The corpse in the middle ages

The problem of the division of the body

Authored by: Agostino Paravicini Bagliani

The Medieval World

Print publication date:  February  2018
Online publication date:  February  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138848689
eBook ISBN: 9781315102511
Adobe ISBN:


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On 19 October 1216, John ‘Lackland’ king of England died at Newark near Nottingham. His body was dismembered by his confessor, the abbot of Crokestone, who had the king’s entrails packed in salt and conveyed to his monastery. The body itself was clothed and buried with honour in Worcester Cathedral. One of John’s predecessors, Henry I, had wished to be buried at Reading Abbey. He died at Rouen, and there his brain, his eyes and his entrails were interred. The body was cut into pieces, covered in salt and wrapped up in a leather bag. Despite these precautions, by the time the royal convoy reached Caen, the liquid seeping out of the body caused the men who were travelling with it to faint. Matthew Paris in his Chronicle tells the story:

Now the king’s body remained near Rouen for a long time unburied where his brain, eyes and entrails were interred. The rest of his body had had incisions made in it with small knives and had been packed in salt, because of the stench which was great and impregnated the atmosphere around it. The body was wrapped up in ox-hides. The doctor, hired for a large fee, had been so fearful for the preserving of the head that he had caused the brain to be extracted, but it was already rotting from the excessive stench, even though it had been wrapped in many linen cloths. The doctor died because of the foul odour. He had mistakenly been delighted by the promises made him about the size of his fee. This man was the last of the many victims of King Henry. From Rouen, the king’s body was taken to Caen where his father had been buried. His body was set down in the church in front of his father’s tomb, when a black and horrible liquid began to seep through the ox-hides. Collected in pots placed beneath the bier…, this liquid aroused great horror in those who saw the sight. Finally the king’s body was brought to England about Christmastime, to … the noble church which he himself had founded. He was interred as a king, in the presence of archbishops, bishops and the great men of the realm.

(Matthew Paris, Chronica ad an. 1135: 161–2. Cf. Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum VIII, 2 (ed. Greenway, 256ff.); Annales Wintonienses, Continuatio S. Augustini Cantuariensis: 7) In medieval Europe in the thirteenth century too, the dismemberment of a corpse was an essential procedure in cases where the bodily remains of the dead person had to be transported, as soon as possible after the demise, to a burial-place some distance from the site of death. To loosen the bones from the flesh and to make transport easier, the body was cut up into bits which were then boiled in water until they became completely disarticulated. Another, simpler, procedure was to open up the body and remove the entrails, which were the bits most likely to putrefy, and then bury those on the spot or nearby. They could, alternatively, be transported in a container of lead or some other metal, or in a stone urn, or a primary sarcophagus. The body itself was stuffed with aromatic substances, wrapped in hides, often of deerskin, which were then carefully sewn up (Duparc 1980–1: 360–72; Cartron-Vivas 2010; Corbineau-Georges-Zimmermann 2015; Schmitz-Esser 2014).

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