The custom of having for medical attendant one of the leading physicians of the day, if not actually the most prominent medical scientist of the time, which had obtained at Rome during the thirteenth century, was maintained at Avignon during the three-quarters of a century in which the Papal See had its seat there…The distinct tendency of the Popes to keep in touch with the best men in medicine and surgery in their time is well illustrated by the case of Guy de Chauliac. This great French surgeon and professor at the University of Montpelier is hailed by the modern medical world as the Father of Modern Surgery. There is no doubt at all of his intensely modern character as a teacher, nor of his enterprise as a progressive surgeon. Few men have done more for advance in medicine, and his name is stamped on a number of original ideas that have never been eclipsed in surgery. After studying anatomy very faithfully, especially by means of dissections, in Italy, where he tells us that his master at Bologna, Bertrucci, made a larger number of dissections scarcely more than thirty years after the supposed Papal decree of prohibition, he returned to Montpelier to become the professor of surgery there, and introduced the Italian methods of investigation into the famous old university.

At this time the Popes were at Avignon, not far distant from Montpelier. From them Guy received every encouragement in his scientific work. He insisted that no one could practice surgery with any hope of success unless he devoted himself to careful dissection of the human body. If we were to believe some of the things that have been said with regard to the Popes forbidding dissection, this should have been enough to keep the French surgeon from the favor of the Popes, but it did not. On the contrary, he was the intimate friend and consultant medical attendant of two of the Avignon Popes, and was the chamberlain to one of them. The good influence of Chauliac on the minds of the Popes is reflected in their interest in the medical department of the University of Montpelier. About this time Pope Urban VI. founded the College of Twelve Physicians at Montpelier. He was an alumnus of the university, and had been appealed to to enlarge the opportunities of his Alma Mater.

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


Here then is the answer that a modern historian and educator makes to all the representations with regard to the development of anatomy and the practice of dissection during the Middle Ages. If the practice of dissection was permitted it was in spite of the Popes. The fact that there were a dozen of medical schools in Italy at which dissection was carried on is ignored. The great anatomists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries simply did not exist–Dr. White knows nothing about them. There must be no admission that the Popes permitted dissection or any other form of science. Dr. White makes his last stand by a really marvelous tour d’esprit. It was Venice defying the Vatican that permitted dissection. This, he supposes, may help him, for anatomy did develop very wonderfully at Padua when it was Venetian territory. But, as pointed out by Roth, dissection was practiced very successfully, and the anatomical tradition established at Padua, before it came under the dominion of Venice. At all the other important cities of Italy dissection was carried on. We have given some of the evidence for Verona, for Pisa, for Naples, for Bologna, for Florence, and, be it remembered, even for Rome. Padua was the rival of Bologna in anatomy only for a comparatively short time. Bologna always maintained a primacy in the field of anatomy, and never more so than after she became a Papal city at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Vesalius taught and demonstrated not at Padua alone, but also at Bologna and at Pisa. For two centuries Rome was the most successful rival of Bologna, and hundreds of dissections were done in the Papal Medical School.

Of course, the appeal to Venetian opposition to the Papacy as an explanation for dissection being carried on in Italy in spite of ecclesiastical regulations to the contrary is only a subterfuge. It can only be found in histories written by those who refuse to see facts as they were, because those facts do not accord with pet theories as to Papal Opposition to Science, and the Warfare Between Theology and Science, which must be maintained at all costs, though with an air of apology always for having to tell such unpleasant truths of these old-time religious authorities.

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

The reputation of the University of Paris is such that we should not expect her to be backward in this important department of education. As a matter of fact, there is abundant evidence of dissection having been carried on here at the end of the thirteenth century, and the practice was not interrupted at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Lanfranc, the famous surgeon who had studied with William of Salicet in Italy (we have already mentioned both of them and we shall have much to say of them hereafter), taught surgery from a very practical standpoint in Paris, and illustrated his teachings by means of dissections. Lanfranc was succeeded in Paris by Mondeville, whose name is also associated with the practice of dissection by most historians of medicine, and whose teaching was of such a practical character that there can be no doubt that he must have employed this valuable adjunct in his surgical training of students.

In general, however, the records of dissecting work and of anatomical development are not near so satisfactory at Paris as in the Italian universities. As is the case in our own day and has always been true, universities were inclined to specialties in the Middle Ages, and the specialty of Paris was Philosophy and Theology. This was choice, however, not compulsion, any more than similar conditions in our own time. The medical school continued to be in spite of this one of the best in the world, though it was not famous for its original work, except in surgery, which is, however, the subject most nearly related to anatomy and the one whose development would seem necessarily to demand attention to anatomy.

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

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)

The second quotation shows, in fact, that Mondino had the custom sometimes of boiling his bodies before dissecting them when he wished to demonstrate special features, and he promises to make such an anatomy for his students at another time. If the bull of Pope Boniface VIII. was misinterpreted in any way to prohibit dissection, this would surely be the practice supposed to fall under its provisions. Here we find Mondino, less than twenty years after the promulgation of the bull, writing about this very practice, however, and calmly suggesting that he follows it as a routine, in a book that was published without let or hindrance from the ecclesiastical authorities, and that became for the next two centuries the most used book in the teaching of anatomy in educational institutions that were directly under ecclesiastical authorities. If the bull was misinterpreted so as to forbid dissection, as has been said, surely this flagrant violation of it would not have been permitted. It is clear that, if there was a misinterpretation, it must have come later in the history of anatomy. But of that we shall find no trace any more than at this time.

At the present moment such formal permissions are required quite as much in all civilized countries as they were during the Middle Ages. In certain parts of the United States a bond has to be filed by applicants before permission to dissect will be given. Dissection is recognized generally as a practice that needs definite regulation. Without such regulation all sorts of abuses would creep in. During the Middle Ages popular feeling was all against dissection. It was difficult, in many places, for the university authorities to obtain permission for dissection from their immediate political rulers. As a consequence of this they reverted to the theory, very generally accepted at that time, that the university was independent of the political authorities of the place in which it was situated, in educational matters, and an appeal was made directly to the ecclesiastical authorities for permission to dissect, as coming under their jurisdiction in education. They had thus obtained many other educational privileges that would not have been allowed them by municipalities, and they were successful also in this. Anyone who knows the details of the struggle of the universities to maintain the rights of their students and faculties against the encroachments of municipal and state authorities, will appreciate how much this possibility of appeal to the Pope meant for the universities of that time.

The permission to dissect was only another, but a very striking example, of ecclesiastical authority granting privileges to universities beyond those which they could have obtained from the local governments under which they existed. Such permissions, far from showing that the Popes were hampering or prohibiting dissection, prove, on the contrary, that they were securing for educational institutions what local popular prejudice would not have allowed them. That this is the proper way to view this question will be best appreciated by a review of the history of anatomy during the two centuries and a half in which ecclesiastical authorities are said to have prevented or discouraged its development. From this it will be seen very clearly that the nearer to Rome the medical schools were, the more dissection was done in them; that dissection was most common in Rome, at least during the latter part of this period; that the golden age of anatomy developed most luxuriantly in Bologna when that was a Papal city, and in Rome itself; and that in general the Popes must be looked upon as having fostered and patronized the medical sciences and anatomy in every possible way, while there is not the slightest hint anywhere to be found of the ecclesiastical opposition that is supposed to have dominated these centuries of medical history.

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

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)

What we have tried to give in this book, then, is the authoritative refutation of the supposed prohibition of the cultivation of certain departments of medical and allied sciences by the Popes, and sufficient information to enable students and teachers of science to realize that the ordinarily accepted notions with regard to opposition to science in the Middle Ages are founded on nothing more substantial than sublime ignorance of the facts of the history of science at that time. There was no bull against anatomy or dissection; no bull against chemistry; the Popes were the patrons of the great medical scientists and surgeons; the Papal Medical School was one of the best in the world and was sedulously fostered; the great scientists of the Middle Ages were clergymen, and many of them when they died were declared saints by the Church. The opposite impression is entirely a deduction from false premises with regard to the supposed attitude of the Church and churchmen.

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

Through the kindness of the Rev. D. A. Corbett, of the Seminary of St. Charles Borromeo, Overbrook, Pa., I have been able to secure a copy of Pope Boniface’s decree, and this at once disposes of the assertion that dissection was forbidden or anatomy in any way hampered by it…[:]

“Title–Concerning Burials. Boniface VIII. Persons cutting up the bodies of the dead, barbarously boiling them, in order that the bones, being separated from the flesh, may be carried for burial into their own countries, are by the very act excommunicated. As there exists a certain abuse, which is characterized by the most abominable savagery, but which nevertheless some of the faithful have stupidly adopted. We, prompted by motives of humanity, have decreed that all further mangling of the human body, the very mention of which fills the soul with horror, should be henceforth abolished.

“The custom referred to is observed with regard to those who happen to be in any way distinguished by birth or position, who, when dying in foreign lands, have expressed a desire to be buried in their own country. The custom consists of disemboweling and dismembering the corpse, or chopping it into pieces and then boiling it so as to remove the flesh before sending the bones home to be buried–all from a distorted respect for the dead. Now, this is not only abominable in the sight of God, but extremely revolting under every human aspect. Wishing, therefore, as the duty of our office demands, to provide a remedy for this abuse, by which the custom, which is such an abomination, so inhuman and so impious, may be eradicated and no longer be practiced by anyone, We, by our apostolic authority, decree and ordain that no matter of what position or family or dignity they may be, no matter in what cities or lands or places in which the worship of the Catholic faith flourishes, the practice of this or any similar abuse with regard to the bodies of the dead should cease forever, no longer be observed, and that the hands of the faithful should not be stained by such barbarities.

“And in order that the bodies of the dead should not be thus impiously and barbarously treated and then transported to the places in which, while alive, they had selected to be buried, let them be given sepulture for the time either in the city or the camp or in the place where they have died, or in some neighboring place, so that, when finally their bodies have been reduced to ashes or otherwise, they may be brought to the place where they wish to be buried and there be interred. And, if the executor or executrix of the aforesaid defunct, or those of his household, or anyone else of whatever order, condition, state or grade he may be, even if he should be clothed with episcopal dignity, should presume to attempt anything against the tenor of this our statute and ordination, by inhumanly and barbarously treating the bodies of the dead, as we have described, let him know that by the very fact he incurs the sentence of excommunication, from which he cannot obtain absolution (unless at the moment of death), except from the Holy See. And besides, the body that has been thus barbarously treated shall be left without Christian burial. Let no one, therefore, etc. (Here follows the usual formula of condemnation for the violation of the prescriptions of a decree.) Given at the Lateran Palace, on the twelfth of the calends of March, in the sixth year of our pontificate.”

The reason for the bull is very well known. During the crusades, numbers of the nobility who died at a distance from their homes in infidel countries were prepared for transportation and burial in their own lands by dismemberment and boiling. The remains of Louis IX., of France, and a number of his relatives who perished on the ill-fated crusade in Egypt in 1270, are said to have been brought back to France in this fashion. The body of the famous German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who was drowned in the river Saleph near Jerusalem, was also treated thus in order that the remains might be transported to Germany without serious decomposition being allowed to disturb the ceremonials of subsequent obsequies. Such examples were very likely to be imitated by many. The custom, as can be appreciated from these instances from different nations, was becoming so widespread as to constitute a serious source of danger to health, and might easily have furnished occasion for the conveyance of disease. It is almost needless to say to our generation that it was eminently unhygienic. Any modern authority in sanitation would at once declare against it, and the custom would be put an end to without more ado. There can be no doubt at all then that Pope Boniface VIII. accomplished good, not evil, by the publication of this bull. So anyone with modern views as to the danger of disease from the foolish custom which it abolished would at once have declared, and yet, by a perversion of its signification, it came to be connected with a supposed prohibition of dissection. For this misunderstanding Pope Boniface VIII. has had to suffer all sorts of reproaches and the Church has been branded as opposed to anatomy by historians(!)

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

Most of what is said as to the opposition of the Church to medicine during the Middle Ages in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Andrew D. White (Appleton’s, New York), is founded on a supposed Papal prohibition of anatomy and on a subsequent equally supposed Papal prohibition of chemistry. These two documents are emphasized so much, that most readers cannot but conclude that, even without further evidence, these are quite enough to prove the contention with regard to the unfortunate opposition of the Church to medical science.

Without these two presumably solid pillars of actual Papal documents, what is said with regard to the Church and its relations to medical science in the Middle Ages amounts to very little…Indeed, this supposed Papal prohibition of dissection is definitely stated to have precluded all opportunity for the proper acquisition of anatomical knowledge until the first half of the sixteenth century, when the Golden Age of modern anatomy set in. This date being coincident with the spread of the movement known as the Protestant Reformation, many people at once conclude that somehow the liberality of spirit that then came into the world, and is supposed at least to have put an end to all intolerance, must have been the active factor in this development of anatomy, and that, as Dr. White has indeed declared, it was only because the Church was forced from her position of opposition that anatomical investigation was allowed.

Since so serious an accusation is founded on a definite Papal document, it cannot but be a matter of surprise that those who have cited it so confidently as forbidding anatomy, and especially dissection, have never given the full text of the document…Many references have been made to this prohibition by Pope Boniface VIII., but no one has thought it worth while to give, even in a footnote, the text of it. The reason for this is easy to understand as soon as one reads the actual text. It has nothing to say at all with regard to dissection. It has absolutely no reference to the cutting up of the human body for teaching purposes. Its purpose is very plain, and is stated so that there can be no possible misapprehension of its meaning.

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

As we shall see in the course of this book, there was no bull or any other document issued by the Popes forbidding dissection or hampering the development of anatomy in any way. As a matter of fact, the ecclesiastics, instead of being behind their age in liberality of spirit with regard to the use of the human body after death for anatomical purposes, were always ahead of it. There has always existed a popular horror of dissection, and this has manifested itself from the earliest times in history down to and within the last half century, in refusal to enact such secular legislation as would properly provide for the practice of dissection. This was as true in the United States until within the memory of men still alive as it had always been hitherto in European history. Dissection came to be allowed so freely in the medieval universities founded under ecclesiastical influence and ruled by ecclesiastics, as the result of the intelligent realization on the part of churchmen that the study of the human body was necessary for a proper recognition and appreciation of the causes of the ills to which flesh is heir. They realized that the only way to lay the foundation of exact medical knowledge was not only to permit, but to encourage the practice of dissection, and accordingly this was done at everyone of a dozen medical schools of Italy during the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and nowhere more so than at the Papal University at Rome itself during the sixteenth century, at a time when, if we would believe Dr. White, the Church authorities were doing everything in their power to prevent dissection.

None of the other sciences allied to medicine were hampered in any way, but, on the contrary, fostered and encouraged; and the devoted students of science were prominent churchmen, some of whom were honored with the title of saint after their deaths. In spite of declarations to the contrary, chemistry was not forbidden by a Papal decree or other document, though the practice of certain alchemists of pretending to make gold and silver out of baser metals and thus cheating people was condemned, just as we condemn the corresponding practice of selling “gold bricks” at the present time. As will be made very clear, the Pope who issued the decree that forbids such sharp practices was a distinguished and discriminating patron of medical education at the beginning of the fourteenth century, doing more for it than any ruler for three centuries after his time; yet in doing so he was only carrying out the policy which had been maintained by the Popes before his time and was to continue ever afterwards.

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