Heart burial in medieval and early post-medieval Central Europe
By Estella Weiss-Krejci,
Body Parts and Bodies Whole, eds. Katharina Rebay-Salisbury, Marie Louise Stig Sorensen and Jessica Hughes. Studies in Funerary Archaeology 5. (Oxbow Book,2010)
Introduction: Born out of the idea of resurrection of the dead with their own bodies, until the 19th century the ideal burial mode in Christianised Europe was the deposition of the whole, fleshed body. Yet there were also alternative ways of thinking about and treating the human corpse: already Augustine had criticised the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh and practical interactions with the dead also stood in contrast to popular sensibilities regarding the integrity of the corpse. For instance, it was quite common practice to remove bones from the graveyards and redeposit them in charnel houses, while embalming and the extraction of the inner organs were also common forms of mortuary behaviour among the upper strata of society.
Body processing and the division of the corpse allowed for separate burial of body parts. Since individuals of political importance were often subject to this practice, the political quality of the body became more important than the individual. The physically fragmented body could serve as a metaphor for political and social conditions. In their ability to represent different but connected aspects, the parts of the corpse together – often buried in different territories or in different religious houses – confirmed the integrated quality of all its elements. Each part had the potential to represent the dead in a special way. In this chapter I will focus on heart burials as a particular version of this manner of dividing the dead body into different parts. I will discuss the development in Central Europe but also make a few comparisons with medieval England, as this area recently has been the subject of new work
Processing the corpse after death is of considerable antiquity and was practised in many parts of the world. In medieval Europe, the practice may have originally developed out of a necessity to delay putrefaction and preserve corpses for transport over long distances and extended time periods. Simple forms of embalming, which involved applying ointments to the body, were probably already used in the 7th century in the treatment of the corpses of Merovingian kings. More efficient procedures, such as the disembowelment (evisceration or exenteration) of corpses began to be practised in the Frankish empire in the 8th and 9th centuries; although it only became standard practice in the Holy Roman Empire between the late 10th and 11th centuries, during the reign of the emperors from the Ottonian and Salian dynasties. In the 12th century, defleshing by boiling (excarnation, also known as mos teutonicus) became quite common since at this time high-ranking warriors often died in Southern Europe and in the Holy Land. Burial in heathen and foreign territories was not desirable and medieval aristocrats usually had burial places assigned before death. Their dead bodies could be brought back from the Mediterranean to Central Europe only in a defleshed state. Despite being prohibited by the Pope in 1299 and again in 1300, both evisceration and excarnation endured, although defleshing fell out of fashion in the first half of the 15th century. In the Middle Ages it was the priests or monks tending the dying who often processed their corpses, and by the 15th century doctors regularly conducted the procedures.