Consuming Brown Bodies: Paul Feig’s ‘Last Christmas’ and Medieval Mummy Medicine

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In the above tweet, Rachel Moss is talking about the much-hyped film, Last Christmas, starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding (and at this point, if you want to avoid spoilers, click away).

As quite a few people already figured out from the not-too-subtle trailers, the film’s love story has a twist. It turns out that the mysterious (Asian) love interest who swoops in and out of Clarke’s life with the perfect blend of romance and feel-good emotional intensity, is in fact, well … dead. To be precise, he’s her organ donor. ‘My heart … was always going to be yours, one way or another.’ I feel faintly nauseous, and it’s not just Brexit repeating on me.

I expect the film is, as we are assured in the article to which Moss links, still enjoyable, light-hearted fun. Except for those pesky racist undertones, which she quite rightly identifies. Even before the trailer starts, we sort of know that this isn’t going to be a conventional pairing. We’re allowed Asian love interests on mainstream film (Always Be My Maybe), but we’re not really allowed to see (sexless! un-macho! no stereotype withheld!) Asian men as love interests for white women. It seemed to me, though, that there’s something even more creepy about this narrative, which was thrown into sharp focus by the research I’ve recently been doing. At the moment, I’m looking at medieval English treatments for gynaecological problems, in particular treatments that have to do with fertility and childbirth.

You might imagine this subject would be all herbs and charms and chubby-cheeked baby Jesus and people praying to the Mother of God to help them in their travail. And you would be right. But what it also is, is a lot of quite deeply racist rhetoric about how Christendom holds the key to the future and is destined to be blessed with generation upon generation, while all of those infidel races are doomed to wither on the vine, decayed and impotent as their false scriptures, sterile as the barren fig tree of the gospels … you can imagine the genre. And you can probably imagine how eagerly it’s recycled contemporary white supremacists, too. And amid all of this rhetoric, there’s a medical remedy that stopped me in my tracks.

If you want to stimulate a woman’s fertility, help her deliver a placenta or treat a missed miscarriage, you feed her a medication containing several dozen different exotic herbs, resins, spices, roots … oh, and the ground up human flesh of dead brown people.

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London, British Library, MS Egerton 747, fol. 60v.

No, really, not kidding. Mumia or mummie is a vital ingredient in one of the best-known medieval cure-alls. Its history as an ingredient is long and complicated (and I’m working on publishing something about this), but by the later Middle Ages medics had agreed that mumia – as in, the substance recovered from the wrappings of Egyptian mummies – was the best thing to dose patients with. As a result, generations of white Western women obediently swallowed down fragments of human remains, in the hope of perpetuating the future of Christendom and Europe.

Like the later ‘archaeologists’ and ‘explorers’ who ransacked Egyptian tombs, or the Victorian mummy-unwrappers who turned the destruction of an entire country’s ancient history into a spectator sport, medieval English people apparently saw nothing particularly wrong with treating human remains in this way. After all, as one manuscript clarifies in its list of ingredients, the human remains are ‘Saracen’s flesh’: not white people.

Obviously, there are substantial differences between organ donation (voluntary; life-saving; requiring informed consent) and grave-robbing. And equally obviously, organ donation is something more of us should be considering doing, and if a feel-good film can help encourage people to make the decision to go on the donor list, that can only be a good thing. But the thing is, Last Christmas is a fiction. And in fictions, writers make choices. There was no need to make the character of the organ donor an Asian man (unless you want to clock up shallow diversity points without, as we have observed, following through and giving us a genuine interracial romance). There is no need to construct what is, essentially, new clothing for the old familiar stereotype of the ‘sacrificial person of colour’ – that wise, noble, secondary character whose role is to die so that Our White Protagonist can live.

All of this is a long-winded way of observing that when Last Christmas sacrifices an Asian character’s human remains to a white woman and dresses it up as a great love story, it is playing into much older ideas about which bodies are disposable, consumable, expendable, and which lives deserve to continue on to the future.

Note

Lest you imagine the trade in mumia as a medication must have stopped far back in the murky mists of time, consider the fact that a German apothecary in the early twentieth century still carried ‘mummy’ on its ordering list. For more on mummy and historical medication, see:

Dannenfeldt, Karl H., ‘Egyptian Mumia: The Sixteenth-Century Experience and Debate,’ The Sixteenth Century Journal 16: 2 (1985): 163-80.

Evans, Jennifer, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2014).

Green, Monica H, ed. and trans., The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

2 thoughts on “Consuming Brown Bodies: Paul Feig’s ‘Last Christmas’ and Medieval Mummy Medicine

  1. Just imagine– I thought the Trump impeachment hearing was going to be the most appalling thing I saw today. Thank you for a very thoughtful (also EW) post.

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