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Surgery and Dissection

Few references to medieval surgical operations exist apart from bloodletting. This is probably due to the fact that successful anaesthetic procedures were not known until the 19th century.

This is not to say that anaesthesia was not attempted in the Middle Ages. Many potions were known to a medieval surgeon which were to be used during surgery. Some of the potions used to relieve pain or induce sleep during the surgery were themselves potentially lethal. For example, one of these consisted of lettuce, gall from a castrated boar, briony, opium, henbane, and hemlock juice - the hemlock juice could easily have caused death.

It is worth to mention that the word used to describe the potion to be taken for anaesthesia is "dwale" which in Middle English may mean deception, delusion, evil; or a dazed or unconscious condition; or a fool; or a specific plant, deadly nightshade; or a narcotic drink." (Campbell 35).

As we can see, the "margin of safety was dangerously narrow between effective anaesthesia and death from respiratory depression" (Campbell 39-40). Hence, surgery was not attempted short of cases of life-threatening injuries. The workload of medieval surgeons would increase during war and the Plague. To the right is a diagram found in one of medieval leech books depicting the "wound man"; this diagram shows possible injuries a surgeon might have to treat during his career.

The exploration of the human body fascinated medieval surgeons. The need to find out what is inside of a human being drove the few brave with strong stomachs to dissection of the deceased. Unfortunately, this practice was strongly advised against by the Catholic Church.

The Church was against any sort of manipulation of dead bodies. During the Crusades, it was a common practice to cook out human bones in order to facilitate return of remains to homelands for proper burial. Many popes not only condemned dissection, but sometimes even went out of their way in order to stop it. The popes who acted most against dissection were Innocent III, Gregory IX, Sixtus VI, and Bonifatius VIII. Some of them acted on the threat to "excommunicate anybody who dissected a human body or cooked out human bones." Additionally, "a kind of inquisition resulted in which anyone found guilty of molesting the dead was burned at the stake or otherwise severely punished" (Kevorkian 34).

Even though the popes looked down upon dissection, they did not mind much the inspection of fatal wounds by experienced physicians. "Although necropsy would not necessarily be implied in such cases, a certain amount of anatomic probing would have to be done" (Kevorkian 35). Such inspections were usually administered (and allowed) in cases of conspicuous circumstances surrounding the deaths of higher priests, popes, or nobility.

An important fact to point out is that the Church not only allowed but actually ordered caesarean sections on dead pregnant women in attempt to save the soul of the unborn infant.

The illustration above is a depiction of dissection of Mother Agrippina.

The fascination with the human body, however, was not put to its end and continued and flourished in the Renaissance.