A new analysis of the oldest-known human dissection specimen in Europe suggests that the Dark Ages may have been more scientifically advanced than we think.
The French head-and-shoulders specimen, which researchers originally thought woud date to the 15th or 16th century, may have been used in an instructional capacity, says LiveScience:
The preparation of the specimen was surprisingly advanced. Radiocarbon dating puts the age of the body between A.D. 1200 and A.D.1280, an era once considered part of Europe’s anti-scientific “Dark Ages.” In fact, said study researcher Philippe Charlier, a physician and forensic scientist at University Hospital R. Poincare in France, the new specimen suggests surprising anatomical expertise during this time period.
“It’s state-of-the-art,” Charlier told LiveScience. “I suppose that the preparator did not do this just one time, but several times, to be so good at this.”
Many still believe the uber-religiosity of the Dark Ages prevented things like autopsies and medical dissection from even happening:
But autopsies and dissection were not under a blanket church ban in the Middle Ages. In fact, the church sometimes ordered autopsies, often for the purpose of looking for signs of holiness in the body of a supposedly saintly person.
The first example of one of these “holy autopsies” came in 1308, when nuns conducted a dissection of the body of Chiara of Montefalco, an abbess who would be canonized as a saint in 1881. The nuns reported finding a tiny crucifix in the abbess’ heart, as well as three gallstones in her gallbladder, which they saw as symbolic of the Holy Trinity.
The head, filled with a “metal wax” for preservation purposes, is set to go on display at the Parisian Museum of the History of Medicine later this year.
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