Ablation of the Heart

On December 8, 2003, a BBC News broadcast reported: ‘The heart of the son of French King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette is to be laid to rest in the family crypt after 200 years of controversy’. Not long after the execution of his parents, the child, believed to be the dauphin, died in prison in 1795. A doctor by the name of Pelletan removed and conserved the boy’s heart, under the assumption that he was indeed the young dauphin. Legend and myth has surrounded the death of the 10-year-old, some believing he died in prison, and others speculating that an impostor had replaced him. However, DNA tests have since conclusively proved that the preserved heart belonged to a member of the House of Habsburg, from which Marie-Antoinette, the dauphin’s mother, originated. 

In the ancient world, it was thought that human emotions were linked to specific organs. The Greek physician Galen located the seat of reason in the brain, the seat of passion in the liver, and the seat of emotion in the heart. Our ancestors also attributed special magic properties to particular parts of the body. Although the soul was thought to reside partly in all body parts and fluids, the heart was specifically regarded as the domus anima or ‘abode of the soul’. 

During the Middle Ages in Europe, the heart symbolised a wide range of meanings. Medieval Christians regarded the heart as the moral, emotional, and intellectual centre, representing the whole body. The heart was thought to contain a person's beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and memories – a ‘book of self’ as it were, and a receptacle where a record of each person’s life was kept. God was thought to have a copy of each ‘record’ and occasionally made His own ‘entries’ in the hearts of saints. Numerous legends of saints commemorated martyrs whose hearts, it was believed, contained marks of special divine favour, such as inscriptions or sacred objects. For example, it was documented that the hearts of two Italian abbots contained images of Christ and ‘nails from the Cross160’. The concept of a ‘book of the heart’, modelled on the medieval manuscript codex, reached its most expressive representation in literature and art: Beautiful manuscript books were fashioned as heart-shaped, while paintings often portrayed hearts as open books in the chest, recording all deeds, good and evil, for the Final Judgment. Alternatively, paintings represented authors holding a heart and pen. When we still use figures of speech such as ‘reading’ someone’s mind, or we express the need to ‘turn over a new leaf’ we are in fact using phrases, which inadvertently refer to the ‘book of the heart’.

As the heart was seen as representing the moral and spiritual core of a person, this specific notion gave rise to the rite of burying the heart separately. Therefore, in Northern Europe amongst royalty, aristocrats, and ecclesiastics, post-mortem ablation of the heart was a widespread, common funerary practice. This process involved separate, independent burial not only of the body but also the entrails, as well as the excised heart in locations of sacred worship. For example, when King Heinrich III died in October 1056 in Bodfeld, Germany, his heart was buried separately from his body. When Henry I of England died in France in 1135 his entrails, as well as his brain and eyes were buried in Rouen and his body was returned to England for interment in Reading Abbey. The crusading English King Richard I, known as Richard Lionheart, decreed before his death in 1199 that his brain and entrails be buried in Charroux, France, his body in the Abbey of Fontevreau, and his heart in the Cathedral of Rouen. The heart of Frederick Wilhelm IV (1795–1861), King of Prussia, and member of the House of Habsburg, is buried at his parents’ feet in the Mausoleum of Charlottenburg, Berlin161.

Since the seventeenth century, the hearts of all members of the House of Habsburg have been buried separately from their bodies in the Augustiner Church in Vienna. 

The desire to apportion one’s remains to various favoured locations was to solicit prayers from the living for salvation of one’s soul in more than one place of religious foundation. Sometimes, only the heart was buried, whereas the body was dismembered and boiled to keep only the bones, either reserved as relics in various churches and cathedrals or buried in a specific location. An example is Louis IX of France. After his death during the crusades in 1216, his entrails were entombed in a church in Sicily, while his skeleton – obtained by boiling the dismembered body, and his ablated heart, were returned home to France. Edward I (1239-1307), wished for his heart to be embalmed after death and taken to the Holy Land, whereas his body was to be dismembered, then boiled, and the bones carried into Scotland on his last campaign. Similarly, when Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, died in 1329, his body was buried in Dunfermline after excision of the heart. In keeping with the king’s last request, James Douglas, his comrade-in-arms, took the heart on crusade to the Holy Land. Although Douglas was killed in battle in 1330, Robert’s heart was returned and buried at Melrose Abbey in Scotland.

In Europe, separate burial of monarchs’ hearts continued throughout the Middle Ages up to the eighteenth century. In France, ablation of the heart persisted until the French Revolution in 1789. Up until then, the hearts of French kings, as well as their family members had been secreted in various cathedrals in Paris. But, after the French Revolution in 1792, the various gold and silver caskets containing these hearts were melted down by revolutionary authorities. The mummified hearts were sold to painters, who at the time customarily added mummified organic matter as a pigment in paints to produce a colour popularly known as ‘mummy brown’162.

The belief in the heart as the abode of the soul is also confirmed in the tradition of driving a stake into the heart to prevent someone from turning into a vampire after death – by impaling the heart, the soul was destroyed. Before his death in Paris in 1874, Romanian Count Borolajowac requested his heart be torn out immediately after death, as he wanted to prevent his returning as a vampire163.

Whereas the heart was seen as the abode of the soul, every person’s soul-essence was also thought partly contained in the name, various body fluids, body parts, and the shadow. 


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