The whole matter, however, resolves itself into the simple question, “Was dissection prevented and anatomical investigation hampered after the issuance of the bull?” This is entirely a question of fact. The history of anatomy will show whether dissection ceased or not at this time. Now if those who so confidently make assertions in this matter had ever gone to a genuine history of anatomy, they would have learned at once that, far from this being the time when dissection ceased, the year 1300 is almost exactly the date for which we have the first definite evidence of the making of dissections and the gradual development of anatomical investigation by this means in connection with the Italian universities. This is such a curious coincidence that I always call it to the attention of medical students in lecturing on this subject.

The first dissection of which we have definite record, Roth tells us in his life of Vesalius, was a so-called private anatomy or dissection made for medico-legal purposes. Its date is the year 1302, within two years after the bull. A nobleman had died and there was a suspicion that he had been poisoned. The judge ordered that an autopsy be made in order to determine this question. Unfortunately we do not know what the decision of the doctors in the case was. We know only that the case was referred to them. Now it seems very clear that if this had not been a common practice before, the court would not have adopted this measure, apparently as a matter of judicial routine, as seems to have been the case in this instance. Had it been the first time that it was done instead of having the record of the transaction preserved only by chance, any mention of it at all would have appeared so striking to the narrator, that he would have been careful to tell the whole story, and especially the decision reached in the matter.

After this, evidence of dissection accumulates rapidly. During the second decade of the century Mondino, the first writer on anatomy, was working at Bologna. We have the records of his having made some dissections in connection with his university teaching there, and eventually he published a text-book on dissection which became the guide for dissectors for the next two centuries. Within five years after this we have a story of students being haled to court for body-snatching for anatomical purposes, and about this time there was, according to Rashdall in his History of the Universities, a statute of the University of Bologna which required the teacher in anatomy to dissect a body, if the students brought it to him. More than ten years earlier than this, that is, within ten years after the supposed Papal prohibition, there are records of dissections having been made at Venice in public, for the benefit of the doctors of the city, at the expense of the municipal treasury. During the first half of this century money was allowed at Bologna for wine, to be given to those who attended the public dissections, and if we recall the state in which the bodies must have been at a time when the use of preservatives was unknown, we can well understand the need for it. All this shows, as I have said, that the date of Boniface’s bull (1300), far from representing the eclipse of anatomy, actually fixes the date of the dawn of modern practical anatomical study.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)


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