The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

The Renaissance of Dissection in Medieval Europe

Medical knowledge passed from European to Arabic hands during the early Middle Ages (ca. 5th – 9th C.) after the collapse of the Roman empire, only to begin to be rediscovered in Europe during the "little renaissance" of the 12th century. Islamic physicians and scholars translated classic medical texts from Greek into Persian, Syrian and Indian and made original contributions that advanced medical knowledge. One of the foremost contributors to the return of anatomy to Europe was Avicenna (980 – 1037), a Persian who wrote al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb (translated as Canon of Medicine or Law of Medicine). In this book, Avicenna classified human organs and their functions. Until Vesalius, Galen and Avicenna were the primary sources of anatomical information in Europe.

While it is presumed that Pope Boniface's Bull De sepulturis (1299) prohibited human dissection, it, in fact, prohibited the boiling of the remains of Crusaders for transport home. However, some Church leaders, anatomists, and physicians interpreted the Bull as a prohibition on dissection. It was not until 1315 that Mondino De Liuzzi (often called Mundinus), performed the first post-Alexandrian full human dissection at the University of Bologna. De Liuzzi followed this milestone in 1316 with his anatomy textbook, Anathomia corporis humani, written to accompany autopsies and to offer systematic guidelines for dissections. Though De Liuzzi's text did not advance the discovery of new facts about the human body, it represents a shift in the approach to learning anatomy because it re-emphasized students learning through dissection.

Medieval and Renaissance dissections were highly standardized with three main roles: the dissector (the barber-surgeon who does the actual cutting), the ostensor (the demonstrator who points to the parts of the dissected body), and the lector (the trained physician who gives the lecture). Students surrounded and observed the demonstration. The hands-on experience, however, was meant to elucidate Galenic anatomy, not to support the discovery of new structures or change Galen's theories.