Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Negotiated Sanctity: Incorruption, Community, and Medical Expertise

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Negotiated Sanctity: Incorruption, Community, and Medical Expertise

Article excerpt

In 1625 the apostolic phase of the canonization process for Pope Gregory X, who had been dead nearly 350 years, opened in Arezzo, Italy. Among the purported miracles to be considered in deciding whether he qualified as a saint was the fact that his body was said to have lain, since 1276, "incorrupt and whole . .. [and] emitting a sweet odor."* 1 The Church had recognized such bodily incorruption as a conventional sign of sanctity since medieval times. Prior to the seventeenth century, however, popular acclamation decided whether the body of the deceased had miraculously resisted rot.* 2 Now, when it came to determining whether or not Gregory's body was incorrupt, the judges in this case called not on popular but on expert opinion: they summoned several physicians to testify about the state of Gregory's corpse.3 Gregory's case was not unusual: in the hundred years after papal canonizations resumed following the Reformation, nearly every saint with a reputation for bodily holiness was examined posthumously by a medical practitioner, sometimes undergoing a full autopsy.4

This innovation signaled a turning point in the process of saintmaking. The field of medicine had adopted many new techniques in the sixteenth century. Most significantly, numerous physicians and other medical practitioners used direct anatomical observation to understand better how to treat and know the human body.* * * * 5 Canonization officials valued this ability to use discrete observations to draw conclusions about the natural world. Physicians thus became the experts who judged, using a combination of practical experience and theoretical knowledge, whether the state of a body was beyond the range of what they considered normal.

Nevertheless, the medical professionals examining Gregory's corpse had trouble determining if its level of incorruption exceeded the realm of the natural.6 7 The doctors asserted that Gregory's body had been known at one time to have been incorrupt, but they now noted that the body had decayed in recent years. One of these physicians, Francesco di Sant Gossari, expressed the following generally held opinion: "for some time the body has not seemed to me to be as complete as I remembered it to be."' Another physician, Gaspare Maltachini, stated that he had seen the body many times in the last fifty years but that "it is no longer at present as whole and solid as it was before." Reasoning further, Maltachini suggested that the rotting of the body in recent years might be due to the decaying of the wooden casket that held Gregory's corpse and to the heat emitted by the numerous lamps lit near his tomb.8

Gregory was, in fact, never canonized. This failure was not due to the medical testimony alone. As Simon Ditchfield notes in his study of saintmaking, Gregory's candidacy was hindered by a lack of patronage and was really only pushed forward through the efforts of one Piacentine hagiographer, Pietro Maria Campi.9 The lack of patronage also affected how the medical practitioners in Arezzo interpreted the state of Gregory's corpse. Campi cajoled testimony in Arezzo, where Gregory was buried, but was unable to engineer an official medical inspection of the body.10 As such an inspection had become commonplace in cases involving bodily incorruption, the failure of such a visit to occur is noteworthy.11 In judging Gregory's body, then, the doctors were forced to rely on memory or casual visits to the tomb. In addition, Campi-perhaps seen as a meddlesome outsider-likely pressured these medical professionals to testify favorably about Gregory's corpse. The medical testimony should therefore be understood as a reaction to these circumstances. Simply put, Gregory's body no longer seemed so "miraculous" after Campi began to interfere with local veneration of the deceased pontiff.

As this case suggests, the incorruption of a corpse was never unambiguous: local opinion, ecclesiastical authority, political pressures, medical expertise, and theological concerns all contributed to the attempt to define the boundary of the natural when it came to a rotting human body. …

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