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22.05.14 Schmitz-Esser, The Corpse in the Middle Ages

22.05.14 Schmitz-Esser, The Corpse in the Middle Ages

The integrity of the medieval corpse, and its experience of death and decay, has been a concept that has attracted flourishing scholarly interest over the past few decades. The many specialized fields of study which connect to the topic--including as it does a wide swath of disciplines such as archaeology, history, literature, art history, and anthropology--make any kind of holistic summation a monumental task, even when bounded by the temporal and geographic considerations of the western European medieval world and given the tripartite focus of embalming, cremating, and examining cultural constructions as specific points of study. Of these three approaches in this volume, the first two are the most thorough, though the book, as a whole, does provide useful points of departure for further work on cultural construction regarding the corpse.

There are many strengths to this work, which collates a great deal of information from individual studies of related topics brought together here into service of a larger discussion about the medieval corpse. However, a few caveats for the reader must be acknowledged. The book’s title indicates an ambition of temporal and geographical breadth that is not in fact met. The introduction does acknowledge frankly that this study gives most of its attention to the early and high medieval periods, with particular weight on the Holy Roman Empire. The late medieval world (and the rest of Europe) are not excluded so much as made to serve as comparanda for this central focus. Moreover, the key source materials for this study are theological treatises, law, and liturgical texts. While additional sources such as archaeological reports, chronicles, literary tales, and medical treatises do make their appearance (the latter especially in chapter 3), the book engages minimally with visual sources. The lack of images or image analysis, in particular, was a surprising lacuna for this reader, with the only illustration in the book provided by the cover image (an illumination of an early dissection, from MS Ashmole 399 fol. 34r). The omission of other images is particularly to be regretted, since engagement with visual sources, even briefly, would greatly enhance the discussion of cultural construction of the corpse, particularly in the portions of this volume that deal with tombs and memorials. Another absence is that of any notable engagement on gendering the corpse. Despite the acknowledgement that gender research is a significant aspect of cultural construction, the topic garners only a short paragraph in the introduction (18). Despite these omissions, the book has much to offer in the wide-ranging number of topics that do come under examination.

The first chapter deals with burial customs and the ways in which tensions between Christian doctrine of the resurrection of a restored body versus the wish to honor and preserve the existing corpse could, and did, play out. One of the strengths of this chapter is its discussion of the types of “correct burial” employed throughout the medieval west; there is no single model, as archaeological evidence bears out, though some shared characteristics persist, such as the practice of inhumation of cremation and the common orientation of the body facing east. The notion, however, of a clearly-defined graveyard is one that Schmitz-Esser argues took much time to fully develop.

Much of the material of the second chapter, which examines the immense significance of the holy corpse, is familiar material in the scholarly discourse on sainthood, and highlights not only the uncorrupt nature of the saintly body but also the saint’s continued power through bodily presence. This section sets the stage for further contrast of unhallowed corpses in later chapters, while also priming discussion for embalming.

Chapter 3 investigates both the rationales and techniques of medieval embalming (as far as they can be clearly determined), especially in the early to high medieval period. The wish to preserve corpses without corruption, and therefore as close as possible to the ideal of sanctity, was coupled with the increasing practice of displaying bodies for longer and longer periods after death. The resultant need for effective embalming was undeniable, though early evidence of successful embalming tends to be rare. Schmitz-Esser cautions against reading these early problematic examples of poorly embalmed figures (like William the Conqueror, for whom chroniclers recounted a smelly and bloated corpse fouling the church) were potentially to be read in light of moral condemnation more than factual accounting. Here the discussion of bodily division practices, with the rise of viscera or heart burial practices, is particularly thorough, and includes a correction of earlier scholarly misreading of the 1299 bull Detestandae feritatis. Schmitz-Esser instead asserts that the papal objections to the practice of dismembering bodies was a horror of the subsequent treatment of boiling the remains, rather than the dismembering itself, and argues persuasively that many contemporaries already felt ambivalence about boiling, no matter how practical it could be for the transport of bones. The chapter also includes a discussion of dissection practices, although the topic is treated as more of a short excursus than a focal point.

Chapter 4 reviews the corpse and authority, primarily in its placement within the grave. This part of the book focuses very much on the use of elite bodies as sites of legitimacy, and connects closely to chapter 5’s theme, which looks at the positioning of the corpse within the social hierarchy, and reviews aspects such as the clothing placed on the corpse, which has nothing to do with protection of the body but rather acted as a social statement. Grave goods also come into discussion here.

Chapter 6, the relationship between the corpse and the law, analyzes the concept of the corpse as both legal object and legal witness. The idea that the corpse could be an actor, rather than merely an object acted upon, is demonstrated vividly through case studies of corpses as interim office holders, as well as rituals developed to allow murder victims to “speak” by bleeding in the presence of their killers. This segues into chapter 7’s discussion of the “living corpse,” especially the hostile dead. Schmitz-Esser is strongly critical of scholarly studies that claim an early origin for medieval vampirism and revenants. He claims rather that the notion of the “harmful dead” emerging to hurt the living did not become common until the twelfth century, and that the notion arose in a primarily Christian, rather than pagan, context (463). He further draws a parallel between the emergence of this fear and the rise of the practice of burning heretics. Indeed, he asserts that destruction of heretical corpses by fire (a major focus of the book, situated in the following chapter) was primarily due to the perceived need to destroy these evil bodies in order to protect the living (559.) Moreover, he argues forcefully that since the souls of these malefactors were presumed to already be in hell, “it was exactly this fate that likely prompted the punishment of burning for such individuals” (575). This section of chapter 8 forms one of the most detailed portions of the whole study, investigating the theological underpinnings of the practice (beginning with Biblical accounts of hellfire) down to the practical need to suppress relic hunting as well as the increased use of burning as a deterrent for other potential offenders.

Chapter 8 encompasses much more than burning, however, in in its exploration of the theme of destruction and desecration of corpses in general. Discussion ranges from the burial of unbaptized children, to suicides and execution, to a detailed case study of the infamous “cadaver synod” of 897 with the posthumous trial of Pope Formosus. Chapter 9 considers the corpse as medicine, particularly with the complicated special powers (good or bad) that corpses were thought to assume. The ingredient mumia in particular comes under discussion, while chapter 10 provides a final focus on three privileged body parts of corpses: hearts, heads and hands. The range of treatments for these hierarchically significant portions could encompass both synecdoche and singularity, sanctification, and profanation. The medieval corpse both provided continuity for a formerly living identity and opened opportunities for new identities, just as the conclusion of the book points the way toward additional avenues of investigation beyond the boundaries of western Europe and into the early modern period.

Throughout the book, the text relies heavily on an inter-page exchange with footnotes, many of them from original sources. Close perusal of the notes and bibliography (the latter also impressively large) clarifies that the sources in this work heavily lean toward European scholarship. Scholars from the United States are less well represented in the sources, despite several germane publications from this region that would have enhanced discussions on a number of issues, for example the topics of corpse medicine and the judicial display of executed corpses. [1] The extensive citations of German works, however, can be of great assistance for expanding awareness of scholarly work outside the anglophone realm.

In relation to that very real benefit, the work of the translator team (Albrecht Classen and Carolin Radtke) also deserves acknowledgement for their significant contribution. Their preface indicates the challenges of this undertaking included an unusual amount of medieval names, for which the sources are not consistent. This explains variations that might confuse the unprepared reader (e.g., Gregor von Tours, Gregory of Tours), though the translators’ respectful maintenance of original German idioms does not really satisfactorily explain the employment of a number of nonstandard English terms--e.g., “repentful” for “repentant” (533), or “embalmment” rather than “embalming” (passim). Nevertheless, the translators have done a great service in making this work available to a wider, English-speaking audience, just as the author has done much in gathering together a sizeable compendium of work within the scope of this book’s covers. A good scholarly contribution, after all, raises additional questions and points the way to further research. The Corpse in the Middle Ages will undoubtedly prompt further exchange on, and discussion of, many related topics.



1. For example, see Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (Routledge, 2011), and the introduction in Larissa Tracy, Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature (D.S. Brewer, 2012).