Verdery, K. 1999. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. Reburial and Post-Socialist Change. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Walford Davies, D. 2013. The unquiet cranium. Times Literary Supplement, November 6.


1 Here, I will only focus on the first two areas, leaving the question of war and that of mass entertainment for a forthcoming work.

2 The existence of which a posthumous collection of essays by Claude Lévi-Strauss (2013) has recently reminded us.

3 For a more general view on this topic, see Boutry, Favre and Julia 2009.

4 Translated by the author of this article.


Professor of European studies at the University of Auckland (New Zealand), professor emeritus at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris III) and at the University of California (Santa Barbara). He is working in cultural history and anthropology. Among his recent books: Histoire du corps, XVIe-XXe siècle (3 vol., Seuil, 2006) and Histoire de la virilité, de l’Antiquité au XXIe siècle (3 vol., Seuil, 2011), both in collaboration with Alain Corbin and Georges Vigarello.

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