According to Hannam, much of this rewriting of history came from the anti-Catholic sentiments of Protestants, who split from the Church in the 1500s. He said: “There was lots of propaganda about how the Catholic Church had been holding back human progress.” This included the rumour that the medieval Church banned autopsy and human dissection, hindering advancements in medicine.
In fact, the Church sometimes ordered autopsies to look for holy signs in the bodies of candidates for sainthood. In 1308 a group of nuns dissected of the body of their late abbess, Chiara of Montefalco. They reported finding a tiny crucifix in her heart, as well as three stones in her gallbladder which they believed represented the Holy Trinity. More secular autopsies were also conducted in the Middle Ages, such as those carried out by an Italian physician in 1286 to pinpoint the origin of an epidemic.
The reason for dissecting this male subject is lost to history. He could have been a prisoner, or a pauper, whose body was never claimed – yet his body was not simply dissected and discarded; it was preserved, possibly for further medical research and education.
Dr Charlier said that it will now go on display at the Parisian Museum of the History of Medicine.