Karen Bayly

Author and Copywriter

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Fee Fi Fo Fum

One of my favourite sources of weird and wonderful information is Atlas Obscura. Recently I stumbled upon a happy little article titled “In 1590, Starving Parisians Ground Human Bones Into Bread” concerning a somewhat nasty situation during the tumultuous French Wars of Religion.

Henri III of Navarre was the legitimate heir to the French throne (as Henry IV of France), but he was a Protestant. As result, he’d been embroiled in a four-year civil war against a powerful anti-Protestant group, the Catholic League. In 1590, he made a move towards Paris causing many peasants in the surrounding towns to flee to the city where they believed they would be safe.

Unfortunately for them, Henri laid seige to Paris. He took control of the surrounding lands and burned their windmills. This endangered the Parisian food supply. It only took a few months before the poorer Parisians were starving. In their desperation, they ate horses, mules, then pet dogs and cats, then moved on to grazing on grass in parks.

A charnel house at the Saints Innocents Cemetery, Paris. Public Domain.

Finally, they resorted to making bread from the bones of the dead. They disinterred skeletons from the mass graves of the Holy Innocents Cemetery, ground the bones into flour, and baked it into bread.

Sadly, eating this bread did little to prolong the life of these poor souls. Instead, they all died and no-one is quite sure why. There are many hypotheses ranging from psychogenic (guilt about cannibalism), to disease or prions in the bones, to the high mineral content of bone bread causing abdominal obstruction (read this essay by Jennifer Monroe Franson). But that is all we have - hypotheses.

Overall, the death toll from starvation was between 40,000 and 50,000. Finally, King Henri relented and allowed his army to provide Parisians with food.

Death waits. Image: zummolo/

If you're like me, all this talk of grinding bones you probably reminds you of the words uttered by the giant in the fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk:

Fee fi fo fum
I smell the blood of an Englishman
Be he alive or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread

I wondered whether this rhyme came about after the events of 1590. My research suggested that the first two lines appeared in 1596, in the pamphlet Haue with You to Saffron-Walden, written by Thomas Nashe. Even then, Nashe mentions that the rhyme was already old and its origins obscure. However, the last two lines did not appear until later, with the earliest known printed version appearing in 1711.

So I’m none the wiser as to whether this sad and gruesome chapter in French history inspired a threatening rhyme from a fairy tale giant. Though one thing seems clear - fairy tale giants are blessed with stronger digestive systems than those poor suffering Parisians.

Jack and the Beanstalk Giant. Public Domain.


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