Pious Postmortems: Anatomy, Sanctity, and the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe

Pious Postmortems: Anatomy, Sanctity, and the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe

Pious Postmortems: Anatomy, Sanctity, and the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe

Pious Postmortems: Anatomy, Sanctity, and the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe

Synopsis

In Pious Postmortems, Bradford A. Bouley considers the dozens of examinations performed on reputedly holy corpses in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at the request of the Catholic Church. Contemporary theologians, physicians, and laymen believed that normal human bodies were anatomically different from those of both very holy and very sinful individuals. Attempting to demonstrate the reality of miracles in the bodies of its saints, the Church introduced expert testimony from medical practitioners and increased the role granted to university-trained physicians in the search for signs of sanctity such as incorruption. The practitioners and physicians engaged in these postmortem examinations to further their study of human anatomy and irregularity in nature, even if their judgments regarding the viability of the miraculous may have been compromised by political expediency. Tracing the complicated relationship between the Catholic Church and medicine, Bouley concludes that neither religious nor scientific truths were self-evident but rather negotiated through a complex array of local and broader interests.

Excerpt

On March 26, 1612, the Bishop of Coimbra exhumed the body of Queen Isabel of Portugal (1271–1336), which had been buried for 275 years. Isabel’s body, according to witnesses, exuded a sweet odor and appeared not to have rotted despite almost three centuries in the ground. These phenomena, which seem unusual to the modern reader, were standard elements of sanctity that dated back to medieval traditions. But how could one tell if a body’s sweet smell and failure to rot were signs of a miracle and not just unusual, but natural phenomena?

For the Counter-Reformation Church, which was seeking to reassert both its identity and the validity of the cult of the saints, traditional signs of holiness had to be rigorously validated and defensible both to the faithful layman and to canonization officials. It was for this reason that the letters opening Isabel’s canonization process deputed two physicians and one surgeon to examine her body. in their thorough investigation of the corpse, these experts found that Isabel’s face was still “covered by white flesh,” her head was “full of hair,” which seemed as if it had been “just washed,” her “eye sockets, ears, and nose were whole,” and her breasts were “similarly totally white and dry” and, upon probing, “remained solid and firm.” Judging what they found against their experience with other bodies, the medical men ruled that what had occurred to Isabel’s corpse was “beyond nature.” in the lexicon of early modern natural philosophy, “beyond nature” was not a vague term at all; rather, it delimited a specific realm of phenomena created by God. These medical professionals were saying that, in their medical opinion, a miracle had occurred in the body of Queen Isabel.

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