Post-mortem Ablation of the Heart: a Medieval Funerary Practice

leonardo da vinci - anatomical human heart Post-mortem Ablation of the Heart: a Medieval Funerary Practice

B.MAFART (Department of Anthropology, University of Mediterranee, Marseille, France),

J.-P.PELLETIERb AND M.FIXOT (Laboratory of Mediterranean Medieval Archeology, Aix-en-Provence, France)

International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 14: 67–73 (2004)


The skeletal remains of a medieval warrior were found in an 11th century tomb in the church of Ganagobie Priory in the French Department of Alpes de Haute Provence. Examination revealed evidence of multiple injuries including an arrow in the thorax, several sword blows, and a fractured sternum. The chest had been opened probably to allow removal of the heart after the last fatal blow to the skull. Post-mortem ablation of the heart was a widespread medieval funerary practice among elite classes in northern Europe. Numerous cases have been described involving British and French royalty. The practice was based on a mystical Middle Age belief that the heart was the spiritual and moral centre. After ablation, the heart was buried separately in a high place of holy worship where the living could pray for the salvation of deceased’s soul. The rest of the body was sometimes dismembered and boiled to keep only the skeleton. Pope Boniface VIII forbade body boiling in 1299. In France the practice of removing and burying the heart in a sacred worship place continued among royalty, noblemen, and ecclesiastics until the Revolution of 1789. A few cases were reported into the 19th century.

The heart held a wide range of symbolic mean- ings in Middle Age Europe. For this reason it was sometimes removed after death and buried in a high place of religious worship such as a church or monastery. This funerary practice was parti- cularly widespread among royalty, noblemen, and ecclesiastics. The purpose of this article is to report the discovery in Provence, France of the skeleton of a Middle Age warrior who probably underwent post-mortem median sternotomy to allow ablation of the heart.

Click here to read this article from the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

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