(Painting of John Bannister giving a lecture on anatomy, c. 1580, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
In the medieval age, leading up to the Italian Renaissance, the Arabic world was the leading authority in sciences, mathematics and medicine. Despite their great knowledge, Arab scholars, like the Greek and Roman educators before them, avoided one area of study—the human anatomy. A major anomaly in early human dissections were the ancient Egyptians. They did, indeed, pioneer methods of embalming and other such postmortem work, but they rarely dissected the corpses for the purpose of learning how to treat the living. For most cultures of the ancient world, disturbing the bodies of the dead was taboo, and if the bodies of the deceased were operated upon, it was usually only for the purpose of embalming and preservation. Few countries condoned dissecting the dead, and fewer still used research from postmortem operations to improve knowledge of anatomy and surgery.
For most of the Middle Ages, the Europeans were lagging far behind the Arab world in knowledge. After the Christian kingdoms of Europe invaded the lands of the Middle East during the Crusades, however, their interest in sciences, philosophies and medicines slowly began to revive as they came across the works of Arabic scholars and found preserved translations of ancient Greek and Roman texts that had been forgotten in some parts of Europe. It took some time for Europe to catch up with the world and benefit from their renewed interest in scholarship and learning, but in one area of study, Europe soon became the leader —anatomy.
While the rest of the world continued to see the dissection of the dead as taboo, European schools quickly began to put animals and cadavers under the knife. In the early 12th century, a university in Salerno, Italy, dissected pigs with the assumption that the animal’s anatomy was similar to that of humans. Near the end of the 13th century, however, other Italian schools decided to bypass pigs and study human cadavers, directly. Once human dissection became accepted in Europe, surgical manuals were quickly released and autopsies became a common practice.
- Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1500 (Second Edition) by Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers. New York: Routledge, 2014.