Reacting to Protestant attacks on the institution in the sixteenth-century, the Catholic Church halted the canonization of saints for sixty-five years beginning in 1523. Shortly after the practice was resumed near the end of the sixteenth century, it began to incorporate the testimony of learned medical men about the properties of the candidate’s body. In Pious Postmortems, Bradford Bouley adopts recent scholarship in the history of science and medicine in interpreting the archival records of these postmortem examinations in the new canonization procedures of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Bouley illustrates how the Church adopted learned medicine and its growing emphasis on direct observation in deciding the sanctity of bodies, and, in doing so, both bolstered the legitimacy of the canonization process and supported a discipline often seen as supporting Catholic identity. Bouley begins the book with a useful and compact summary of the history and process of canonization and the changes made to it in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He then documents the rise of medical testimonies based on postmortems in the process beginning in the late sixteenth century before finally turning to three key issues related to the medical aspects of sanctity that these testimonies reveal – incorruption, asceticism, and gender. Postmortems were unofficial factors in the late, sixteenth-century canonization of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and of Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan. Loyola’s body was dissected by Realdo Colombo, successor to Vesalius at Padua and key figure in the discovery of pulmonary transit. Colombo reported his findings in the chapter of his anatomical text devoted to things rarely found in anatomy. Borromeo’s dissection was overseen by Giovanni Carcano Leone, chair of anatomy at the University of Pavia. These procedures were not performed at the behest of the officials in charge of canonization, and the miraculous nature of the bodies involved was primarily reported by the non-medical witnesses to the dissection rather than the learned physicians themselves. Colombo made no mention of anything miraculous about Loyola’s body, and Leone carefully corrected claims about the unusual nature of Borromeo’s made by others. Ultimately, the properties of the two bodies, regardless of source, were not used in their canonization. Nevertheless, evidence from postmortem examinations was used in two canonizations procedures that followed shortly after Loyola and Borromeo, Filippo Neri’s and Teresa of Avila’s. Expert medical testimony was part of the formal canonization process in both. A key figure in the adoption of postmortem results into the canonization process appears to have been Francisco Peña, canon lawyer and deacon of the Tribunal of the Rota, the court that judged the evidence in canonizations. Under Peña’s influence, requests for postmortem examinations by learned physicians appointed by and controlled by Rome became a regular part of the canonization process. The property of the body that most strongly revealed its sanctity was incorruption, both in the early stages after death and over long periods of time. Physicians appointed by the tribunal were often asked to express their professional opinions about whether incorruption was the result of natural, preternatural, or divine causes. Often, a body was examined repeatedly, first locally and then by a physician appointed by the tribunal. In some cases the bodies of candidates who had been deceased for centuries were examined for incorruption. A more problematic, saintly property of the body was evidence of extreme asceticism, which carried with it a number of competing preconceptions, especially the differences in interpretations of the evidence in men and women, the asceticism of men being more acceptable as evidence of sanctity than the asceticism of a woman. As Bouley points out, canonization after the Council of Trent represented an abrupt shift in the gendered examination of bodies in general. Preformation postmortems were overwhelmingly focused on women’s bodies. Counter-reformation postmortems focused on men’s bodies. Bouley traces the difference to both the changing perception of the Church of the role of holy women and the shift in medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when learned, male physicians increasingly overtook traditional women’s medicine. Pious Postmortems provides a wealth of detail about the examination of bodies in the context of canonization, a subject that has hitherto been largely ignored in the history of sixteenth and seventeenth-century anatomy despite its connections to key players in that history like Colombo. In Bouley’s hands, the subject proves to cross through more than one key domain in the history of medicine - the role of learned medicine, questions of gender, the process by which medical figures began to establish standards for knowledge based on practical experience, and the role of medicine in the Church. The epilogue of Pious Postmortems explores some of these themes over a broad chronological trajectory from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, establishing the importance of the changes made in canonization in the wake of the Reformation and in an era when empirical knowledge came to dominate medical and scientific thinking. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. 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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 24, 2018
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