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Violating the Body of the Law: Cannibalism in Jacobean Political Discourse

Lauren Working
p. 157-175


Le cannibalisme demeure l’un des derniers tabous de la société. Les courants historiographiques actuels mettent l’accent sur la manière dont le cannibalisme, au cours de la période moderne, représentait l’altérité suprême, que les Européens projetaient sur une communauté pour justifier l’essor d’aspirations impérialistes nées à la suite de la découverte de l’Amérique. Mais la représentation d’Européens s’entredévorant introduit une nouvelle dimension. Alors que les historiens s’étaient jusqu’ici concentrés sur les actes de cannibalisme perpétrés par des individus et des groupes en marge de la société, cet article examine la métaphore cannibale qui imprègne divers discours au cœur du débat politique jacobéen. Il suggère que, loin de mettre l’accent sur une quelconque supériorité culturelle, les auteurs, y compris Jacques i, utilisaient la figure du cannibalisme pour sonder les angoisses de leurs contemporains, faisant de la violence associée à cette pratique un comportement subversif qui menaçait de déstabiliser le corps politique.

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Texte intégral

These cannibals […] under a colour of dutifulness [have] deceiued the State
Calendar of State Papers: Ireland 1: 482-85)

1In 1492, the cannibal entered upon the European stage. Though tales of man-eating peoples dated back to antiquity, Columbus was the first to call the warring tribes he encountered in the West Indies “cannibals,” a term derived from information supplied by the Arawaks, who called their fierce enemies Caribes. Distinctions were not clearly drawn between anthropophagy and cannibalism in the first half of the sixteenth century, but prolonged encounters with indigenous peoples throughout the sixteenth century began to mark a crucial turn in attitudes to savagery and man-eating. Sebastian Münster’s popular A treatyse of the newe India, translated by Richard Eden in 1553, described natives in Java and Guiana as “people called Anthropophagi, which are wont to eate mens fleshe” (Münster sig. E7r). Such people “live al naked” and are “barbarous and rude” – like the ancient Scythian, the Amerindian cannibals shared similarities with their classical forebears (Münster sig. Piv). In André Thevet’s The new found worlde, translated into English in 1568, the “Countrey of Canibals, Anthropophages,” were specifically “comprehended in America, compassed with the Ocean sea” (Thevet sig. Piiir). Eden’s translation of another cosmography, Peter Martyr’s De Novo Orbo, described “the wylde and myscheuous people called Canibales, or Caribes, which were accustomed to eate mannes flesshe (and called of the olde writers Anthropophagi)” (Eden sig. A3r).Though the term “anthropophagy” did not disappear from print after contact with Amerindian cannibals, it does show that those living in late sixteenth-century England did recognise a difference between the “olde writers” and the recent developments that had endowed Europe with new knowledge on the world and its peoples. Cannibalism therefore contained specific connotations specifically related to Amerindian behaviour.

  • 1  See also Arens, Whatley, Whitehead and Lestringant.

2By the reign of James I, appropriations of accounts and rumours of cannibals appeared in dozens of letters, depositions, sermons, and popular print. “Cannibal” described the warlike people of the Americas but also denoted English “savages” whose behaviour seemed to align them with the cannibals, depicted by the English as lacking sophisticated socio-political systems. This article is concerned with what made connections between the image of the cannibal and comparisons with English behaviour seem so germane. The pervasiveness of cannibal references and imagery suggest that, beyond the allure of its gruesome exoticism, ideas around the act were perceived as particularly relevant to current political anxieties about behaviour and kingly authority. Recent historiographical discussions focus largely on medicinal and alimentary man-eating, or the idea of the cannibal as the clearest manifestation of the ruthless European colonial spirit, used to “mark the boundary between one community and its other” (Hulme 86).1 However, the savage and civil division erodes when one considers Europeans eating one another in both real and imagined spheres, from reports from the Jamestown colony in Virginia to its metaphorical use within printed texts. Discussions about cannibalism in early seventeenth-century England indicate that to many in the early modern period, the danger did not necessarily lie in the ‘other’ or in the American natives themselves, but in the disorders wrought by disobedient Englishmen within supposedly civil polities.

Excess or Necessity?

3Numerous depictions of cannibals were compiled in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal nauigations, voyages, traffiques, and discoueries of the English nation (1599), where stories of voyages from earlier decades promoted exploration and colonisation at the turn of the seventeenth century. Unlike continental ethnographic narratives, brushes with cannibal communities were vague and unspecific, usually centring around extreme violence. There were descriptions of “many […] killed in Chila, whom the Sauages flaied and eate, hanging vp their skinnes in their Temples”; of the Spanish who, in 1535, “escaped drowning” only to be “eaten by the sauages”; and of the unrest in Hispaniola and Cuba when “the Sauages did rise against” Columbus and his crew (Hakluyt, The Discoueries of the world sigs. H4v, M2r, F2v).

4Samuel Purchas’ Purchas his pilgrimage (1613; expanded 1625) continued this lore into James’s reign. He included descriptions of Guiana, also based on Columbus’ discoveries, where a captive “shewed them that they had eaten six of his fellowes,” only to be eaten himself when a cannibal “with his owne clubbe killed him, still laying on when his braines and guts came forth” (Purchas sig. Oooo4v). It is perhaps significant that although Columbus’ explorations were described in the past tense, the cannibal remained a living, contemporary being in these sources, engaged with in the present tense – “abhominable” men who “eate mans flesh, fresh and pouldered” (Purchas sig. Ooo2v). The parallel existence of those peoples made them a threatening reality.

5These travel narratives also included tales of man-eating brought about by extreme hunger. In a case reported in Newfoundland in 1536, the perpetrator was not Amerindian but English. In this account, the captain and his crew “grew into great want of victuals,” forced to scavenge for food in an uncompromising landscape (Hakluyt sig. L3v). Their hunger increasing, “they were forced to seeke to relieve themselves of raw herbes and rootes [… but] being to little purpose to satisfie their insatiable hunger [… a] fellowe killed his mate […] cutting out pieces of his bodie […] and greedily devoured him” (Hakluyt sig. L3v). When the captain recognised that the dead man had not been “deuoured with wild beastes, nor yet destroyed with Sauages,” he gave a lengthy speech about the unholiness of the act, insisting that “it had bene better to have perished in body, and to have lived everlastingly, then to have relieved for a poore time their mortal bodyes, and to bee condemned everlastingly both body and soule to the unquenchable fire of hell” (Hakluyt sig. L3v). Fortunately, a French ship arrived and saved other members of the crew from resorting to anthropophagy, although the narrative contained the implication that any who went hungry enough might be driven to it in a dire state of unreason.

6What this account shows is that the English were at pains to emphasise that any acts of man-eating were committed in moments of extremity. Human flesh was never willingly consumed, and the perpetrator always faced condemnation. While Hakluyt’s account related an event that had occurred over fifty years before, the fear of moral disintegration became especially relevant after the English began their colonisation projects in North America. The first successful English colony in Jamestown recorded another instance of hunger anthropophagy. George Percy, son of the influential earl of Northumberland, wrote a harrowing account of the Jamestown Starving Time of 1609-10 in a letter to his brother. Percy described “[a] worlde of miseries” that prompted several men to rob the store of food (Percy 248). Having eaten every possible resource available – horses, “vermine as dogs, Catts, Ratts,” leather, snakes, bugs, and roots – some members resorted to digging up corpses and eating them (Percy 248). Finally a man “murdered his wyfe, Ripped the childe out of her woambe and [...] chopped the Mother in pieces,” then proceeded to eat her (Percy 249). This man was briefly tortured into confession, then executed for his actions.

7The Virginia Company, unwilling to let such brutal rumours go unchallenged, recounted the same story but with very different outcomes. Refutations circulated in London in A true declaration of the estate of the colonie of Virginia (1610), which claimed that the perpetrator had tried to defend himself of murder charges by saying he “hid her to satisfie his hunger, and that he fed daily vpon her” (A true declaration sig. F2r). Instead, the council insisted that the man “mortally hated his wife, and therefore secretly killed her” (A true declaration sig. Fv). This emphasised that the man’s crime was one of hatred, where murder was actually less destructive to the community than a desperate act of survival involving anthropophagy.

  • 2  “The poor men were brought to such necessitie that they had cast lots to eate each other” (The Nat (...)

8Significantly, material relating to anthropophagy by Percy and the Virginia Company, but also in 1624 and 1625 in accounts by John Smith and William Strachey, never referred to these cases as cannibalistic. This suggests that these authors considered connotations of “cannibal” to be too powerful and not fitting for hunger cases. John Chamberlain, writing to Dudley Carleton in 1600, reported a story about an adventurer and his crew who were forced to land in Puerto Rico and forfeit their treasure when faced with “such want that they were fain to eate one another” (The National Archives SP 12/275, f. 143v). The deliberate omission of this term in such a case implies that the word was far more relevant in situations outside of famine, where subjects behaved in a wilfully ferocious manner. The description of casting lots to decide who might be eaten first in moments of hunger, described in Richard Hakluyt (sig. L4r), Jean de Léry’s harrowing voyage back to France from Brazil (212), and by Dr Valentine Dale to Lord Burghley during the siege of Sancerre in 1573, further reinforced that acts of anthropophagy committed by those suffering from intense hunger and imbalanced passions lay outside their control, always undertaken reluctantly.2

Political Theophagy and Radical Excess

9Cannibalism, then, was a charged term that distinctly denoted savage and voluntary behaviour. An increasing familiarity with New World images and practices, however mistaken these were, manifested themselves as points of contrast to ideal political communities, where cannibalism began to take on a much more varied role in the expression of contemporary anxieties and ideas, specifically in response to ideas of violence and control. Cannibalism was consequently associated with almost every aspect of political and social transgression in the first two decades of the seventeenth century – crime (including murder and promiscuity), usury, enclosure, duelling, feuding, libelling, slander, papal deposition, transubstantiation, Irish resistance, Spanish domination, and the violation of international law through illegal torture. It was the choice of excess, of mirroring the behaviour of the Caribe tribes, that was seen to bring political disintegration and a rejection of English norms.

10English authors linked cannibal excess to a range of current debates that centred around post-Reformation religious discussions and depictions of cruel or vengeful violence. These discourses, fuelled by public sermons and popular print, were used to reinforce monarchical sovereignty and promote civil obedience and Christian consciousness. Peter Lake, in his work on murder pamphlets, found that lurid and titillating tales were used to glorify the “festive yet forbidden pleasures of the world turned upside down” (Lake & Questier 79). Depictions of cannibals, while meant to shock and entertain, introduced a new paradigm through which to view and uphold norms and values, less through inversion than by paralleling the Amerindian “savage” with the traitor or dissident. Unlike the devil, who lurked behind evildoers in woodcuts, enticing them to sin, the dissident who adopted native behaviour often became the cannibal. Those who sought to subvert “his Maiesties authenticall power” were but “blind Cannibals” sinning “before God in their conscience” (Deacon sig. Z3v). The evocative language of savagery attacked behaviour that was both extremely violent and contrary to Christianity.

11Not only was cannibalism incompatible with salvation, but anti-savagery became an inextricable part of anti-Catholic debate. Policies towards Catholics in England, despite James’s relative tolerance when he ascended the throne in 1603, took a drastic turn following the Gunpowder Treason of 1605. The religious controversialists and pamphleteers who attacked Catholicism often accused Catholics of being cannibals, feeding on the flesh of their God. Paralleling Catholic and savage Amerindian behaviour provided Protestant polemicists with an extreme example of savagery, depicting Catholic behaviour as ushering the breakdown of social order while encouraging pervasive violence. Lewis Bayly’s The practice of pietie (1606), published seven times in James’s reign, emphasised that “the Sacrament was the greatest token of Christ’s loue,” and the Church of England highlighted that this sacred and shared community activity was not to be taken literally, but to provoke inner reflection:

The Diuine words of blessing do not change or annihilate the substance of the bread and wine […] but it changeth them in vse and in Name. For, that which was before but common Bread and Wine to nourish mens Bodies; is, after the blessing destinated to an holy vse, for the feeding of the Soules of Christians. And where before they were called but Bread and Wine; they are now called by the name of those Holy things which they signifie. (Bayly sigs. Aa3r-Aa3v)

12The usefulness of cannibal imagery lay partly in the contrast between corporality and spirituality, between false imaginations and true worship. In a union “made by faith,” a healthy Christian relied on “pure and exquisite faith […] not by the corporall […] with many drie & rotten members” (Mornay sig. Qq3r). These “rotten members” might also represent unsound members of the Christian body who did not adhere to the Word of God, choosing to enact a sensual version of the Lord’s Supper that literally involved drinking the blood of their Saviour. Tearing “the heart, wounds, bloud, yea nayles, feete, guts, yea all the parts of Christs humanitie, as though like Cannibals,” wrote Stephen Jerome from Dublin in 1625, was a sort of blasphemy committed by “Masse Priests & Papists in a blinde devotion,” leading to “barking against the soveraigne Maiestie of the Almightie” (Jerome sig. M3v).Transubstantiation rendered a symbolic act into a physical thing, so that Catholics became perpetrators of violence rather than reconciliation, while “true” members of Christ’s covenant were differentiated from “God eaters” in that God “of his goodnesse hath remoued the veile of superstition” (Estienne sig. B3r).

13Adherence to transubstantiation did not only undermine the spiritual efficacy of the Reformation, but entailed political consequences. As among “heathenish” Amerindians, error produced a community “absurd in reason” rather than civil and educated; by extension, the “foolish man, by this wilfull disobedience,” would care more for rebellion than the glory of God (A confession of the Christian Religion sig. A7v). It was incredible, wrote one churchman, that “the modern Romish Church holdeth, that Christians take Christes flesh with their teeth, and swallow downe his flesh and bloud into their bellies,” and he specifically linked such “heresy” with undermining the king’s sovereignty (Sutcliffe, The subuersion of Robert Parons sig. G7r). Since worshippers sat in church according to their social rank, Catholic recusants who refused to attend Anglican services posed “a grave dereliction of one’s duty to bolster parochial discipline and stability” (Walsham 84).

14The breakdown of hierarchical order meant that the prospect of a Catholic regime became no better than one under the idolatrous natives of the New World. Catholics, like cannibals, invited a warlike mode of life. “The naturall and carnall body of Cryst so to be eatin […] so that his flesch is torn and his bones brokin” was exactly the way “the barbarus Bresilians […] eate men and wemen” (Colville sig. L3r). The French Wars of Religion were often cited as an example of the anarchy that awaited England, should Catholicism persist as a threat. Translations of texts produced during the religious wars in France related the atrocities committed by priests, cataloguing covetous and evil monks who possessed “cruelty exceeding that of the Cannibals, who yet spare domesticall blood” (Primaudaye sig. Q3r). Acting the cannibal became a direct threat against the power of the monarch over his subjects, usurping his authority through illegitimate violence, since these “bloudy butchers” assumed “almost a soueraigne power and princely authority” over their own countrymen (Estienne sig. S4r). As Marotti notes, the pope’s “politically intrusive […] vision of international order directly conflicted with the kind of political autonomy” that the centrally-governed state sought for itself (9).

15The cannibal nature of the Eucharist became incorporated into a broader mistrust of Jesuit radicalism. The climate of mistrust towards Jesuits in the 1580s and 1590s did not dissipate after James’s accession despite his promises of tolerance. The most dangerous threat posed by the Jesuits in the eyes of the English was their support of papal deposition, preached openly in the English colleges in Douai, Rome, and Valladolid and published in books that were smuggled into the realm. The threat of papal deposition lay in the notion that subjects possessed the right to take state matters into their own hands, committing acts of violence against their king if the Pope declared him heretical. It is therefore unsurprising to find such beliefs equated with cannibals. The Jesuits who preached that subjects “are released from the oath of Allegiance giuen to Princes […] and may driue heretically Kings from their Kingdomes” made them so like the denizens of the New World that “the cruel Cannibals may become prentises to these Iesuites” (Garey sig. Q2v). Cannibalism made a fitting metaphor because it provided a vivid example of utter depravity, but it also framed the situation within a context of lawlessness. Thomas Wilson, master at King’s School in Canterbury, wrote in 1614 that

[o]ur degenerate and new Romanes take a readier way and shorter cut to quit them of their enemies […] by seditions, rebellions, murthers, treasons, stabbing of Princes, blowing vp of English parliament-houses, and other such monstrous vnnaturally courses […] How far be they from Antichrist, who delight so in the blood of Gods people, [and] in barbarous sauage cruelty, such as amongst Scythians & Cannibals is not to be heard of? (Wilson sig. Kkkk4v)

16The crux of the matter lay not in religion but in legitimacy, where James expected his subjects to succumb to his authority even in the midst of contention. Catholics, in being active in implementing the ordinances of the Pope, employed a method of political meddling that did not befit loyal subjects. James himself used the figure of the cannibal in 1616 to contrast the Jesuits’ outrageous claims against the lawful power of the king. As in the pamphlets against transubstantiation, James contrasted the superstitions of the populace against the logic and reason of those who understood the true nature a king’s sovereignty over his people. The Jesuit Francis Suárez, wrote James,

[…] in his booke written against my selfe […] falleth to adde a little after: If the Pope shall declare a King to be an heretike, and fallen from the Kingdome, without making further declaration touching execution […] the lawfull successor beeing a Catholike, hath power to do the feate; and if he shall refuse, or if there shall be none such, then it appertaineth to the comminalitie or body of the Kingdome. A most detestable sentence […] In comparison whose religion and holinesse, all the impietie that euer was among the Infidels, and all the barbarous cruelty that euer was among the Canibals, may passe henceforth in the Christian world for pure clemencie. (James I sigs. Qqv-Q2r)

In this and other writings, James’s concern was to defend himself against those who opposed a king’s temporal authority, including his own disloyal subjects. Taking the factions under Elizabeth as an example, Matthew Sutcliffe boldly urged James not to allow sedition to escalate as it had under his predecessor, but to “sit in the throne of iudgement, and execute his laws” to secure civil harmony against the influence of Jesuits:

He must not suffer them to escape vnpunished, that maliciously seeke the bringing in of strangers, and the subuersion of the State […] how willing I haue bene and am, to spend more then ordinarie for resistance both of common enemies, and such Caniball traitors. (Sutcliffe, The blessings on Mount Garizzim sigs. A4r-C2v)

Disobedience was articulated in terms of choosing uncivil behaviour (“caniball traitors”), reinforcing the relationship between correct comportment and stable government. Those who dissented took on the traits of wild or unreasonable men, rendering it “absurd and unseemlie” for “Christians to be Caniballs” (Sibthorp sig. Q4v). The excess characteristic of sedition placed the perpetrator outside the bounds of civil society.

Threats of Excess

17The deference to order and sovereignty articulated in post-Reformation debate extended to other discussions about obedience and submission to the king’s wishes. Aristotle’s parallels between political and physical bodies were widely integrated into European political expression, as were his associations between savagery and lawlessness: “Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he be isolated from law and justice he is the worst of all” (Aristotle 11). Without a deference for order, man became “a most unholy and savage being,” and the function of the state and government was to preserve the goods and safety of its people so they might live good and virtuous lives (Aristotle 12). Fears of lawlessness or factionalism on any level threatened the sovereignty of the monarch; cannibalism became a clear contrast to the just punishments that a king might administer to unruly subjects in a society where balance and measure was projected to an antidote to dangerous unrestraint. The lawyer John Hayward vocalised the relationship between factionalism and cannibalism in 1603, believing that citizens who “fall into hate” were “more barbarous then Caniballs” (Hayward sig. T2r). Cannibalism became a means of infusing the usual discourses against sinfulness and disorder with a vivid and striking example of misbehaviour that emphasised the utter horror of rejecting civility.

18Since “political authority was projected and sustained” through social modes as much as through religious ones, the cultural practices associated with cannibals were extended to describe any who wilfully disassociated themselves from the civil life (Braddick 120). This political body, healthy only when well-proportioned and rid of malign imperfections, became undermined by even the pettiest quarrels wrought by arrogance, resentment, or self-seeking behaviour, which were inherently incompatible with classical ideas of citizenship, but also James’s attitudes towards his own absolute sovereignty. This was apparent in James’s active attempts to curb the behaviour typified by any acts of violence performed outside his jurisdiction, starkly seen in his vehement displeasure towards feuding and duelling. These acts, since they involved a subject’s handling of violence rather than the monarch’s, were described in language that paralleled cannibal actions. They involved a “bloodthirsty and reuenging appetite” that depended on one’s “owne vindictiue and bloody humour vpon so vniust a ground” (A proclamation prohibiting the publishing of any reports of writings of duels). Attacking the “arrogant conceits” of his noblemen, James declared in 1613 that “no quarrell of any Subiects can be lawfull, except in defence of their Prince or their Countrey, the revenging of all private wrongs onely belonging to Us” (A proclamation prohibiting the publishing…). James stressed that any behaviour contrary to his wishes sprang from a self-serving attitude that undermined his desire for domestic peace. His harsh indictment of Bruce Christmas and Thomas Bellingham in 1617 for duelling included imprisonment, a fine, and humiliating public submission (The National Archives SP 14/90, ff. 117r-v).

19In 1621, James’s royal chaplain, clearly echoing these beliefs, reiterated the danger of violence performed outside legal approval:

The state-politique taketh care that the hand of violence shall not touch any subiect, and if any man shed the bloud of another, by the man of authoritie his bloud shall be shed. Yea, the tender hearts of true Christian Princes haue prouided against hot-spirited duels, that the image of God may not be destroyed by sudden enraged passions, nor Subiects wound their owne soules by bringing in the price of bloud vpon their owne Families. (Loe sig. D4v)

The shedding of blood by any but those acting in direct authority from the king was nothing but the acts of cannibals, and Loe explicitly drew a connection between cannibalism and those who did not live like Christians, obedient to their monarch. Feuds were crimes against the body, but also against the king, to whom that body owed unwavering allegiance. The Scottish minister John Colville encouraged missionary activity along the Anglo-Scottish borders, where longstanding disagreements rendered the area prone to feuds and violence. Brave men went to Brazil among “cruel canniballes,” Colville maintained, yet “the Heilands and bordors of our oune Realm” were becoming, through the persistence of Catholicism and feuding, a place of “infidels or Atheists” (Colville sig. Cc3v). To these men, the persistence of cruelty and backbiting, slander and prideful passions, was therefore characteristic of the entire realm. James himself, but also counsellors, churchmen, and merchants, increasingly identified cannibal violence with the unofficial and therefore unlawful bloodshed of any who took violence into their own hands. Citizens, not the state, caused most disorder, for they were “more sauage then the sauages of America”:

[The Amerindian natives] eate men, but they are either strangers, or their enemies: [The English] kill themselues among themselues, kindred, neighbours, friends, conversing together […] They doe it, not knowing the mischiefe; these doe it, knowing. (Heigham sig. C6v).

It was this knowing, this choice of excessive violence and rejection of temperance, that made poor behaviour not only uncivil but seditious, confirming the rightness of monarchical rule. The civil lawyer John Hayward denounced all those who believed the people alone could maintain stability. “Are you of ciuil either nature or education?” he asked, “[w]ho vnder the name of Ciuilian do open the way for all manner of deceits [...]? What are you? For you shewe you selfe more prophane then Infidels; more barbarous then Caniballs” (Hayward sig. Tr). Those who abandoned religion and fell into hate, spurning the Christian and civic values of an ordered society, fell into miserable conditions without a prince to govern them. “You acknowledge no religion but your will,” Hayward wrote, “no law but your power: all lies, treacheries, and frauds” (Hayward sig. V5v).

20The emphasis on order over vengeance led to the constant reiteration that a civil and religious realm required submission to the king’s laws. Recent work on litigations and settlements in the Star Chamber and in county courts suggest that “there is every indication that messages about the need for non-violent behaviour, which the crown had been drumming into its subjects for years, were getting through” (Carroll 163). Appeals to the king and his justices in cases of duels and slander indicate the “growing strength of respect for the law and the public service ethos in England,” and the fact that gentlemen could and did appeal to justices of the peace to settle matters of personal honour “demonstrated the extent to which orderliness and restraint had become part of accepted standards of behaviour” (Carroll 163). The value that many citizens placed on the law provided a contrast to the cultures of vengeance seen to dominate Amerindian tribes. The contexts within which the “cannibal” appeared in English discourse indicate that Englishmen seemed to find the uncontrolled violence of cannibalism more unsettling than actual incorporation.

21The foundations of “cannibal” behaviour were often triggered by acting savagely in other ways. King James’s Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604) found the dangers of imitation to be more dangerous than the Amerindians themselves: “[s]ome two or three Sauage men,” James wrote, “were brought in [to England], together with the Sauage custome [of smoking tobacco]. But the pitie is, the poore wilde barbarous men died, but that vile barbarous custome is yet aliue” (James I sig. S6r). James praised his subjects for being mostly civil beings, but mirroring the natives through shared uncivil behaviour became the first step towards a greater rejection of English cultural mores that led to disobedience. “Shall wee […] that haue bene so long ciuill and wealthy in Peace,” James asked, “without blushing, abase our selues so farre, as to imitate these beastly Indians?” (James I sig. S6r). Seemingly uncivil manners were the first step in the chain of disobedience that threatened the state, a view that continued to be articulated by churchmen, poets, playwrights, but also policy-makers who saw the problems of authority in Virginia as a concurrent example of the dangers of an unstable body politic. It is within this context that the hyperbolic but vivid and oft-used cannibal metaphor became so important in Jacobean discourse. For it was “no marvaile if they who crash their Saviour between their teeth, make no bones to crush their Soueraigne,” wrote Theodore Herring in a thundering sermon in 1625 (Herring sig. A5v). “No marvaile if those […] god-eaters […] proue […] man-eaters (worse then Cannibals), state-devourers” (Herring sig. A5v).

22Tellingly, the state itself was never, in this period, referred to as cannibal. English reactions to cannibal violence are a notable contrast to the more famous discussions of cannibalism in later sixteenth-century French literature, where authors like the Huguenot Jean de Léry, who encountered the Tupinambá in Brazil, and the essayist Michel de Montaigne, used the trope of cannibalism to condemn the practices of their own countrymen. Léry wrote:

Je pourrais encore amener quelques autres semblables exemples, touchant la cruauté des sauvages envers leurs ennemis […] Néanmoins afin que ceux qui liront ces choses tant horribles, exercées journellement entre ces nations barbares de la terre du Brésil, pensent aussi un peu de près à ce qui se fait par decà parmi nous: je dirai en premier lieu sur cette matière, que si on considère à bon escient ce que font nos gros usuriers (suçant le sang et la moelle, et par conséquent mangeant tous en vie, tant de veuves, orphelins et autres pauvres personnes auxquels il vaudrait mieux couper la gorge d’un seul coup, que les faire ainsi languir) qu’on dira qu’ils sont encore plus cruels que les sauvages dont je parle […] Davantage, si on veut venir à l’action brutale de mâcher et manger réellement (comme on parle) la chair humaine, ne s’en est-il point trouvé en ces régions de par deçà, voire même entre ceux qui portent le titre de Chrétiens […] durant la sanglante tragédie qui commença à Paris le 24 d’août 1572 dont je n’accuse point ceux qui n’en sont pas cause: entre autres actes horribles à raconter, qui se perpétrèrent lors par tout le Royaume, la graisse des corps humains (qui d’une façon plus barbare et cruelle que celle des sauvages, furent massacrés dans Lyon, après être retirés de la rivière de Saône) ne fut-elle pas publiquement vendue au plus offrant et dernier enchérisseur? (Léry 56-7)

  • 3  For a discussion on the disappearance of the cannibal metaphor under eighteenth-century views of t (...)
  • 4  For the English amplification of Amerindian savagery, see Jennings.

23Montaigne similarly believed “qu’il y a plus de barbarie à manger un homme vivant, qu’à le manger mort, à eschirer par tourmens […] un corps encore plein de sentiment […] comme nous l’avons non seulement leu, mais veu de fresche memoire, non entre des ennemis anciens, mais entre des voisins et concitoyens, et qui pis est, sous pretexte de pieté et de religion) que de le rostir et manger apres qu’il est trespassé” (Montaigne 216). Yet it was the seemingly arbitrary and anarchic violence of the cannibal that rendered him so threatening. Consistently portrayed as working for the common good, the state, in English writings at this time, was in all ways opposite to the chaotic violence associated with such “savages.”3 The English adoption of images and stories of cannibal practices showed little sympathy to the Amerindians themselves, choosing to amplify their “savagery” in order to use them as fitting examples of political extremes. The term sauvage, Middle French for “wild” or “feral,” might be used to describe gentler or more tractable creatures – as in the connotations of the “noble savage,” developed into the eighteenth century – but the emphasis on animal ferocity outweighed its milder intonations in English sources by far.4

24John Florio’s 1613 translation of Montaigne’s essays came closest to critiquing state measures, but such views do not seem to have been shared by the majority of English writers. Montaigne believed that “the Canibales and savage people” who consumed dead bodies were less savage than those who inflicted torture – “even in matters of justice, whatsoever is beyond a simple death, I deeme it to be meere crueltie” (Essays sig. X5v). Though Englishmen employed the trope of cultural relativism in their assessment of violent behaviour, such reflections never denied the state its authority to practice violence through its execution of the law. The usual tropes in ballads and accounts of hangings indicate just how far the acceptance of violence depended on shared cultural values, where perceptions of justice, cruelty, and law rendered state violence wholly justifiable, and explicitly different to perceptions of Amerindian violence. When Francis Bacon listed the numerous reasons for abstaining from eating human flesh, his main concern was not in an unholy desecration against the body but in the connection between cannibalism and murder. “Mans Flesh is not Eaten,” Bacon wrote, because it blurred the line between “[n]ourishment, and the Body Nourished,” but especially because “Ca[nnibals] (themselues) eat no Mans-flesh that Dye of Themselues, but of such as are Slaine” (Bacon sig. Gg2r). His interest was not why American natives ate flesh, but why Englishmen abstained from doing so, concluding that since cannibals only ate those they killed, they were automatically categorised as murderers, too. Cannibalism thus involved committing immoral or sinful crimes against the body that extended beyond flesh-consumption. In representing members of a community who took justice into their own hands, cannibal behaviour stood at odds with James’s active attempts to curb violence performed outside the law.

25Jacobean attempts at colonisation, from the campaigns against the Irish to voyages to the Chesapeake, helped crystallise attitudes towards savagery. The threat of uncivil behaviour included native Americans, but they extended beyond colonised territories. What the prevalence of cannibal discussions during this time indicate is that James and many other English writers considered the threat of savagery to be a thing performed by disobedient Englishmen as much as by foreign peoples. The interchangeableness of the two suggests that the question of the impact of the New World on Europe remains an important and under-researched question. While ideas of cannibalism were undoubtedly propagated to suppress the “other,” they were equally used to subjugate or slander the supposedly civil beings who threatened stability from within, articulated in terms that were uniquely moulded and shaped by the American discoveries. English subjects depicted as cannibals, whether Jesuits or duellers, were those who proposed to usurp the king’s power to punish, and who were therefore seen to destabilise the very structures that the English set out to promote in their colonial endeavours. Acts of “cannibalism” committed knowingly in the heart of a civil community contained more danger than those enacted by the distant Amerindians, who were portrayed as doing so in ignorance.

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1  See also Arens, Whatley, Whitehead and Lestringant.

2  “The poor men were brought to such necessitie that they had cast lots to eate each other” (The National Archives SP 70/128, f. 108v).

3  For a discussion on the disappearance of the cannibal metaphor under eighteenth-century views of the absolute cruelty of the state, see Avramescu. Compare to John Locke’s view in Two Treatises of Government that absolutism encouraged princes to “eat their Subjects too, since God gave as full Power to Noah and his Heirs […] to eat every Living thing that moveth, as he did to Adam, to have Dominion over them” (sig. D2r).

4  For the English amplification of Amerindian savagery, see Jennings.

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Lauren Working, « Violating the Body of the Law: Cannibalism in Jacobean Political Discourse », XVII-XVIII, 71 | 2014, 157-175.

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Lauren Working, « Violating the Body of the Law: Cannibalism in Jacobean Political Discourse », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 71 | 2014, mis en ligne le 26 mai 2016, consulté le 23 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/1718.401

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Lauren Working

University of Durham

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