Embalmed heart of 17th century knight buried in grave of his wife
Archaeologists recently unearthed five embalmed human hearts that had been removed from bodies, placed inside heart-shaped urns and buried underneath a convent in France in the late 16 th and early 17 th centuries. One of the hearts, a knight’s, was buried with the body of his wife, who died years after her husband.
Though the practice may sound gruesome, the heart was considered a spiritual symbol. One researcher called it romantic. Burying the heart with a spouse was a common practice at the time.
The hearts were discovered in a cemetery with about 800 bodies at the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, France. Scientists studied the hearts with MRI and CT scans and said each told a different story about their owners, though they could obtain little medical information. They also dissected the hearts, studied their external surfaces and did histology studies on them.
Four of the hearts were well-preserved, and three of the people to whom the hearts belonged suffered from a type of heart disease called atherosclerosis, anthropologist Rozenn Colleter of the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research told the Daily Mail . The three diseased hearts had plaque buildup in the coronary artery.
The heart of the fourth person appeared healthy, while the fifth, the only woman’s heart, was not preserved well enough to draw conclusions about its health.
Dr. Colleter added that it’s rare and exciting for an archaeologist to work on organic materials. Most organic materials, including human and animal body parts and plant matter, disintegrate quickly after the organism dies.
Detail of Folio 5V of King Rene’s Book of Love , about a medieval knight who quests after a lovely lady, Sweet Grace; note the winged heart above the helmet of Cueur ( coeur means heart in French).
The convent was established in the 14 th century and became a prominent place of pilgrimage and burials.
The nobleman was Toussaint Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac. He died in 1649, according to an inscription on the urn containing his heart. His heart was buried with the well-preserved body of his wife, Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac, who was buried in a lead-lined coffin. She died in her 60s in 1656. Her body still wore a cape, bonnet, wool dress and cork-soled leather shoes. The Daily Mail says these were religious clothes.
Radiologist Dr. Fatima-Zohra Mokrane of Rangueil Hospital at the University Hospital of Toulouse told the Daily Mail that it was common then to bury a spouse with the heart of the husband or wife. He called the case of the lord of Brefeillac’s heart being placed in his wife’s coffin a “very romantic aspect” to the story.
Sometimes centuries ago, hearts and other body parts were buried separately. For example, Richard the Lionheart, who died in 1199, requested his body be buried at Fontevrault, his blood and brains at Charroux and his heart at Rouen.
A statue of Richard the Lionheart in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster, London (Photo by Rept01x/ Wikimedia Commons )
The researchers think the lady went to live in the convent after her husband died though she had probably spent all her life with Breton royalty and led a pampered existence. She was not buried wearing silks and jewels, but rather a coarse shirt, several caps and a veil. In her hands was a crucifix.
Though officials recently reburied her body, her clothing, which was disintegrating, was restored and will be on display.
Of academic interest to the researchers is that hundreds of years ago people suffered from heart disease, as many people do today. In atherosclerosis, deposits of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other matter build up inside arteries and block the flow of blood, causing strokes, heart attacks and eventual death.
The Daily Mail says experts did not provide details about how the five hearts were embalmed. But researchers removed material to obtain MRI and CT scans. The article says remains of royalty and nobility were embalmed by physicians across Europe by the Late Middle Ages with techniques influenced by ancient Egyptians.
A common embalming technique of the 16 th century was to wash the body and its inner cavities and then infuse them with herbs and spices like lavender and thyme.
“The body, or body part, was then wrapped in layers of wax cloth and sealed with beeswax, before being placed in a lead coffin or urn. Ointments and powders capable of dehydrating the body were also used,” the Daily Mail says.
Featured image: Three of the hearts in their urns on top of the earth in which they were buried (Photo by Hervé Paitier/Inrap)