The Superstition and Politics behind medieval corpse dismemberment.

CannibalsWhy would you dismember a corpse? Nancy Caciola wrote a fantastic article for Past and Present (one of my favourite journals) in 1996 suggesting one of the most obvious reasons: to stop it wandering around.

Caciola’s article was one of my first introductions into the world of medieval Revenants: the very physical, shape-shifting dead who can climb out of their graves and tear you to pieces. In a world where we have demons climbing into the fleshy suit offered by the unprotected form of a corpse, we can see why Bonocampagno wrote of the German custom for boiling and dismemberment of corpses. In the 12th Century burning, boiling or dismemberment was a popular solution for corpses who wouldn’t stay in their graves.

It’s equally important to know that medieval theology had a strongly held belief that until a body had dissolved, the soul would be trapped within it. That’s why William of Newburgh writes in detail about the intactness of corpses, like the corpse of a lustful dead husband who crawls into bed with his terrified widow. It’s not a surprise that the body doesn’t find rest until it’s burned to ashes.

Pope Boniface VIII even released a Papal Bull in 1299 against the barbaric practise of French nobles who were having themselves dismembered and interred in several different sites. Surely, such things can only go to illustrate the terrible decadence of the French?

That isn’t the whole story. As it turns out, there were a number of perfectly good reasons for bodies to be dismembered during the Middle Ages.

The first was symbolic: when Charles the Bald died while crossing the Alps, his body became too decayed to transport back to Saint-Denis, where he’d wished to be buried. When, according to chronicles by a monk of Saint-Denis, his ghost started appearing to people and bemoaning his unhappiness, his bones were disinterred and brought to his desired burial place, leaving the fleshy parts where they were.

Similarly, when Emperor Otto had died in 973 he was eviscerated and his entrails buried in Memleben, while his body was transported to Magdeburg, a tradition that other Imperial corpses seem to have followed. Similarly, when Frederick Barbarossa died in the holy land, his body was boiled to get the meat off, and then his bones were taken to the final site of his pilgrimage, Tyre.

There’s even a hidden dismemberment in the Robin Hood myth: countless film and TV versions of the myth end with Richard the Lion Heart returning to save the outlaws from bad King John, whereas in truth he died in the Holy Land, where his heart was cut out and buried in Rouen (with his grandfather) while his blood, brains and entrails at Charroux and his body at Fontevault.

Not only that, but the disposition of the corpse seems to have been frequently used as a way of showing favour: when Edmund of Abingdon died in the 13th Century he gave specific instructions for the burial of his heart, and Richard of Cornwall had his dead son’s heart buried at the Abbey of Hailes which he had founded, dividing his own body after death between Hails and the Franciscan House at Oxford.

A further reason to have a body buried in more than one place would be to capitalise on the idea of having more than one set of prayers said for you. In Catholic Europe the idea of Purgatory was a potent reality, with the dead expected to work off their sins in the nether world. Powerful families would set up Chantries for their relatives, where staff priests would accelerate the process of restitution with full-time praying.

What’s better than having one staff of clerics say prayers for you? Having Two. Oliver of Tréguier argued exactly this: what was wrong with the King Philip the Fair dividing his body between several religious establishments, if it meant that the increased number of prayers would speed his soul’s salvation? When the Day of Judgement came and the dead returned to life, surely God’s power was sufficient to put a few scattered parts back together?

A final point for dismemberment is pure utility: when Louis IX died on campaign near Carthage his heart and bones were separated from the rest of his corpse, which was buried locally, and kept with the army until they returned home to France, where they could be buried more suitably. Not only that, but as civic burial sites became more and more full there was little choice than to reconfigure the dead: when the great cemeteries of Paris started bursting through the walls of neighbouring basements in the 17th Century, the bodies were dividd and brought to the catacombs, where they could be stored en masse. Even in London, bodies are stored as skull and crossbones at the crypt of St. Bride’s. With bodies overflowing (into cellars in Paris, and washing into the Thames here in London), and monasteries competing for royal favour, dismemberment might have been the most practical options.


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