Pious Postmortems

Anatomy, Sanctity, and the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe

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Bradford E. Bouley
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , September
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“For the Counter-Reformation Church, which was seeking to reassert both its identity and the validity of the cult of saints, traditional signs of holiness had to be rigorously validated and defensible both to the layman and to canonization officials” (1). In Pious Postmortems: Anatomy, Sanctity, and the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe, Bradford A. Bouley proposes that expert evidence became an increasingly important element of the Catholic Church’s response to Protestant criticism of the faith, particularly as it related to the cult of saints. In this carefully and thoroughly researched work, Bouley examines the records for all saints canonized from 1588 to 1700, as well as a number of failed cases in which bodily holiness formed part of the saint’s cult (9). As a result of this research he suggests that the evidence of medical experts, using anatomical studies in the practice of autopsy, came to play a significant role in the canonization process. This in turn resulted in a greater religious significance for the body and played a part in establishing gender roles that supported the ordering of Catholic society (3, 8). In addition, through the use of empirical evidence, gathered primarily by university trained physicians, the Catholic Church may have helped define the healing profession and endorsed the culture of observational empiricism, which Bouley cites as being evident in early modern England as well (4-5, 33).

Bouley begins chapter 1, “Expertise and Early Modern Sanctity,” by observing that in the early seventeenth century, the Catholic Church began to rely on various experts including, lawyers, craftsmen, and a variety of medical practitioners, to demonstrate the reality of miracles and for the canonization of saints. In chapter 2, “A New Criterion for Sanctity,” chapter 3, “Negotiating Incorruption,” and chapter 4, “Medicine and Authority: Creating Elite Asceticism,” Bouley focuses on how one set of experts, medical professionals, helped redefine sanctity and applied anatomy to two signs of holiness, incorruption and asceticism. Finally, in chapter 5, “Engendering Sanctity,” Bouley examines the differing motivations of physicians, surgeons, and bishops for performing postmortem examinations on the bodies of male and female saints.

Bouley supports his thesis for changes in the canonization proceedings in the years following the Council of Trent (1545-1563) by comparing the beginning of formalized pre-Counter-Reformation canonizations with those of the Tridentine period, which saw an increased complexity in the verification process. Canonization proceedings in the thirteenth century, under the governance of legally trained popes such as Innocent III (1198-1216) and Gregory IX (1227-1241), promoted a formalization of the procedure and an increasing necessity of papal approval for the sanctification of saints. In comparison, the sixteenth century canonizations of Ignatius of Loyola (1556) and Carlo Borromeo (1584) included the performance of anatomical examinations, though the results were not included in the evidence for their holiness. The evolution of the process continued in the sixteenth century and into the early seventeenth century when the utility of the postmortem examination by medically trained experts had been recognized and decreed by Rome. In his discussion of the engendering of the canonization process, Bouley acknowledges that “the literature on how the Reformation affected gender roles is vast and contentious” (199). Yet Bouley makes an interesting case for the significance of gender from the standpoint of ecclesiastical authority and medical expertise, as well as the criteria by which the bodies of male and female saints were judged.

The interconnection of politics, religion, medicine and natural philosophy in early modern England has been previously noted (Harold J. Cook, Decline of the Old Medical Regime in Stuart England, Cornell University Press, 1986; Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham, eds., Religio Medici: Medicine and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, Scholars Press, 1996; Elizabeth Lane Furdell, ed., Textual Healing: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Medicine, Brill, 2005). The controversy over the legitimacy of university-trained physicians as compared with other medical practitioners and natural philosophers was a contentious issue in England. A comparative study of the interplay between medicine, science, and religion, Protestant and Catholic, in the early modern era in England and Italy would provide an interesting intersection for post-Reformation research, including a comparative analysis of the methods and influence of the monarchy and the Protestant churches in England with that of the papacy and the Catholic Church in Italy and their respective roles in defining the medical profession.

Pious Postmortems provides a unique viewpoint on the conjunction of science and religion in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that will be of interest to scholars of religion and the history of science. It should also prove to be an enjoyable and valuable read for the layperson interested in the evolution of an aspect of Catholic Church practices in the years following the Counter-Reformation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nancy S. Gutgsell holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Immunology and is currently a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bradford A. Bouley teaches history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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