The embalmed heart of Richard the Lionheart (1199 A.D.): a biological and anthropological analysis
By Philippe Charlier et al.
Scientific Reports, Vol.3 (2013)
Abstract: During the Middle Ages, the partition of the cadaver of the elite members was a current practice, with highly technical treatment given to symbolic organs such as the heart. Considered mostly from a theoretical point of view, this notion of dilaceratio corporis has never been biologically explored. To assess the exact kind of embalming reserved to the heart, we performed a full biomedical analysis of the mummified heart of the English King Richard I (1199 A.D.). Here we show among other aspects, that the organ has been embalmed using substances inspired by Biblical texts and practical necessities of desiccation. We found that the heart was deposed in linen, associated with myrtle, daisy, mint, frankincense, creosote, mercury and, possibly, lime. Furthermore, the goal of using such preservation materials was to allow long-term conservation of the tissues, and good-smelling similar to the one of the Christ (comparable to the odor of sanctity).
Introduction: Richard I, King of England (nicknamed ‘‘Richard the Lionheart’’ because of his reputation as a courageous warrior and military leader) has been a central Christian commander during the 3rd Crusade after the departure of Philippe-Auguste, King of France, fighting against his Muslim counterpart, Saladin (1189– 1192). He died in Chalus (close to Limoges, in the Centre of France) on the 6th of April 1199, 12 days after a wound he suffered at the left shoulder close to the cervical vertebra from a French arbalest while fighting without any chain mail. Cause of death was reasonably gangrene and/or septicaemia, even if some fantasized about a poisoning caused by toxics deposed on the arbalest’s arrow.
According to the common medieval practices, a partition of the cadaver was performed, the internal abdominal and thoracic organs (entrails) were placed within a coffin in Chalus, the heart was embalmed separately and deposed in the church of Notre-Dame in Rouen (head of the English occupation of Normandy territories at that period), and the rest of the body was inhumed at Fontevraud Abbey, close to his father the King Henri II (and later to his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine). The partition of the body was widespread among the aristocracy at that time; indeed, 16 years before his death, his brother Henri au court mantel had received a double grave: entrails, eyes and brain were deposed in Grandmont, while the rest of the embalmed body was inhumed in the church of Notre-Dame in Rouen.