this is how the crusaders learned to embalm organs for the journey

We are in August 1330. The armies of Alfonso XI rodean Teba, Málaga. In a small skirmish, some knights decide to pursue some fleeing Nasrids. But they do not flee: it is an old Berber military tactic in which the soldiers pretended to flee to end up encircling their enemies. The Castilians are familiar with it, of course; but the gentlemen are not Castilian, they come from Scotland.

So a few minutes later sir James Douglas, a heroic veteran of the wars against the English, is surrounded by Nasrid troops. He has enough experience to know that he is not going to get out of there alive, but (before he begins to fight) he puts his hand to his chest, grabs a hanging locket and throws it with all his might towards the Castilian lines. This story, however, begins a little earlier.

A not so strange request

Monument to Robert the Bruce (Andrew Bowden)

“Bury my body in Scotland and take my heart to Jerusalem.” These were one of the last words of Robert the Bruce; that is to say, we are in the first days of June 1329. Although it may seem a strange and somewhat bizarre request, there was nothing unusual about it: during the Middle Ages the embalming of the heart became a very common phenomenon.

In full crusades, transporting a body through half of Europe (on trips that could easily last months) did not seem the most reasonable. For this reason, they began to look for a way to transport what, for them, was the most important organ: the heart. There are dozens of cases: in addition to the one unfairly treated by ‘Braveheart‘ Robert the Bruce, the best known is that of Richard the Lionheart which ended up lost in a reliquary in the church of Notre Dame de Rouen for centuries before being rediscovered in 1838.

how to keep a heart

Tim Marshall Catzhuz7z8g Unsplash
Tim Marshall

However, much of the techniques used by medieval embalmers were lost as these practices fell out of use. Furthermore, for centuries scholars have studied the process from a more symbolic, theological, or ritual point of view than an eminently biological one.

For this reason, in 2013, Philippe Charlier and a team of researchers from the department of forensic medicine and pathology of the R. Poincaré University Hospital decided to examine the remains of Richard I’s reliquary to see what they could find.

One of the first things they found were trace amounts of pollen from myrtle, daisies, mint, pine, oak, poplar, bluebells; some of these plants flower in April, which coincides with the date of the death of the English king and, despite the fact that there is no serious historical doubt, reinforces the idea that the heart was legitimate. Those that do not bloom on that date used to be used in historical embalming processes.

Without a doubt, one of the most curious things he showed complete biomedical analysis of the mummified heart of Richard I is that, in addition to some techniques related to drying, substances inspired by biblical texts were used. For example, the researchers found that the heart was wrapped in a linen cloth and placed in a lead locket. In addition, they found mercury or incense, which are materials with an important symbolic weight.

Generally speaking, Charlier and his team (famous for performing autopsies on French historical figures such as Henry IV of France and Diane de Poitiers) discovered that the techniques for preserving the heart had nothing to do with what was described in treatises from other times. It was something new and very interesting. Something that, in short, brings us back to a very modern question: how many technologies have we invented and forgotten throughout history.

Imagen | Wellcome Library

Source: Xataka by

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