Monday, January 6, 2014

Treating Corpses

A medieval reliquary from the collection in the
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Over a year ago I touched on funeral practices. A recent comment on that post has sent me back to look at, shall we say, "divergent practices." The comment was very pertinent: how do we account for attitudes toward saints' relics if preserving corpses was important?

It is important to remember that the Middle Ages is a thousand years of many different cultures; there will be no answers that account for all circumstances:
In medieval times the practice of body partition, artistic or actual, was fraught with "ambivalence, controversy, and profound inconsistency." The culture of ancient Rome had possessed strong taboos against moving or dividing corpses, and Christians of the third and fourth centuries maintained this intense concern for proper burial. Indeed, the belief that corporeal integrity is crucial to identity runs throughout medieval culture. The Parisian theologian Gervase of Mt.-St.-Eloi, for example, insisted that it was better to bury bodies intact so they would be "ready for the trumpet" (for the Last Judgment when, it was believed, the soul would be reunited with the body). [source]
Of course, bodies decay, and if Christians believed in bodily resurrection, they must also believe that resurrection would restore the decaying body to its living healthful status. Apparently, however, that belief did not include being able to re-assemble limbs if they had been separated, or restoring organs and cuts if there had been an autopsy.

Research, however, shows that attitudes toward the treatment of corpses were "contextual": important bodies—ones that had religiously or politically sentimental significance—could be partitioned for special purposes. Saints' relics are the most obvious example, but there were others. When Henry III died in 1272, he was interred in Westminster Abbey, but in 1292 his heart was removed and sent to Fontevrault Abbey because of his Angevin family connections.

And remember that the process of hanging, drawing and quartering was a special punishment for the worst of crimes: those who wanted to bring harm to the body of the king (and, by extension, the "body politic" of the country).

Clearly, the treatment of bodies depended on various and varying cultural attitudes, as well as on the needs of the culture to get further "value" from the person by utilizing (or abusing) the corpse after his or her death.

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