Similarly, Renaissance propagandists spread the rumor that the Medieval Christian church banned autopsy and human dissection, holding back medical progress.
In fact, Hannam said, many societies have banned or limited the carving up of human corpses, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to early Europeans (that's why Galen was stuck dissecting animals and peering into gladiator wounds). But autopsies and dissection were not under a blanket church ban in the Middle Ages. In fact, the church sometimes ordered autopsies, often for the purpose of looking for signs of holiness in the body of a supposedly saintly person.
The first example of one of these "holy autopsies" came in 1308, when nuns conducted a dissection of the body of Chiara of Montefalco, an abbess who would be canonized as a saint in 1881. The nuns reported finding a tiny crucifix in the abbess' heart, as well as three gallstones in her gallbladder, which they saw as symbolic of the Holy Trinity.
Other autopsies were entirely secular. In 1286, an Italian physician conducted autopsies in order to pinpoint the origin of an epidemic, according to Charlier and his colleagues.
Some of the belief that the church frowned on autopsies may have come from a misinterpretation of a papal edict from 1299, in which the Pope forbade the boiling of the bones of dead Crusaders. That practice ensured Crusaders' bones could be shipped back home for burial, but the Pope declared the soldiers should be buried where they fell.
"That was interpreted in the 19th century as actually being a stricture against human dissection, which would have surprised the Pope," Hannam said.
While more investigation of the body was going on in the Middle Ages than previously realized, the 1200s remain the "dark ages" in the sense that little is known about human anatomical dissections during this time period, Charlier said. When he and his colleagues began examining the head-and-shoulders specimen, they suspected it would be from the 1400s or 1500s.
"We did not think it was so antique," Charlier said.
But radiocarbon dating put the specimen firmly in the 1200s, making it the oldest European anatomical preparation known. Most surprisingly, Charlier said, the veins and arteries are filled with a mixture of beeswax, lime and cinnabar mercury. This would have helped preserve the body as well as give the circulatory system some color, as cinnabar mercury has a red tint.
Thus, the man's body was not simply dissected and tossed away; it was preserved, possibly for continued medical education, Charlier said. The man's identity, however, is forever lost. He could have been a prisoner, an institutionalized person, or perhaps a pauper whose body was never claimed, the researchers write this month in the journal Archives of Medical Science.
The specimen, which is in private hands, is set to go on display at the Parisian Museum of the History of Medicine, Charlier said.
"This is really interesting from a historical and archaeological point of view," Charlier said, adding, "We really have a lack of skeletons and anthropological pieces."
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