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Dissecting Bodies and Saving Souls
The spiritual impetus behind anatomical dissection.
Image: Andreas Vesalius: dr-rath-foundation.org
It is often claimed that medieval religious institutions banned human dissection, forestalling advancement in the science of anatomy and stagnating the practice of medicine. For instance, the New York Times best-seller, Atheist Universe, states that “For centuries, the Church forbade the dissection of a human cadaver, calling it ‘a desecration of the temple of the Holy Ghost.’ Medical research was thereby stalled for almost a thousand years.” And the journal, The Anatomical Record, maintains that “In Europe during the Middle Ages, the study of medicine…was related to ‘material’ things [and] was considered to be of little importance. Because material things are temporary, the human body was not studied. Anatomical dissection was considered to be blasphemous and so was prohibited.”
According to this popular story, the Roman Catholic popes persecuted those who studied anatomy, such as the 16th century “father of anatomy,” Andreas Vesalius, who is said to have endangered his own life by defying religious dogma to practice human dissection. While this story is powerfully pervasive, it is essentially a myth without a historical foundation. The truth is quite the opposite.
The Origins of the Dissection Myth
The notion that religious authorities of the Middle Ages prohibited human dissection begins with a vision of the history of science promoted by the Late Victorian X-Club and their American auxiliaries, John William Draper and Andrew Dixon White. White’s book History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) is the point of origin for the claims made above about religion banning dissection. White argues that in “the early Church…the recognition of the human body as the temple of the Holy Spirit” led to the prohibition of anatomical study. “On this ground,” explains White, “in 1248, the Council of Le Mans forbade surgery to monks” and “many other councils did the same…Thereby surgery and medicine were crippled for more than two centuries; it was the worst blow they ever received, for it impressed upon the mind of the Church the belief that all dissection is sacrilege.”
After centuries of religiously enforced ignorance, says White, the anatomist Andreas Vesalius, defiant of dogma “in the search for real knowledge…risked the most terrible dangers, and especially the charge of sacrilege, founded upon the teachings of the Church for ages.” Vesalius, “broke through this sacred conventionalism without fear; despite ecclesiastical censure, great opposition in his own profession, and popular fury, he studied his science by the only method that could give useful results. No peril daunted him. To secure material for his investigations, he haunted gibbets and charnel-houses, braving the fires of the Inquisition and the virus of the plague. First of all men he began to place the science of human anatomy on its solid modern foundations–on careful examination and observation of the human body: this was his first great sin.”
White continues his argument lamenting how the Medieval Church “forbade medicine” and “interdicted dissection as sacrilege.” He singles out Pope Innocent III as a particularly resilient bastion against both the practice of dissection and the administration of medicine, and he states that the Church denounced those who practiced medicine as “sorcerers,” “leaguers with the devil,” and “Mohammedans.”
How Religion Encouraged Human Dissection
Are White’s claims about medieval religion and dissection historically accurate? Not in the least. There is no historical evidence that the Medieval church ever banned or discouraged the study of anatomy or the practice of human dissection. The purported prohibition of the Council of Le Mans that White cites has been exposed to be a literary fiction fabricated by the 18th-century French surgeon and amateur historian Francois Quesnay. As Harvard historian of science Katherine Park points out, the “prohibition, The church abhors the shedding of blood, which White described as promulgated at the Council of Le Mans in 1248, was shown forty years ago to be a ‘literary ghost,’ produced by an inept eighteenth-century French historian.”
Was Innocent III an adamant opponent of the study of anatomy or the practice of dissection, as White claims? Again, there is no historical evidence that this was the case. In fact, there is even evidence for the opposite of this claim. As historian of science James Hannam explains: “Pope Innocent III is on record ordering the forensic examination of a murder victim. The autopsies ordered by Innocent broke the taboo against cutting up human bodies and, shortly afterwards, the medical faculty in Bologna was carrying out dissections as part of doctors’ training.”
Historian of medicine Ynez Viole O’Neill adds: “The first recorded case of a medico-judicial dissection…which was conducted at Bologna in February 1302, may be viewed therefore as representing not a break with tradition, but the outgrowth of a burgeoning development whose roots were firmly embedded in both Church Canon law and Civil law. By encouraging a shift of vision, Innocent III…sponsored a process with far-reaching consequences for the evolution of anatomy and of the other biological sciences.” Far from inhibiting the development of the science of anatomy, Pope Innocent III exhibited “a spirit of inquiry…which helped to supply the impetus necessary to inaugurate the acceptance of scientific post-mortem examinations from which academic dissections, and ultimately the modern study of human anatomy evolved.”
The True Vesalius: A Man of Deep Faith
What about Vesalius, “the Father of modern anatomy,” having to live in constant fear of the Inquisition and being persecuted by the church for practicing science? Park says that there is certainly “no convincing evidence that Vesalius ran afoul of church authorities.” Hannam likewise affirms that Vesalius “never got into trouble for practicing human dissection” and that he “suffered from no religious persecution.” In fact, says Hannam, Vesalius was “a man of great piety who saw his life’s work as a way of glorifying God.”
When Vesalius published his great treatise on human dissection, “the entire work was a paean to the magnificent handiwork of the Creator as uncovered by his servant.” At the apex of his scientific career, Vesalius devoutly chose to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and there is no evidence that the Inquisition forced him to go. Rather, a number of letters show that Vesalius left for Jerusalem out of religious devotion, with a royal gift from his employer Philip II in his luggage, and that his patron and king eagerly awaited his return. Vesalius would never make it back home, though. Upon his return voyage, his ship “was buffeted on all sides by severe winds and high seas for 40 days” and ran out of supplies. Having suffered from starvation and illness, Vesalius expired in Zakynthos, where he was buried—with a Christian burial—in the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church.
The myth that medieval religious authorities prohibited human dissection was largely the creation of the secularizer of science Andrew Dickson White in the late nineteenth century. In contrast to White and the contemporary promulgators of this myth, contemporary historians of science have discovered that “most medieval church authorities not only tolerated but encouraged the opening and dismemberment of human corpses to religious ends.” Indeed, there are no known cases “in which an anatomist was ever prosecuted for dissecting a human cadaver and no case in which the church ever rejected a request for a dispensation to dissect.” Instead of banning such practices as sacrilege, human dissection—for the sake of scientific and medical knowledge—was viewed by medieval religion as a means to facilitate the salvation of both bodies and souls.