Warfare of Science with Theology   Chapter XIII: From Miracles to Medicine

Theological Opposition to Anatomical Studies

Yet a more serious stumbling-block, hindering the beginnings of modern medicine and surgery, was a theory regarding the unlawfulness of meddling with the bodies of the dead. This theory, like so many others which the Church cherished as peculiarly its own, had really been inherited from the old pagan civilizations. So strong was it in Egypt that the embalmer was regarded as accursed; traces of it appear in Greco-Roman life, and hence it came into the early Church, where it was greatly strengthened by the addition of perhaps the most noble of mystic ideas - the recognition of the human body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Hence Tertullian denounced the anatomist Herophilus as a butcher, and St. Augustine spoke of anatomists generally in similar terms.

But this nobler conception was alloyed with a medieval superstition even more effective, when the formula known as the Apostles' Creed had, in its teachings regarding the resurrection of the body, supplanted the doctrine laid down by St. Paul. Thence came a dread of mutilating the body in such a way that some injury might result to its final resurrection at the Last Day, and additional reasons for hindering dissections in the study of anatomy.

To these arguments against dissection was now added another - one which may well fill us with amazement. It is the remark of the foremost of recent English philosophical historians, that of all organizations in human history the Church of Rome has caused the greatest spilling of innocent blood. No one conversant with history, even though he admit all possible extenuating circumstances, and honour the older Church for the great services which can undoubtedly be claimed for her, can deny this statement. Strange is it, then, to note that one of the main objections developed in the Middle Ages against anatomical studies was the maxim that ``the Church abhors the shedding of blood.''

On this ground, in 1248, the Council of Le Mans forbade surgery to monks. Many other councils did the same, and at the end of the thirteenth century came the most serious blow of all; for then it was that Pope Boniface VIII, without any of that foresight of consequences which might well have been expected in an infallible teacher, issued a decretal forbidding a practice which had come into use during the Crusades, namely, the separation of the flesh from the bones of the dead whose remains it was desired to carry back to their own country.

The idea lying at the bottom of this interdiction was in all probability that which had inspired Tertullian to make his bitter utterance against Herophilus; but, be that as it may, it soon came to be considered as extending to all dissection, and thereby surgery and medicine were crippled for more than two centuries; it was the worst blow they ever received, for it impressed upon the mind of the Church the belief that all dissection is sacrilege, and led to ecclesiastical mandates withdrawing from the healing art the most thoughtful and cultivated men of the Middle Ages and giving up surgery to the lowest class of nomadic charlatans.

So deeply was this idea rooted in the mind of the universal Church that for over a thousand years surgery was considered dishonourable: the greatest monarchs were often unable to secure an ordinary surgical operation; and it was only in 1406 that a better beginning was made, when the Emperor Wenzel of Germany ordered that dishonour should no longer attach to the surgical profession.