I have a weakness for strange novellas in translation, published by obscure imprints.* Last week I read Eat Him if You Like by Jean Teulé (Gallic Books, 2011). In slightly more than a hundred pages, Teulé describes a horrific incident which occurred in Hautefaye, a village in the Dordogne, during the summer of 1870. In the midst of drought, food shortages, and a disastrous conflict with Prussia, a mob of peasants turned on a young aristocrat, Alain de Monéys, and tortured him to death over the course of an afternoon.
In the evening, he was placed on a funeral pyre and set alight. His remains may have been eaten by his attackers.
The atrocity is the subject of Alain Corbin’s academic monograph, The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 (1992). He demonstrates that although the people who carried out the torture were mainly peasants, figures of authority were well aware of what was being done to De Monéys, as John Merriman explains in a review:
The mayor, despite wearing the tricolour sash symbolising his authority, was not much help… After a clumsy, ineffective effort to calm the crowd, he shut his door, fearing that the mob would smash his dishes. Worse, a witness reported that he told the crowd: ‘Take Monsieur de Moneys away from the front of the inn. He’s blocking traffic!’ And when someone shouted, ‘We want to kill him, burn him, and eat him,’ the mayor replied, if not ‘A table!’ at least ‘Eat him if you like’…
Why did this happen? Why did a group of three to eight hundred otherwise reasonable people – who, afterwards, deeply regretted their behaviour – turn on an innocent fellow subject? The immediate reason for the lynching was that De Monéys was accused of being a ‘Prussian’ and had shouted ‘Vive la République!’ at a time when France was ruled by Napoleon III.
Corbin argues that a collection of factors converged in Hautefaye on 6 August 1870, each of which contributed to the summer afternoon’s madness: a combination of hunger and desperation caused by the drought, growing peasant hostility towards the aristocracy, and anxiety about the progress of the Franco-Prussian War. Merriman writes:
There can be no question about the intrusion of national politics in the world of these peasants… Corbin sees the event as reflecting an intensification of a nationalism in the wake of the war, extending even into a peasant community in one of France’s most ‘backwards’ regions. …Corbin sees the community as affirming its own identity by ‘expel[ling] the monster from its midst.’
There is no evidence, only rumour, to suggest that De Monéys was eaten. In the novella, Teulé implies that, Christlike, in consuming his body, the mob is able to rid itself of its sins:
His ashes rose higher, swirling around in the air above the crowd who were feasting as they did on the most important holidays. They devoured their cannibal sandwiches. … Eating this body would purge the community.
As several of the reviews of Corbin’s book note, his explanation for the torture and possible cannibalism is not entirely satisfactory. And Teulé, despite his depiction of De Monéys as a scapegoat, implies that not all of his torturers may have had such elevated motives. The problem is that cannibalism in these circumstances – where a group of people willingly choose to eat another – transgresses so many taboos and social and cultural boundaries, that it seems to defy all logical explanation.
The word cannibal is said to be a legacy of Columbus’s second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493. Referring originally to the Caribs in the Antilles who were identified as eaters of human flesh, the term was subsequently extended as a descriptive term for flesh eaters in other populations. The discourse of cannibalism, which began with the encounter between Europe and the Americas, was to become a defining feature of colonial encounters in the New World…
With its association with savagery, cannibalism was bound up with the construction of the colonial other.
But however much we may be appalled by cannibalism, it is very, very rarely done without reason. It’s easier to understand this by looking at the several forms of cannibalism which exist. I think we’re most familiar with survivor cannibalism, which occurs when people eat others in the absence of any other food, like the case of the 1972 Andes plane disaster, when a group of sixteen Uruguayan rugby players ate their deceased fellow passengers to survive freezing conditions. Also, cannibalism occurs during times of famine. There were instances of cannibalism in Russia in 1921, and, allegedly, in China’s Great Famine between 1958 and 1962.
It’s used in rituals to strengthen bonds within groups or communities, and also as a weapon of terror in warfare. It’s a symptom of psychopathology – as excited reports of the ‘face-eating man’ in Miami last year confirmed. But it’s also been done for medical reasons:
Medicinal ingestion involving human flesh, blood, heart, skull, bone marrow, and other body parts was widely practiced throughout Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Human flesh obtained from ‘mummy shops,’ where the remains of an embalmed, dried, or otherwise prepared human body that had met with sudden, violent death, was considered to be a ‘universal panacea’… Samuel Johnson’s 1785 dictionary of English includes a description for preparing mummy, indicating that it was still being sold at that date, and it was still available in 1909 from a reputable German pharmaceutical company.
Placentophagy – where mothers eat their new-born babies’ placenta – falls within this definition too.
Cannibalism is more familiar to us than we probably realise – and certainly to those of us who’ve been to church:
Sacrificial cannibalism, in which the victim is treated with solicitude and honour as a prelude to sacrifice to the gods, is a widely reported form of aggression. Aztec cannibalism in fifteenth-century Mexico, as well as nineteenth-century Fijian practises, belong in this category. The Christian ritual of the Eucharist is its symbolic extension.
Even the use of organs in transplants involves a recycling of body parts between different people.
I want to emphasise that my point in writing this is not to horrify – and I think it’s absolutely imperative for every adult to consider signing up as an organ donor. Rather, thinking about cannibalism helps to illuminate aspects of our relationship with food and eating.
Firstly, there is nothing ‘savage’ or ‘senseless’ about cannibalism. It occurs for a range of reasons and takes a variety of forms, only some of which I’ve mentioned here. When people consume other people, it is for specific, well thought-out reasons. In fact, the contexts which cause people to break this taboo are, I think, more interesting than the cannibalism itself.
Secondly, cannibalism is the supreme example of eating being done for reasons not connected to nutrition: it was and is done – either by literally eating bodies or consuming them symbolically – to create and maintain group identities.
But it also draws our attention – uncomfortably – to ourselves as animals. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Soylent Green, and, even, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, there are moments of profound – horrifying – realisation that humans are, like cattle or pigs, potentially edible, or (re)usable, animals. In other words, understanding how and why and what we ate – and eat – changes over time, is intertwined with histories of cannibalism, and of ourselves as members of the food chain.
Edward Berenson, Review of The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 by Alain Corbin, The Journal of Modern History, vol. 66, no. 4 (Dec., 1994), pp. 815-818.
Rachel B. Herrmann, ‘The “tragicall historie”: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown,’ The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 1 (January 2011), pp. 47-74.
Shirley Lindenbaum, ‘Thinking about Cannibalism,’ Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33 (2004), pp. 475-498.
John M. Merriman, Review of The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 by Alain Corbin, The American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 3 (Jun., 1993), pp. 883-885.