In concluding this chapter it has seemed worth while to trace the origin of the misinterpretation of Pope Boniface’s decretal, which makes it forbid dissection for anatomical purposes as well as the cutting up and boiling of bodies in order to facilitate their removal for long distances for burial. Prof. White quotes with great confidence in the matter the Benedictine Literary History of France as his authority, which he declares to be a Catholic authority. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be quite sufficient to establish the fact that such a misinterpretation must have taken place, for the Benedictines were extremely careful in such matters and were not likely to admit an assertion of this kind, unless they had good foundation for it. The quotation on which Prof. White depends for his declarations in the matter is found in the Sixteenth Volume of the Histoire Litteraire de la France, which runs as follows:
“But what was to retard still more (than the prohibition of surgery to the clergy mentioned in the preceding paragraph) was the very ancient prejudice which opposed anatomical dissection as sacrilegious. By a decree inserted in Le Sexte, Boniface VIII. forbade the boiling of bodies in order to obtain skeletons. Anatomists were obliged to go back to Galen for information, and could not study the human body directly, and consequently could not advance the human science of bodily health and therapeutics.”
Had this been written by the Benedictines, there would have been every reason to think that though Boniface’s decretal itself did not forbid dissection it had unfortunately been so misinterpreted. While the Histoire Litteraire de la France, however, was begun by the Benedictine Congregation of St. Maur, their work, like many another magnificent undertaking of the monks, was interrupted by the French Revolution. What they had accomplished up to this time showed the necessity for such work, and accordingly in the early part of the nineteenth century a continuation of it was undertaken by the members of the Institute of France. The Sixteenth Volume from which the quotation just cited comes was mainly written by Pierre Claude François Daunou, the French historian and politician. His life had not been such as to make him a sympathetic student of the Middle Ages. He had been a deputy to the Convention, 1792-1795, was elected the first President of the Council of 500 in this latter year, and became a member of the Tribunate in 1800. His contributions to history were made near the close of his life. While he is usually considered an authority in the political details of these centuries, it is easy to understand that he was not favorably situated for familiarity with the medical history of these times.
Once it is understood that the paragraph in question was written by M. Daunou and not by the Benedictines, its adventitious prestige as a Catholic historical authority, to which we shall see presently it has absolutely no right, vanishes…Everything that M. Daunou has to say with regard to the Popes is tinged by his political and Gallican prejudices. This is why he states so definitely in the Histoire Litteraire de la France that the bull of Pope Boniface VIII., if it did not actually forbid dissection, at least was responsible for hampering the practice for two centuries. That M. Daunou’s expressions on this subject have been taken so seriously, however, is to me at least a never-ending source of surprise. He himself must have known nothing at all of the history of dissection, while those who accepted his opinion must have carefully avoided consulting authorities on the history of anatomy, for it is actually just after this bull that the history of public dissection begins. It is clear to me, then, that this absurd assertion of M. Daunou never would have been swallowed so readily only that writers were over-anxious to find material to use against the Popes and the Church.
James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)