What Does This Head From the Thirteenth Century Tell Us About Medieval Medicine?

What can a dissection specimen from the 13th century tell us about the Dark Ages?

Is this the oldest surviving European science project? Photo: Archives of Medical Science

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.

More from Smithsonian.com:

A Forensic Analysis of Richard the Lionheart’s Heart
The History of Health Food, Part 2: Medieval and Renaissance Periods

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