Medieval Mummy Head Shows Dark Ages Medicine Wasn't That Dark

Modern historians have found a Medieval mummy head showing that medicine and medical practices during Europe’s Dark Ages weren’t that dark.

Mummy Head

The state-of-the-art process leads researchers to believe that doctors were likely to have practiced the techniques repeatedly. “The veins and arteries are filled with a mixture of beeswax, lime, and cinnabar mercury. This would have helped preserve the body as well as give the circulatory system some color, as cinnabar mercury has a red tint,” notes study researcher Philippe Charlier, a physician and forensic scientist at University Hospital R. Poincare in France.

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The age leading up to the Renaissance in Europe may not have been so dark after all, say modern historians, debunking the view that dubbed the Middle Ages a time of illiteracy and barbarianism. In a recent report from Stephanie Pappas and Live Science in Scientific American (March 5, 2013), a recent carbon dating analysis of a medieval mummy head reveals advanced scientific pursuits. The specimen dates back to the 1200s and is now seen as the oldest known European anatomical preparation.  

The state-of-the-art process leads researchers to believe that doctors were likely to have practiced the techniques repeatedly. “The veins and arteries are filled with a mixture of beeswax, lime, and cinnabar mercury. This would have helped preserve the body as well as give the circulatory system some color, as cinnabar mercury has a red tint,” notes study researcher Philippe Charlier, a physician and forensic scientist at University Hospital R. Poincare in France. The preservation techniques, Charlier believes, were likely to preserve the body for further medical education.

While the time frame and techniques have been established, much will likely remain unknown. Just who was this specimen?  In the journal Archives of Medical Science, researchers speculate it could have belonged to an unclaimed pauper, a prisoner, or an institutionalized person.

The mummy specimen serves as another example in a string of evidence pointing to considerable scientific progress in the later Middle Ages. Rumors were previously spread that the Medieval Christian church banned autopsy practices, hindering medical progress.