New analysis of the oldest-known preserved human dissection in Europe has revealed that its preparation was surprisingly advanced.
Radiocarbon dating has put the age of the man’s body, whose identity is unknown, between 1200 – 1280 AD, considered a primitive era in the history of European science. Yet the arteries of the specimen, consisting of head and shoulders with the top of the skull and brain removed, were filled with a ‘metal wax’ compound that helped preserve the body. This mixture of beeswax, lime and cinnabar mercury would also have added colour to the circulatory system, as cinnabar mercury has a red tint.
Renowned French forensic scientist, Dr Philippe Charlier, who led the analysis of the mummified head, was surprised at the level of anatomical expertise with which it had been prepared. He said: “It’s state-of-the-art. I suppose that the preparator did not do this just one time, but several times, to be so good at this.”
Historians in the past generally viewed the 1,000 years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance as a period of barbarianism and ignorance, particularly in the fields of science and medicine – but modern historians have revised this view.
Historian James Hannam said: “There was considerable scientific progress in the later Middle Ages, in particular from the 13th century onward.” He explained that these advancements were forgotten by academics in the 16th and 17th centuries when it became an “intellectual fad” to credit classical sources from ancient Greece and Rome rather than the scientists of the Middle Ages.
According to Hannam, much of this rewriting of history came from the anti-Catholic sentiments of Protestants, who split from the Church in the 1500s. He said: “There was lots of propaganda about how the Catholic Church had been holding back human progress.” This included the rumour that the medieval Church banned autopsy and human dissection, hindering advancements in medicine.
In fact, the Church sometimes ordered autopsies to look for holy signs in the bodies of candidates for sainthood. In 1308 a group of nuns dissected of the body of their late abbess, Chiara of Montefalco. They reported finding a tiny crucifix in her heart, as well as three stones in her gallbladder which they believed represented the Holy Trinity. More secular autopsies were also conducted in the Middle Ages, such as those carried out by an Italian physician in 1286 to pinpoint the origin of an epidemic.
The reason for dissecting this male subject is lost to history. He could have been a prisoner, or a pauper, whose body was never claimed – yet his body was not simply dissected and discarded; it was preserved, possibly for further medical research and education.
Dr Charlier said that it will now go on display at the Parisian Museum of the History of Medicine.