A glimpse into the early origins of medieval anatomy through the oldest conserved human dissection (Western Europe, 13th c. A.D.)


A glimpse into the early origins of medieval anatomy through the oldest conserved human dissection (Western Europe, 13th c. A.D.)

By Philippe Charlier, Isabelle Huynh-Charlier, Joël Poupon, Eloïse Lancelot, Paula F. Campos, Dominique Favier, Gaël-François Jeannel, Maurizio Rippa Bonati, and Geoffroy Lorin de la Grandmaison

Archives of Medical Science (forthcoming)

Abstract: Introduction: Medieval autopsy practice is very poorly known in Western Europe, due to a lack of both descriptive medico-surgical texts and conserved dissected human remains. This period is currently considered the dark ages according to a common belief of systematic opposition of Christian religious authorities to the opening of human cadavers.

Material and methods: The identification in a private collection of an autopsied human individual dated from the 13th century A.D. is an opportunity for better knowledge of such practice in this chrono-cultural context, i.e. the early origins of occidental dissections. A complete forensic anthropological procedure was carried out, completed by radiological and elemental analyses.




Results: The complete procedure of this body opening and internal organs exploration is explained, and compared with historical data about forensic and anatomical autopsies from this period. During the analysis, a red substance filling all arterial cavities, made of mercury sulfide (cinnabar) mixed with vegetal oil (oleic and palmitic acids) was identified; it was presumably used to highlight vascularization by coloring in red such vessels, and help in the preservation of the body.

Conclusions: Of particular interest for the description of early medical and anatomical knowledge, this “human preparation” is the oldest known yet, and is particularly important for the fields of history of medicine, surgery and anatomical practice.

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