Monday Series: The Criminalized Body III

Punishing the Soul: The Ignoble Body and its Status of Honour

The strong cultural connotation between the body and the soul raised conflicting accounts of death, the afterlife, and eschatological implications associated with the cutting of the body. While the dominant religious perspective of Medieval England centered on the doctrine of resurrected Christ, Restoration England shifted religious perspectives towards the afterlife and the soul’s eventual fate. These swept away the cult of saints, and denied Purgatory’s existence; in 1536, it was said of the dead that “the place where they be, the name thereof, and the kinds of pain there, be to us uncertain by scripture,”[1] and the denial of Purgatory led to confusion regarding the corpse’s status on the dissection table. Moreover, the corpse’s spiritual status presented confusion as to “whether it was judged at death and passed direct to a funeral home, being re-united with the body and judged again at the last trump, or whether it slept in the grave until Judgment Day, when the body and soul would rise together from the tomb.”[2]

Ruth Richardson’s Death, Dissection and the Destitute undertakes a through, brilliantly analyzed perspective on the Anatomy Act of 1832 and its implications for the social, political and civil domains. She roots the history of the 1832 Act, and the problems surrounding it, by focusing on its previous development from the 1752 Murder Act and the problems associated with grave-robbings. She suggests that the official function of the barber-surgeon, as eighteenth-century societies viewed it, was to destroy the corpse, as dissection was a final process, and denied all hope of survival, even those transcending life. Thus, perspectives on body culture followed the belief that the mutilation of the corpse carried eschatological implications[3] that could possibly be spread through the waking life, and ties closely with notions of selfhood. Dissection, Richardson points out, was represented as a “gross assault on the integrity and identity of the body, and upon the repose of the soul, each of which – in other circumstances – would have been carefully fostered.”[4] Differentiating from medieval notions of “two bodies” – the body and the soul – the “Natural Body,”[5] of the English represented a formalizing of identity embodied within the body itself, merging the “body” and the “soul” as one. For the soul to be at peace then, the body needed to be at peace, and this was believed impossible with dissection and a denial of burial, essential elements within the 1752 Act.

What of the dissection practices in other parts of Europe? Katherine Park contrasts the practices between Italians and Northern Europeans in order to provide a distinct framework about the nature of the (criminal’s) body and its role in the dissection process during the middle ages. She claims that since for Italians, “death had emptied the body of selfhood,”[6] dissection had no overall effect in damaging the self of the individual, or the soul of the body. The Germans, French and English, on the other hand, carried some kind of notion of selfhood into the body, and dissection “did indeed represent a personal violation,”[7]and this led to the “widespread popular resistance,”[8] to the practice of dissection cumulating with the Tyburn riots. Though Italians seemed to accept the dissection of criminals and foreigners, and “since the dead body was no longer identified with the person, it made no sense to exact further revenge from an inanimate corpse.”[9] The English viewed the body not only as central to selfhood, but its identity was inherent within the body itself, and thus, did not leave with the death of the body. Park points out that while both Italians and Northern Europeans accepted the dualism of the soul and body, and “prayed and offered masses for the souls of the dead, they differed on the role played by the body in the cult of the dead.[10]

Park also argues that if there was no taboo in Italy on the opening of the body, then why was dissection restricted to the criminal’s body? Opposing the idea that it was for punitive intent, she argues that – in the case of Italy, at least – bias was toward foreigners, as opposed to qua criminals, and the marginalization of the body in this case was marginalized on account of geographical origins (as well as poverty), much more than their judicial status.[11] Analyzing a 1442 Bologna decree, which stated that bodies of condemned criminals to be used for dissection needed to arrive at least thirty miles outside the city, Park presents the argument that perhaps opposition towards dissection was more on a bias towards foreigners and marginalization of the body based on accounts of one’s geographical origins (as well as poverty), much more than one’s judicial status.[12] As the subject had to either be a foreigner or low-born, “for the anatomist, dissecting a corpse that was considered ignoble created a path through the shifting of limits of what was tolerable, and freedom from both ecclesiastical censure and from public condemnation for the victim and all those who participated actively or passively in the dissection.”[13] Although Park presents a solid argument, she herself points out in England’s case, dissection as a strict form of penal punishment existed as a way of punishing the marginal members of society.

For Park, the stigma surrounding the dissection was on violations of personal and family honour, especially when we consider that England after the 1752 Murder Act could deny burial to a criminal’s body, even if requested by the family. She argues that profound dishonour, associated with public dissection, contrasted and violated personhood and social integrity. “The public exposure of an executed and dissected criminal,” Park remarks, “on the other hand [as opposed to the saintly body], was an occasion of dishonour and shame for the individual and his or her family.”[14] “No person of good repute,” Florike Egmond adds, “wanted his or her own body to be thus displayed in disgrace, generally without a decent burial…[especially] when we keep in mind that honour, unlike pain, transcends death, to be dissected in public must have been an experience directly comparable with rage or public punishment.”[15]

Outrage against the process of dissection then had more to do with honour and shame, than the actual process of dissection itself.  As Andrea Carlino explains,

The status of these bodies nonetheless appears very special: they were marginalized, banished from society, no longer the dwelling of the sacred; at the very moment of their sin it seems as if the people who later became the subject of dissection lost, along with their lives, the dignity that the integrity of their remains conferred. The association of dissection with sin or transgression shows itself first in the surreptitious and irregular practices carried on at the boundary between the licit and the illicit.[16]

The marginalized body thus becomes the criminalized, condemned body, a vessel for the sinful acts of the soul. Thus, for the English, horrid crimes of murder could not only be punished at the gallows; those low-born, “scum of the people”[17] required further punitive punishment, which could only be accomplished by the barber-surgeons’ knife.


[1] Morgan, Philip, Morgan, “Of Worms and War: 1380-1558.” In Death in England: An Illustrated History, eds. Peter Jupp and Clare Gittins (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pp.119-147.

[2] Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987),  p.15.

[3] Richardson, 29.

[4] Richardson, 76.

[5] Nigel Llewellyn, “The Royal Body: Monuments to the Dead, For the Living.” In Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c.1540-1660, eds. Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn (London: Reaktion Books, 1990), pp.218-240; p.221.

[6] Katherine Park, “The Life of the Corpse: Division and Dissection in Late Medieval Europe,” The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 50 (1995), pp.115-132; p.132.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, p.119.

[11] Katherine Park, “The Criminal and Saintly Body: Autopsy and Dissection in Renaissance Italy,” Renaissance Quarterly, 47.1 (Spring 1994), pp.1-33, p.13.

[12] Ibid, p.12.

[13] Andrea Carlino, Books of the Body: Anatomical Ritual and Renaissance Learning, trans. John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi, (Chicago: Chicago Press, 1994), p.98.

[14] Katherine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York: Zone Books, 2006), p.19.

[15] Egmond, Florike. “Execution, Dissection, Pain and Infamy – A Morphological Investigation” in Bodily Extremities: Preoccupations with the Human Body in Early Modern European Culture. Eds. Florike Egmond and Robert Zwijnenberg (England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003), pp.92-127; p.109.

[16] A. Carlino, Books of the Body, 94.

[17] Peter LInebaugh, “The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons.” In Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England (London: Allan Lane, Penguin Books Ltd., 1975), p.79.


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