Amazing articles on just about every subject...


The Supposed Papal Prohibition Of Dissection

( Originally Published 1911 )

There is a very general impression that the Roman Catholic Church was, during the Middle Ages, opposed to the practice of dissection, and that various ecclesiastical regulations and even Papal decrees were issued which prohibited, or at least limited to a very great degree, this necessary adjunct of medical teaching. These ecclesiastical censures are supposed to be in force, to some extent at least, even at the present time. The persuasion as to the minatory attitude of the Church in regard to dissection is so widespread among even supposedly well educated professional men, that, as we have said in the introductory chapter, when there was question some time ago of opening a medical school in New York City under Catholic auspices as a department of Fordham University, a number of more than ordinarily intelligent physicians asked : What would be done about the study of anatomy, since in the circumstances suggested dissection would not be allowed ? This false impression has been produced by writers in the history of science who have emphasized very strenuously the supposed opposition of the Church to science, and as these writers had a certain prestige as scholars their works have been widely read and their assertions have been unquestioned, because it would naturally be presumed that they would not make them without thorough investigation of such important questions. Professional men are not to blame if they have taken such statements seriously, even though they are absolutely without foundation. That statements of this kind should have been made by men of distinction in educational circles and should have passed current so long, is only additional evidence of an intolerant spirit in those who least suspect it in themselves and are most ready to deprecate intolerance in others.

Take a single example. Most of what is said as to the opposition of the Church to medicine during the Middle Ages in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Andrew D. White (Appleton's, New York), is founded on a supposed Papal prohibition of anatomy and on a subsequent equally supposed Papal prohibition of chemistry. These two documents are emphasized so much, that most readers cannot but conclude that, even without further evidence, these are quite enough to prove the contention with regard to the unfortunate opposition of the Church to medical science. Without these two presumably solid pillars of actual Papal documents, what is said with regard to the Church and its relations to medical science in the Middle Ages amounts to very little. Much is made of the existence of superstitions in medicine as characteristic of the Middle Ages and as encouraged by clergymen, but medical superstitions of many kinds continue to have their hold on even the intelligent classes down to the present day in spite of the progress of education, and in countries where the Church has very little influence over the people. Dr. White quotes with great confidence and absolute assurance a Papal decree issued in the year 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII., which forbade the mutilation of the human body and consequently hampered all possibility of progress in anatomy for several important centuries in the history of modern science. Indeed, this supposed Papal prohibition of dissection is definitely stated to have precluded all opportunity for the proper acquisition of anatomical knowledge until the first half of the sixteenth century, when the Golden Age of modern anatomy set in. This date being coincident with the spread of the movement known as the Protestant Reformation, many people at once conclude that somehow the liberality of spirit that then came into the world, and is supposed at least to have put an end to all intolerance, must have been the active factor in this development of anatomy, and that, as Dr. White has indeed declared, it was only because the Church was forced from her position of opposition that anatomical investigation was allowed.

Since so serious an accusation is founded on a definite Papal document, it cannot but be a matter of surprise that those who have cited it so confidently as forbidding anatomy, and especially dissection, have never given the full text of the document. It is practically impossible for the ordinary reader, or even for the serious student of the history of medicine, to obtain a copy of this decree unless he has special library facilities at his command and the help of those who are familiar with this class of documents. Many references have been made to this prohibition by Pope Boniface VIII., but no one has thought it worth while to give, even in a footnote, the text of it. The reason for this is easy to understand as soon as one reads the actual text. It has nothing to say at all with regard to dissection. It has absolutely no reference to the cutting up of the human body for teaching purposes. Its purpose is very plain, and is stated so that there can be no possible misapprehension of its meaning. Here we have an excellent illustration of what the editors of the Cambridge Modern History declared to be the breaking up of the long conspiracy against the truth by the consultation of original documents.

Through the kindness of the Rev. D. A. Corbett, of the Seminary of St. Charles Borromeo, Overbrook, Pa., I have been able to secure a copy of Pope Boniface's decree, and this at once disposes of the assertion that dissection was forbidden or anatomy in any way hampered by it. Father Corbett writes :

" The Bull De Sepulturis of Boniface VIII. is not found in the Collectio Bullarum of Coquelines, nor is it incorporated in the Liber Sextus Decretalium Divi Bonifacii Pape VIII., though it is from here that it is quoted in the Histoire Litteraire de la France (as referred to by President White). It appears in an appendix to this sixth book among the Extravagantes, a term that is used to signify that the documents contained under it were issued at a time somewhat apart from the period this special book of decretals was supposed to cover. The Liber Sextus was published in 1298. This ` Bull De Sepulturis' was not issued until 1300.

Even a glance at the title would seem to be sufficient to show that this document did not refer even distantly to dissection, and this makes it all the harder to understand the misapprehension that ensued in the matter, if the document was quoted in good faith, for usually the compression necessary in the title is the source of such errors. The full text of the bull only confirms the absolute absence of any suggestion of forbidding dissection or discouraging the study of anatomy.

"Title Concerning Burials.' Boniface VIII. Persons cutting up the bodies of the dead, barbarously boiling them, in order that the bones, being separated from the flesh, may be carried for burial into their own countries, are by the very act excommunicated.

" As there exists a certain abuse, which is characterized by the most abominable savagery, but which nevertheless some of the faithful have stupidly adopted, We, prompted by motives of humanity, have decreed that all further mangling of the human body, the very mention of which fills the soul with horror, should be henceforth abolished.

" The custom referred to is observed with regard to those who happen to be in any way distinguished by birth or position, who, when dying in foreign lands, have expressed a desire to be buried in their own country. The custom consists of disemboweling and dismembering the corpse, or chopping it into pieces and then boiling it so as to remove the flesh before sending the bones home to be buried all from a distorted respect for the dead. Now, this is not only abominable in the sight of God, but extremely revolting under every human aspect. Wishing, therefore, as the duty of our office demands, to provide a remedy for this abuse, by which the custom, which is such an abomination, so inhuman and so impious, may be eradicated and no longer be practiced by anyone, We, by our apostolic authority, decree and ordain that no matter of what position or family or dignity they may be, no matter in what cities or lands or places in which the worship of the Catholic faith flourishes, the practice of this or any similar abuse with regard to the bodies of the dead should cease forever, no longer be observed, and that the hands of the faithful should not be stained by such barbarities.

"And in order that the bodies of the dead should not be thus impiously and barbarously treated and then transported to the places in which, while alive, they had selected to be buried, let them be given sepulture for the time either in the city or the camp or in the place where they have died, or in some neighboring place, so that, when finally their bodies have been reduced to ashes or otherwise, they may be brought to the place where they wish to be buried and there be interred. And, if the executor or executrix of the aforesaid defunct, or those of his household, or anyone else of whatever order, condition, state or grade he may be, even if he should be clothed with episcopal dignity, should presume to attempt anything against the tenor of this our statute and ordination, by inhumanly and barbarously treating the bodies of the dead, as we have described, let him know that by the very fact he incurs the sentence of excommunication, from which he cannot obtain absolution (unless at the moment of death), except from the Holy See. And besides, the body that has been thus barbarously treated shall be left without Christian burial. Let no one, therefore, etc. (Here follows the usual formula of condemnation for the violation of the prescriptions of a decree.) Given at the Lateran Palace, on the twelfth of the calends of March, in the sixth year of our pontificate."

The reason for the bull is very well known. During the crusades, numbers of the nobility who died at a distance from their homes in infidel countries were prepared for transportation and burial in their own lands by dismemberment and boiling. The remains of Louis IX., of France, and a number of his relatives who perished on the illfated crusade in Egypt in 1270, are said to have been brought back to France in this fashion. The body of the famous German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who was drowned in the river Saleph near Jerusalem, was also treated thus in order that the remains might be transported to Germany without serious decomposition being allowed to disturb the ceremonials of subsequent obsequies. Such examples were very likely to be imitated by many. The custom, as can be appreciated from these instances from different nations, was becoming so widespread as to constitute a serious source of danger to health, and might easily have furnished occasion for the conveyance of disease. It is almost needless to say to our generation that it was eminently unhygienic. Any modern authority in sanitation would at once declare against it, and the custom would be put an end to without more ado. There can be no doubt at all then that Pope Boniface VIII. accomplished good, not evil, by the publication of this bull. So anyone with modern views as to the danger of disease from the foolish custom which it abolished would at once have declared, and yet, by a perversion of its signification, it came to be connected with a supposed prohibition of dissection. For this misunderstanding Pope Boniface VIII. has had to suffer all sorts of reproaches and the Church has been branded as opposed to anatomy by historians it Is it possible, however, that this bull was misinterpreted so as to forbid dissection, or at least certain forms of anatomical preparation which were useful for the study and teaching of anatomy ? That is what Dr. White asserts. He shows, moreover, in his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, that he knew that the document in question was perfectly inoffensive as regards any prohibition of dissection in itself, but insists that by a misinterpretation, easy to understand as he considers, because of the supposed opposition of ecclesiastics to medical science, it did actually prevent anatomical development. President White says : "As to the decretal of Pope Boniface VIII., the usual statement is that it forbade all dissections. While it was undoubtedly construed universally to prohibit dissection for anatomical purposes, its declared intent was as stated in the text ; that it was constantly construed against anatomical investigations cannot for a moment be denied."

If a misinterpretation were subsequently made, surely Pope Boniface VIII. must not be held responsible for it ; yet in spite of the fact that Dr. White shows that he knew very well that this bull did not forbid the practice of dissection, he does not hesitate to use over and over again expressions which would imply that some formal decision against dissection itself had been made, though this is the only Papal document he refers to. He even goes so far as to say that " anatomical investigation was made a sin against the Holy Ghost " He frequently repeats that for three centuries after the issuance of this bull the development of anatomy was delayed and hampered, and insists that only that Vesalius at great personal risk broke through this Church opposition, modern anatomy would never have developed. He proceeds constantly on the theory that it was always this bull that was in fault, though he confesses that if so, it was by a misunderstanding ; and the only fault he can find to attribute to the Pope is a lack of infallibility, as he calls it, because he was not able to foresee that his bull would be so misunderstood.

I suppose we are to understand from this that Dr. White considers that he knows the meaning of the word infallibility. It is not a hard word to understand if one wishes to understand it. The meaning that he gives it in this passage is so entirely different from its accepted meaning among Catholics, that any schoolboy in any of our parochial schools would tell him that the word was never used by Catholics in the sense in which he here employs it. It is so misunderstood popularly outside of the Church, and this Dr. White doubtless knew very well. When a man uses a term in medicine in a different sense to that which is ordinarily accepted, we consider him ignorant ; but when he deliberately uses it in another sense for his own purposes because of a false significance attached to it in the popular mind, we have a special name for him.

The whole matter, however, resolves itself into the simple question, " Was dissection prevented and anatomical investigation hampered after the issuance of the bull ? " This is entirely a question of fact. The history of anatomy will show whether dissection ceased or not at this time. Now if those who so confidently make assertions in this matter had ever gone to a genuine history of anatomy, they would have learned at once that, far from this being the time when dissection ceased, the year 1300 is almost exactly the date for which we have the first definite evidence of the making of dissections and the gradual development of anatomical investigation by this means in connection with the Italian universities. This is such a curious coincidence that I always call it to the attention of medical students in lecturing on this subject.

The first dissection of which we have definite record, Roth tells us in his life of Vesalius, was a so-called private anatomy or dissection made for medico-legal purposes. Its date is the year 1302, within two years after the bull. A nobleman had died and there was a suspicion that he had been poisoned. The judge ordered that an autopsy be made in order to determine this question. Unfortunately we do not know what the decision of the doctors in the case was. We know only that the case was referred to them. Now it seems very clear that if this had not been a common practice before, the court would not have adopted this measure, apparently as a matter of judicial routine, as seems to have been the case in this instance. Had it been the first time that it was done instead of having the record of the trans-action preserved only by chance, any mention of it at all would have appeared so striking to the narrator, that he would have been careful to tell the whole story, and especially the decision reached in the matter.

After this, evidence of dissection accumulates rapidly. During the second decade of the century Mondino, the first writer on anatomy, was working at Bologna. We have the records of his having made some dissections in connection with his university teaching there, and eventually he published a text-book on dissection which became the guide for dissectors for the next two centuries. Within five years after this we have a story of students being haled to court for body-snatching for anatomical purposes, and about this time there was, according to Rashdall in his History of the Universities, a statute of the University of Bologna which required the teacher in anatomy to dissect a body, if the students brought it to him. More than ten years earlier than this, that is,within ten years after the supposed Papal prohibition, there are records of dissections having been made at Venice in public, for the benefit of the doctors of the city, at the expense of the municipal treasury. During the first half of this century money was allowed at Bologna for wine, to be given to those who attended the public dissections, and if we recall the state in which the bodies must have been at a time when the use of preservatives was unknown, we can well understand the need for it. All this shows, as I have said, that the date of Boniface's bull (1300), far from representing the eclipse of anatomy, actually fixes the date of the dawn of modern practical anatomical study.

The most interesting question in this whole discussion is as to how much dissection Mondino actually did during the second decade of the fourteenth century. His book became the manual of dissection that was in practically every dissector's hands for several centuries after. Probably no book of its kind has ever been more used, and none maintained its place as the standard work in this department for so long. No less than 25 printed editions of it appeared altogether. It would seem to be utterly improbable that the author of a text-book of this kind could have made only a few dissections. There are a number of historians who have claimed, nevertheless, that at most he did not dissect more than three or four bodies. This is all that we have absolute evidence for, that is to say, only these dissections are recorded. It is easy to understand, however, that a professor of anatomy might make even hundreds of dissections, and yet have something to say only about a very few which happened to present some special peculiarities. The absence of further records may readily be accounted for also in other ways. The art of printing was not yet invented; paper had only just been discovered and was extremely expensive, and many factors conspired to destroy any records that may have been made.

Outsiders dipping into the history of medicine have made much of our paucity of documentary evidence with regard to what Mondino actually did, and have, when it suited their purpose, insisted that this first author of a dissector's manual did but the three or four dissections explicitly mentioned. Those who are more familiar with the history of medicine, and especially of anatomy, are persuaded that he must have done many. In the first class of writers is Prof. White, for instance, who declares positively that Mondino did not dissect more bodies than those of which we have absolute records. According to his emphatically expressed opinion, the reason why the father of dissection did not dissect more was because of ecclesiastical opposition. Even these few dissections were due to some favoring chance or the laxity of the ecclesiastical authorities, or Mondino might have paid dear for his audacity. No one else, according to Prof. White, dared to encounter the awful penalties that might have been inflicted on Mondino until Vesalius, more than two centuries later, broke through "the ecclesiastical barrier " and gave liberty to anatomists. Prof. Lewis S. Pilcher, of Brooklyn, who has made a special study of Mondino and his times, who has consulted that author's original editions, who has searched out the traditions with regard to him in the very scene of his labors in Bologna, thinks quite differently. Prof. White has a purpose, that of minimizing the work done in anatomy during the fourteenth century ; Prof. Pilcher's only purpose is to bring out the truth with regard to the history of anatomy. In the Medical Library and Historical Journal for December, 1906, Prof. Pilcher has an article entitled The Mondino Myth, by which term he designates the idea that Mondino dissected but a few bodies. He says with regard to this subject :

"The changes have been rung by medical historians upon a casual reference in Mondino's chapter on the uterus to the bodies of two women and one sow which he had dissected, as if these were the first and the only cadavers dissected by him. The context involved no such construction. He is enforcing a statement that the size of the uterus may vary, and to illustrate it remarks that, ' a woman whom I anatomized in the month of January last year (1315 Anno Christi), had a larger uterus than one whom I anatomized in the month of March of the same year.' And further, he says, ' the uterus of a sow which I dissected in 1316 (the year in which he was writing) was a hundred times greater than any I had seen in the human female, for she was pregnant, and contained thirteen pigs.' These happen to be the only references to specific bodies that he makes in his treatise. But it is a far cry to wring out of these references the conclusions that these are the only dissections he made. It is quite true that if we incline to enshroud his work in a cloud of mystery, and to figure it as an unprecedented, aweinspiring feature to break down the prejudices of the ages, it is easy to think of him as having timidly profaned the human body in his anatomizing zeal in but one or two instances. His own language, however, throughout his book is that of a man who was familiar with the differing conditions of the organs found in many different bodies a man who was habitually dissecting."

As I think must be clear to any one who knows Mondino's book, no other conclusion than this suggested by Prof. Pilcher can be drawn. This opinion has been frankly stated by every historian of anatomy in recent years. Puschmann says it very clearly. Von Toply is evidently of the same opinion. These are the latest authorities in the history of anatomy. No other conclusion than this could well be reached by anyone who has studied the question seriously. Pilcher confirms this in the article already quoted in the following paragraph.

"Salernum was not alone in its legalization of the dissection of human bodies before the first public work of Mondino, for, according to a document of the Maggiore Consiglio of Venice of 1308, it appears that there was a college of medicine in Venice, which was even then authorized to dissect a body once every year. Common experience tells us that the embodiment of such regulations into formal law would occur only after a considerable preceding period of discussion, and in this particular field, of clandestine practice. It is too much to ask us to believe that in all this period, from the date of the promulgation of Frederick's decree of 1241 to the first public demonstration by Mondino at Bologna in 1315, the decree had been a dead letter and no human body had been anatomized. It is true there is not, as far as I am aware, any record of any such work, and commentators and historians of a later date have, without exception, accepted the view that none was done, and thereby heightened the halo assigned to Mondino as the one who ushered a new era. Such a view seems to me to be incredible. Be that as it may, it is undeniable that at the beginning of the fourteenth century the idea of dissecting the human body was not a novel one; the importance of a knowledge of the intimate structure of the body had already been appreciated by divers ruling bodies, and specific regulations prescribing its practice had been enacted. It is more reasonable to believe that in the era preceding immediately that of Mondino, human bodies were being opened and after a fashion anatomized. All that we know of the work of Mondino suggests that it was not a new enterprise in which he was a pioneer, but rather that he brought to an old practice a new enthusiasm and better methods, which, caught on the rising wave of interest in medical teaching at Bologna, and preserved by his own energy as a writer in the first original systematic treatise written since the time of Galen, created for him in subsequent uncritical times the reputation of being the restorer of the practice of anatomizing the human body, the first one to demonstrate and teach such knowledge since the time of the Ptolemaic anatomists, Erasistratus and Herophilus."

In order to show that Mondino did not perform only the two or three dissections which he himself for special reasons mentions, but many more, Professor Pilcher has made a series of quotations from the Bolognese anatomist's manual of dissection. It is after all quite easy to understand that if dissections were common, there would be no records of most of them, as they would be too commonplace for chroniclers to mention. Only those that have some special feature are by chance mentioned in some accounts of doings at the university. The records of the actual number of dissections at most medical schools, even a century ago, are not now available in most cases. On the other hand, no one can read these quotations from Mondino's book without realizing that the man who wrote these passages had made many dissections, and that it was a common practice for him to make anatomical preparations in many different ways, under many different circumstances and for many different purposes.

The second quotation shows, in fact, that Mondino had the custom sometimes of boiling his bodies before dissecting them when he wished to demonstrate special features, and he promises to make such an anatomy for his students at another time. If the bull of Pope Boniface VIII. was misinterpreted in any way to prohibit dissection, this would surely be the practice supposed to fall under its provisions. Here we find Mondino, Iess than twenty years after the promulgation of the bull, writing about this very practice, however, and calmly suggesting that he follows it as a routine, in a book that was published without let or hindrance from the ecclesiastical authorities, and that became for the next two centuries the most used book in the teaching of anatomy in educational institutions that were directly under ecclesiastical authorities. If the bull was misinterpreted so as to forbid dissection, as has been said, surely this flagrant violation of it would not have been permitted. It is clear that, if there was a misinterpretation, it must have come later in the history of anatomy. But of that we shall find no trace any more than at this time.

Here are the quotations from the Anatomy of Mondino which show that he practiced not one but many methods of making dissections, according to the purposes he had in view. The leaf and line references are to the Dryander Edition, Marburg, 1541.

" I do not consider separately here the anatomy of component parts, because their anatomy does not appear clearly in the fresh subject, but rather in those macerated in water."

"What the members are to which these nerves come cannot well be seen in such dissection as this, but it should be liquified with rain water, and this is not contemplated in the present body."

"After the veins you will note many muscles and many Iarge and strong cords, the complete anatomy of which you will not endeavor to find in such a body, but in a body dried in the sun for three years, as I have demonstrated at another time ; I also declared completely their number, and wrote the anatomy of the muscles of the arms, hands and feet in a lecture which I gave over the first, second, third and fourth subjects."

As must be clear to anyone, many of these expressions are, as Professor Pilcher insists, intelligible only if we accept the conclusion that their author had done many dissections, under many and varying circumstances, during his career as an anatomist before writing this volume. We have other evidence, of a much more direct character, for this fact. Mondino uses the expression, that he had demonstrated many times a certain anatomical feature which could only be the subject of demonstration after dissection. The expression occurs in a description of the hypogastric region which he calls the sumen. Through this region, he says, there pass to the surface certain veins which transmit fluid in the fetus during the time of its life in utero. For this reason they are better studied in the unborn than in the fully developed, since they lose their function as soon as complete development is reached. In this description Mondino uses the words " ego hoc modo multitotiens monstravi. "

As with regard to this, so as to another bit of evidence of Mondino's frequency of dissection, Professor Pilcher has supplied the material. He says in his article on the Mondino Myth, already cited :

"Shortly after his (Mondino's) death, the young Guy de Chauliac, of Montpelier, came to Bologna to study anatomy under the tuition of Mondino's successor, Bertrucius. When he wrote his own treatise, ` La Grande Chirurgie,' thirty years later, he prefaced it with an appreciation of the study of anatomy, saying : ` It is necessary and useful to every physician to know first of all anatomy' ; and that a knowledge of anatomy was to be acquired by two means ; ` these are,' he says, `the study of books, a means useful indeed, but not sufficient to explain those things which can only be appreciated by the senses ; the other, experimentally on the dead body, according to the treatise of Mondinus, of Bologna, which he has written, and which (experimental anatomy on the cadaver) he (Mondinus) has done many times' 'et ipsam fecit multitotives.' "

Besides this evidence we have details of the lives of two of Mondino's assistants which furnish further proofs of the frequency of dissection at the University of Bologna during these first two decades of the fourteenth century, which, it will be recalled, are also the first two decades after the promulgation of Pope Boniface's bull. Curiously enough, one of these assistants was a young woman who, as was not infrequently the custom at this time in the Italian universities, was matriculated as a student at Bologna. She took up first philosophy and afterwards anatomy under Mondino. While it is not generally realized, coeducation was quite common at the Italian universities of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and at no time since the foundation of the universities has a century passed in Italy without distinguished women occupying professors' chairs at some of the Italian universities. This young woman, Alessandra Giliani, of Persiceto, a country district not far from Bologna, took up the study of anatomy with ardor and, strange as it may appear, became especially enthusiastic about dissection. She became so skilful that she was made the prosector of anatomy, that is, one who prepares bodies for demonstration by the professor.

According to the Cronaca Persicetana, quoted by Medici in his History of the Anatomical School of Bologna :

" She became most valuable to Mondino because she would cleanse most skilfully the smallest vein, the arteries, all ramifications of the vessels, without lacerating or dividing them, and to prepare them for demonstration she would fill them with various colored liquids, which, after having been driven into the vessels, would harden without destroying the vessels. Again, she would paint these same vessels to their minute branches so perfectly and color them so naturally that, added to the wonderful explanations and teachings of the master, they brought him great fame and credit." This whole passage shows a wonderful anticipation of all our most modern methods injection, painting, hardening of making anatomical preparations for class and demonstration purposes.

Some of the details of the story have been doubted, but her memorial tablet, erected at the time of her death in the Church of San Pietro e Marcellino of the Hospital of Santa M a de Mare to, gives all the important facts, and tells also the story of the grief of her fiancé, who was himself Moiidino's other assistant. This was Otto Agenius, who had made for himself a name as an assistant to the chair of Anatomy in. Bologna, and of whom there were great hopes entertained because he had already shown si of genius as an investigator in anatomy. These hopes were destined to grievous disappointment, however, for Otto died suddenly, before he had reached his thirtieth year. The fact that both these assistants of Mondino died young and suddenly, would seem to point to the fact that probably dissection wounds in those early days proved even more fatal than they occasionally did a century or more ago, when the proper precautions against them were not so well understood. The death of Moiidino's two prosectors in early years would seem to hint at some such unfortunate occurrence.

As regards the evidence of what the young man had accomplished before his untimely death, probably the following quotation, which Medici has taken from one of the old Chroniclers, will give the best idea. He said :

" What advantage indeed might not Bologna have had from Otto Agenius Lustrolanus, whom Mondino had used as an assiduous prosector, if he had not been taken away by a swift and lamentable death before he had completed the sixth lustrum of his life ! "

Further absolute proof that dissections were very common about the time that Mondino made those which are recorded, and the mention of which has led to the false assumption as to the rarity of dissection, is to be found in the legai prosecution for body-snatching, which I have already m mention and which took place within. five years after Mondino made the public demonstrations in dissection that are the subject of discussion. It will be conceded by everyone that such prosecutions for body-snatching are not likely to occur when only one or two graves are violated a year, but are usually the result of a series of such outrages, which arouse the community against them. We prefer to give this bit of history once more in the words of Professor Pilcher, who has argued this whole case for the frequency of dissection within twenty years after the bull that is supposed to have forbidden it better than anyone else, and whose knowledge of Mondino and his times is such as to make him an authority on the subject. He has no interest in them, as I have said, either for or against the Popes. His only idea is to bring out the real meaning of whatever data we possess for the history of anatomy and dissection at this time.

"An instructive and interesting side-light on the conditions attending the study of practical anatomy in the days of Mondino may be found in a record, still extant, of a legal procedure which occurred in Bologna in the year 1319, four years after Mondino had begun his public demonstrations and at a time when Otto and Alessandra were doubtless enthusiastically working with him. According to the record, four students, three from Milan and one from Piacenza, were accused of having gone at night time to the cemetery of the church of San Barnada, outside the San Felice gate, and to have sacrilegiously violated the grave in which was buried the body of a certain Pasino who had been hung on the gallows near the Ponte di Reno. It was charged that the students had taken up the body and carried it to the school of the parish of San Salvatore, near the pharmacy of Giacomo de Guido, where Master Alberto (Zancari) was teaching. There were witnesses who affirmed that they had seen the body of Pasino in the school and the students and others intent upon dissecting it. It was the sixth of December when the arrests were made, but the final outcome of the trial is not stated."

Surely all this must be considered sufficient evidence to show that Pope Boniface's bull neither forbade dissection, nor was misinterpreted as prohibiting any practice in connection with anatomical investigation. It is not enough for President White, however, for after the publication of my original article in the Medical Library and Historical Journal on The Popes and Anatomy, and another article on Pope John XXII. and the Supposed Bull against Chemistry, President White wrote thus in reply : "Pr. Walsh takes up the decretai of Boniface VIII., in 1300, and endeavors to show that, so far from forbidding dissection, it had quite a different tenor, and that at sundry universities in Italy and at the University at Montpelier, in France, dissection was permitted and most openly practiced. This seems to me very disingenuous. The decretai of Boniface was construed universally s prohibiting dissections for any purpose whatever."

For President White, then, the publication of the text of the bull is only an endeavor to show that, so far from forbidding dissection, it had quite a different tenor. This endeavor seems to him very disingenuous. It matters not what evidence there may be for dissection, or lack of evidence as to ecclesiastical opposition, the decretai of Boniface was construed universally as prohibiting any dissections for any purpose whatever. All history must yield before the reiteration of the assertion that the Popes did forbid dissection, and that there was no anatomy during the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, except such as by chance, in some way or other, succeeded in evading the Church regulations. It simply must have been so. President White has said it. For anyone to deny it is to question his historical infallibility. Only those who are disingenuous will dare to do so.

It is true, he grants there were some permits to dissect given, but these were wrung from the unwilling hands of the ecclesiastical authorities, and are only proofs of their opposition, not at all of their toleration of dissection. There is no limit to which Professor White will not go in order to maintain his proposition that the Popes did forbid anatomy, and that there was no anatomical investigation during the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Here, for instance, is a paragraph from Professor White's answer which shows very strikingly one method of arguing with regard to a question of major significance in the history of education as well as of science, and especially of medicine, during the Middle Ages. Comments on it are entirely unnecessary :

" And now, as to Dr. Walsh's statement that dissection was permitted by Popes and ecclesiastical authorities in universities. His argument in the matter is an excellent example of Jesuitism. It is true that under the pressure of the developing science of medicine, sun-dry civil and ecclesiastical authorities did, from time to time, issue permits allowing an occasional dissection, at rare intervals, here and there ; as, for example, the permission given to the University of Lerida, in 1391, to dissect one dead criminal every three years, and to sundry other universities to dissect one or two human bodies each year. It is a fact of which we have ample testimony, that Mundinus, the great anatomist preceding Vesalius, only dissected three human bodies with his classes during his entire career. So far from effectually helping anatomy, these permissions served really to fasten th idea upon the European mind that dissection to any cosiderable extent by anatomical investigators ought not to be allowed, and, as a matter of fact, it was not until, Vesalius, in spite of theological opposition, braved calumny, persecution, and possibly death, that this ecclesiastical barrier to investigation was broken through.'

Since Professor White has insisted so much on the significance f these permissions, a discussion of them will not be out of place. There are records of a certain small number off. permissions to dissect having been granted by the Popes to various universities during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These are so few, however, that it would seem that if they represented the only oppirtunities afforded for dissection, then the development of anatomy must have been much hampered.

With regard to this, it may be said that if the Popes gave permssion for dissection, then this practice was not forbidden by them. Here is the proof of it out of the mouths of those who say the opposite. Why should a permission be necessary, however, will be asked ?

At the present moment such formal permissions are required quite as much in all civilized countries as they were during the Middle Ages. In certain parts of the United States a bond has to be filed by applicants before permission to dissect will be given. Dissection is recognized generally as a practice that needs definite regulation. Without such regulation all sorts of abuses would creep in. During the Middle Ages popular feeling was all against dissection. It was difficult, in many places, for the university authorities to obtain permission for dissection from their immediate political rulers. As a consequence of this they reverted to the theory, very generally accepted at that time, that the university was independent of the political authorities of the place in which it was situated, in educational matters, and an appeal was made directly to the ecclesiastical authorities for permission to dissect, as coming under their jurisdiction in education. They had thus obtained many other educational privileges that would not have been allowed them by municipalities, and they were successful also in this. Anyone who knows the details of the struggle of the universities to maintain the rights of their students and faculties against the encroachments of municipal and state authorities, will appreciate how much this possibility of appeal to the Pope meant for the universities of that time.

The permission to dissect was only another, but a very striking example, of ecclesiastical authority granting privileges to universities beyond those which they could have obtained from the local governments under which they existed. Such permissions, far from showing that the Popes were hampering or prohibiting dissection, prove, on the contrary, that they were securing for educational institutions what local popular prejudice would not have allowed them. That this is the proper way to view this question will be best appreciated by a review of the history of anatomy during the two centuries and a half in which ecclesiastical authorities are said to have prevented or discouraged its development. From this it will be seen very clearly that the nearer to Rome the medical schools were, the more dissection was done in them ; that dissection was most common in Rome, at least during the latter part of this period ; that the golden age of anatomy developed most luxuriantly in Bologna When that was a Papal city, and in Rome itself ; and that fn general the Popes must be looked upon as having fostered and patronized the medical sciences and anatomy fn every possible way, while there is not the slightest hint anywhere to be found of the ecclesiastical opposition that is supposed to have dominated these centuries of medical history.

In concluding this chapter it has seemed worth while to trace the origin of the misinterpretation of Pope Boniface's decretal, which makes it forbid dissection for anatomical purposes as well as the cutting up and boiling of bodies in order to facilitate their removal for long distances for burial. Prof. White quotes with great confidence in the matter the Benedictine Literary History of France as his authority, which he declares to be a Catholic authority. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be quite sufficient to establish the fact. that such a misinterpretation must have taken place, for the Benedictines were extremely careful in such matters and were not likely to admit an assertion of this kind, unless they had good foundation for it. The quotation on which Prof. White depends for his declarations in the matter is found in the Sixteenth Volume of the Histoire Litteraire de la France, which runs as follows :

" But what was to retard still more (than the prohibition of surgery to the clergy mentioned in the preceding paragraph) was the very ancient prejudice which opposed anatomical dissection as sacrilegious. By a decree inserted in Le Sexte, Boniface VIII. forbade the boiling of bodies in order to obtain skeletons. Anatomists were obliged to go back to Galen for information, and could not study the human body directly, and consequently could not advance the human science of bodily health and therapeutics."

Had this been written by the Benedictines, there would have been every reason to think that though Boniface's decretai itself did not forbid dissection it had unfortunately been so misinterpreted. While the Histoire Litteraire de la France, however, was begun by the Benedictine Congregation of St. Maur, their work, like many another magnificent undertaking of the monks, was interrupted by the French Revolution. What they had accomplished up to this time showed the necessity for such work, and accordingly in the early part of the nineteenth century a continuation of it was undertaken by the members of the Institute of France. The Sixteenth Volume from which the quotation just cited comes was mainly written by Pierre Claude François Daunou, the French historian and politician. His life had not been such as to make him a sympathetic student of the Middle Ages. He had been a deputy to the Convention, 1792-1795, was elected the first President of the Council of 500 in this latter year, and became a member of the Tribunate in 1800. His ontributions to history were made near the close of his life. While he is usually considered an authority in the political details of these centuries, it is easy to understand that he was not favorably situated for familiarity with the medical history of these times.

Once it is understood that the paragraph in question was written by M. Daunou and not by the Benedictines, its adventitious prestige as a Catholic historical authority, to which we shall see presently it has absolutely no right, vanishes. A word about M. Daunou will serve to show how carefully any declaration of his with regard to the Popes must be weighed. He belonged to that French school of Catholics who try to minimize in every way the influence of the Papacy in the Church, and who, as students of history know very well, do not hesitate even to twist historical events to suit their prejudices and give them a significance detrimental to the Popes. This was the principal purpose of Daunou's historical writing. There is a little volume called Outlines of a History of the Court of Rome and of the Temporal Power of the Popes, declared by the translator to be by Daunou, which was published in Philadelphia in 1837. The American edition was issued as a Protestant tract, and the translator states frankly that M. Daunou's purpose in composing it was to prove that " the temporal power of the Roman Pontiffs originated in fraud and usurpation ; that its influence upon their pastoral ministry has been to mar and degrade it, and its continuation is dangerous to the peace and the liberties of Europe ; and that its constant influence to these effects is to retard the advancement of civilization and knowledge." M. Daunou's title for the work as issued originally in French was An Historical Essay on the Temporal Power of the Popes and on the Abuses which they have made of their Spiritual Ministry.

Everything that M. Daunou has to say with regard to the Popes is tinged by his political and Gallican prejudices. This is why he states so definitely in the Histoire Litteraire de la France that the bull of Pope Boniface VIII., if it did not actually forbid dissection, at least was responsible for hampering the practice for two centuries. That M. Daunou's expressions on this subject have been taken so seriously, however, is to me at least a never ending source of surprise. He himself must have known nothing at all of the history of dissection, while those who accepted his opinion must have carefully avoided consulting authorities on the history of anatomy, for it is actually just after this bull that the history of public dissection begins. It is clear to me, then, that this absurd assertion of M. Daunou never would have been swallowed so readily only that writers were overanxious to find material to use against the Popes and the Church.

Daunou found this bull of Boniface an excellent opportunity to discredit the Popes in their relations to science. It is true, the bull itself says nothing about dissection, nor is there anything in it that would tend to create even a distant impression that it was directed against anatomical preparations of any kind. We might expect, then, that his assertion in this matter would have been contradicted at once by some one who would read the bull. The bull is, however, not easy to find for consultation purposes. It does not occur, as we have said, in Le Sexte itself, that is, in the ordinary Sixth Book of Papal Decretals, published by Boniface VIII., though Daunou quotes it as from there and without her former rights. It was then really a political pamphlet meant to curry favor with Napoleon, and issued anonymously, because even Daunou did not care to put his name to it under the circumstances. This will give a better idea of how much credence may be given to Daunou's assertions with regard to the Popes of the Middle Ages, than any reflections that we could make.

It is in an appendix to this work, added after Boniface's death. It would be rather difficult, then, and would require some special knowledge and no little patience on the part of a subsequent collator of historical sources to find the bull, unless he were determined on getting at the bottom of this whole question. As a consequence Daunou's assertion has remained practically unchallenged for the better part of a century, though many scholars who were familiar with Boniface's sixth book have doubtless realized its falsity, but owing to the fact that they would not ordinarily come across the bull in their direct reading of Boniface's famous volume, would not be in a position to contradict its misquotation. If looked at in this way, Daunou's passage in the Histoire Litteraire would seem to be a deliberate and very clever and, unfortunately, successful perversion of history.

Daunou, who was a deep student of Papal affairs and whose knowledge of the history of the Papacy would not be likely to have missed so important a detail, might very well have known, that about a half a century before the time when he wrote asserting that this bull of Boniface VIII. had prevented dissection, someone who had a doubt on the subject asked the ecclesiastical authorities at Rome, whether this Papal document was to be considered as referring in any way to the practice of dissection, or, the cutting up of human bodies for anatomical purposes. In reply to this question Pope Benedict XIV. made a very direct answer, absolutely in the negative. This is the only hint that I know of in serious history that Pope Boniface's bull was ever considered to have any reference to dissection for anatomical purposes. At the time when Pope Benedict XIV. 's answer was published the Papal Medical School had been in existence for some five centuries and a half. For about two centuries and a half it had been distinguished in the annals of medicine, and as we shall see in the chapter on The Papal Medical School, some of the most distinguished anatomists of their time had been investigating and teaching by means of dissections, and their demonstrations had been attended by many of the high ecclesiastics, even many autopsies had been made on Cardinals.

Pope Benedict's reply is quoted in full in Puschmann's Handbuch. der Geschichte der Medizin,Vol. II., page 227, in Robert Ritter Von Toply's article on the History of Anatomy. It occurs in the midst of an abundance of material of great historical importance which shows the place that the Popes occupy as patrons of anatomy for several centuries. Von Toply has no illusions with regard to any supposed opposition of the Popes to medical science. He even says, that while the older writers have always told the story of the development of anatomy as if the Popes tried to prevent the study of it, as a matter of fact, there is scarcely any evidence for this, and copious evidence for their having done much to foster this branch of medical science which they consider so important for the healing of the ills of mankind. His reference to Boniface's answer with regard to the relation of Boniface's bull to dissection runs as follows :

" Under the heading, Concerning the Dissection of Bodies in Public Institutions of Learning. and in reply to the question whether the bull of Boniface VIII. forbids the dissection of human bodies, Benedict XIV. said:

"By the singular beneficence of God the study of medicine flourished in a very wonderful manner in this city (Rome). Its professors are known for their supreme talents to the remotest parts of the earth. There is no doubt that they have greatly benefitted by the diligent labor which they have devoted to dissection. From this practice beyond doubt they have gained a profound knowledge of their art and a proficiency that has enabled them to give advice for the benefit of the ailing as well as a skill in the curing of disease. Now such dissection of bodies is in no way contrary to the bull of Pope Boniface. He indeed imposed the penalty of excommunication, to be remitted only by the Sovereign Pontiff himself, upon all those who would dare to disembowel the body of any dead person and either dismember it or horribly cut it up, separating the flesh from the bones. From the rest of his bull, however, it is clear that this penalty was only to be inflicted upon those who took bodies already buried out of their graves and by an act horrible in itself, cut them in pieces in order that they might carry them elsewhere and place them in another tomb. It is very clear, however, that by this, the dissection of bodies, which has proved so necessary for those exercising the profession of medicine, is by no means forbidden. "

The original Latin taken from Puschmann runs thus : "De cadaverum sectione facienda in publicis Academiis, utrum constitutio Bonifacii VIII. sectioni humanorum cadaverum adversetur. Singolari dei beneficio medicinale ssatudium in hac civitate (Roma) magnopere floret cujus etiam professores ob eximiam virtutem in remotissimis terns partibus commendantur. Ipsis sane maxime profuit, quod ineidendis mortuis corporibus diligentem operam contulerint, exquaprocul dubio prmclaram artis scientism, in consultation ibus obeundis pro asgrotorum salute prasstantiam, morbisque eurandis peritiam consecuti aunt Porro haec membrorum incisio nullo riginal meaning and set up as a serious stumbling block to the development of science or education in some way. It is quoted confidently by some one without much authority. Others who are glad of the opportunity to have such an objection to urge against the Papacy, take it up eagerly, do not look it up in the original, absolutely fail to consider the circumstances in which it was issued, and then spread it broadcast. Of course it is accepted by unthinking readers, whose prejudices lead them to believe that this is what was to be expected anyhow. It may be that history, as is the case in anatomy, absolutely contradicts the assertion. That makes no difference. History is ignored and treatises are written showing how much science would have developed only for Papal opposition, by people who know nothing at all about the real story of the development of science. The real history of anatomy, showing very clearly how much was done for the science by the Popes and ecclesiastics, will be told in the following chapters.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com