In 1867, a jar was found in a Paris pharmacy with the inscription “Remains found under the stake of Joan of Arc.” The jar contained a blackened human rib, carbonized wood, a piece of linen and a cat femur–the later being explained by the practice of throwing black cats onto the pyre of witches. For more than a century and a half, they were believed to be genuine relics of Joan of Arc, until 2006 when scientists performed spectrometry and carbon tests on the relics. They found that the remains were not from 800 years ago, but from an Egyptian mummy from the sixth to the third century BC. Ordinarily, a fake relic from the distant past would be something newer, not older — and how did pieces of an Egyptian mummy end up in a Paris pharmacy anyway?
It turns out that starting in the 15th century, Mummia — a powder taken from the bodies of Egyptian mummies — was a major part of medieval European pharmacopeia, with a particular emphasis on extending life and preserving the body. The practice apparently originated during the Crusades (possibly with King Fulk of Jerusalem), when Crusaders were reportedly amazed to see the dead bodies that had perished so long ago remain in such a preserved state. It remained part of European medicine for many centuries — the French king Francis I (1515-1547) took a dose of “mummy” daily, and the English King Charles II (1630-1685) rubbed ground up mummy powder on his skin as he believed this would turn him into a ‘Pharaoh’.
By the 16th century, exporting mummies to Europe was a big business — to such an extent that a French physician visiting Egypt at the time found that fresh corpses were dug up to meet market demand. The practice of using even domestic fresh corpses to make mummia may have been rather common, as is suggested by English Renaissance literature. Indeed, the particular jar discovered in 1867 may have been renamed either during a time of French nationalism, or because the body of a saint may have believed to have special powers — as “Egyptian Mummies” may have gone out of style at some point.
We can be horrified by the morbid practice and consuming mummified corpses. But we can also be appalled at the lose to history. How many Egyptian mummies disappeared due to this practice?