The Courtiers' Anatomists: Animals and Humans in Louis XIV's Paris

The Courtiers' Anatomists: Animals and Humans in Louis XIV's Paris

by Anita Guerrini


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The Courtiers' Anatomists is about dead bodies and live animals in Louis XIV's Paris--and the surprising links between them. Examining the practice of seventeenth-century anatomy, Anita Guerrini reveals how anatomy and natural history were connected through animal dissection and vivisection. Driven by an insatiable curiosity, Parisian scientists, with the support of the king, dissected hundreds of animals from the royal menageries and the streets of Paris. Guerrini is the first to tell the story of Joseph-Guichard Duverney, who performed violent, riot-inducing dissections of both animal and human bodies before the king at Versailles and in front of hundreds of spectators at the King's Garden in Paris. At the Paris Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, Claude Perrault, with the help of Duverney’s dissections, edited two folios in the 1670s filled with lavish illustrations by court artists of exotic royal animals.

Through the stories of Duverney and Perrault, as well as those of Marin Cureau de la Chambre, Jean Pecquet, and Louis Gayant, The Courtiers' Anatomists explores the relationships between empiricism and theory, human and animal, as well as the origins of the natural history museum and the relationship between science and other cultural activities, including art, music, and literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226247663
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/27/2015
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Anita Guerrini is Horning Professor in the Humanities and professor of history in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University. She is the author of Experimenting with Humans and Animals: From Galen to Animal Rights and Obesity and Depression in the Enlightenment: The Life and Times of George Cheyne.

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The Courtiers' Anatomists

Animals and Humans in Louis XIV's Paris

By Anita Guerrini

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-24833-2


Anatomists and Courtiers

1. A Geography of Paris Anatomy in the Seventeenth Century

Under cover of night, the dead of Paris made their journey from the burial grounds to the places of dissection. In this era of recurrent plagues, their numbers never dwindled, and for three centuries from the 1530s, they did not lie quiet in their graves. The cemetery of Saints-Innocents, between the rue de la Ferronerie and the rue St. Denis, was one of the few places with streetlamps until Louis XIV ordered the installation of thousands of candle-lanterns across Paris. But its dim beacon did not deter the trade in the dead, as physicians and surgeons exhumed bodies. Shadows from their torches made the danse macabre carved into the wall of one of the bone-houses, the charniers, seem to move. Saints-Innocents had been filled many times over, and as new bodies came in, the bones of the old were disinterred and placed in the charniers. The famous Flemish anatomist Andreas Wesel, known as Vesalius, fondly remembered the piles of bones at Saints-Innocents during his days as a medical student; he and his friends blindfolded themselves and took bets as to who could identify the most bones by touch. The smell of decomposing flesh permeated the quartier. The medical men and their apprentices trundled the bodies from Saints-Innocents south down the rue St. Denis, the road of kings. At the river they came to the fortress of the Grand Châtelet, which housed the office of the prévôt de Paris that administered the king's justice, as well as a court and prisons, and the second streetlamp in Paris.

By the end of the sixteenth century, anatomy teachers offered a variety of courses and demonstrations. The content, setting, and style of anatomical lectures varied widely, from perfunctory demonstrations of surgical techniques to detailed expositions of structure and function according to Galenic theory. They took place mainly in university settings, but also before corporate bodies of medical men and in private rooms to fee-paying audiences. In his 1610 dissection manual La semaine ou pratique anatomique, the surgeon Nicolas Habicot (ca. 1550–1624) described the ideal anatomical subject. He would be a young man between twenty-five and thirty (older subjects were too "cold and dry"), well fleshed. Drowning victims were best, although the anatomist had to hang the subject upside down by his heels and press the water out before cutting; victims of strangling or decapitation were less desirable. Although many anatomists advised starting with animals, Habicot advised against it, but he admitted that animals had their uses.

However, this ideal candidate, or indeed any human corpse at all, would have been difficult to come by for the many who wished to dissect. This was not because the dead body held any special religious meaning. Catholic doctrine was quite clear that the body would be resurrected whole no matter what indignities it may have suffered before or after death. Pope Boniface VIII had forbidden the division of the body after death in his bull Detestate feritatis, but he directed his ire at the trade in relics, not at anatomical demonstration, and the bull did not claim a special value for the dead body. The urge to protect the body after death was personal and cultural rather than legal or religious. Few were willing to allow their bodies or those of their loved ones to be dissected, and municipalities grudgingly granted a few bodies of executed criminals a year to medical faculties for their yearly public demonstrations. Many anatomists were not content with what they could learn in these demonstrations, and to find out more about the human body, they sought additional corpses and animals to dissect. In addition, anatomical preparations and skeletons supplemented these dissections, and their construction also required human corpses or body parts.

Dead and alive, animals far outnumbered human corpses on seventeenth-century dissection tables. Animals became as important to this new practice of anatomy as the human body for a number of reasons, both practical and symbolic. Anatomists could easily acquire the dogs, cats, and pigs that constituted the majority of animals used in anatomical demonstration and research. Animals had no inconvenient relatives to protest their dissection. Unlike "resurrected" corpses, they were fresh—so fresh that they were often still alive. And in many important respects, they resembled humans enough to demonstrate human function. This assumption was neither new nor controversial. The humanist physicians of the sixteenth century, steeped in classical philosophy, knew that both Aristotle and Galen had relied upon the structure of animals in order to talk about the human body.

Even before they reached the dissection room, the human dead commingled with animals. The stalls of Les Halles, the biggest market in Paris, backed up to the walls of Saints-Innocents, and even encroached on the space inside the walls. The stench of Saints-Innocents soon mingled with the stink of the rue de la Boucherie, Butchers' Row, up against the wall of the Châtelet. In the dark, the medical men could not see the butchers or the offal they threw into the Seine that stained its banks red with blood and according to the chronicler Mercier, marked with blood the streets surrounding the fortress as well. The Tour Saint-Jacques is all that now remains of the butchers' church, Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie. Here during the day the anatomists could get the pigs and sheep they preferred to dissect alive, as well as animal parts for practice.

But night was the time to round up the stray cats and dogs that anatomists used by the dozen. The Paris Academy of Sciences employed a man to "find" cats and dogs, but they were not difficult to find. Cats haunted the rooftops and cellars of the city and, complained a contemporary, "celebrate a witches' Sabbath all night long" with their howls. Once a year, one of the commissaires de la ville rounded up a sack of cats to be burned alive in the bonfire celebrating the feast of Saint John the Baptist. Cats generally did not follow the sharply defined social hierarchy afforded to dogs, although it was well known that Louis XIII's minister Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) loved his cats, as did Louis XIV's minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–83). Later in the century, the garden of the salonnière Mme. de Lesdiguières featured an elaborate marble tomb to her cat Menine. The lap dogs depicted in portraits, known as "chiens de manchons" (literally "muff-dogs," small enough to be carried in a lady's muff), led pampered lives. Louis XIV built elaborate velour-draped niches for his favorites. Hunting dogs formed another category, which overlapped with other working dogs such as herd dogs and guard dogs. In yet another class were the trained dogs who participated in staged fights with other dogs and with wild animals. But many dogs simply wandered the streets; scenes of urban life often depicted one or more dogs at their margins.

The small interior courtyard of the Châtelet that served as a morgue held "animaux urbains" of another kind, corpses of the drowned and the anonymous found dead in the streets, who were exposed to await identification. Those that remained unidentified were conveyed to the nearby convent of Sainte-Catherine, formerly the hospital of Sainte-Opportune, whose sisters washed the bodies and prepared them for burial at Saints-Innocents, conveying them to the burial ground after dusk. But these dead often did not reach their destination. The English physician Martin Lister (1639–1712) reported disapprovingly in 1698 that the anatomist Joseph-Guichard Duverney (1648–1730) obtained some of the many bodies he used for anatomical demonstrations from "the Chatelet, (where those are exposed who are found murthered in the Streets, which is a very common business at Paris)."

From the Châtelet, the doctors crossed the Pont au Change to the Ile de la Cité, passing the stalls of the lap-dog sellers on their way to yet another source of corpses, the medieval foundation of the Hôtel-Dieu, the largest hospital in Paris, which occupied several buildings next to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. During the day, medical men could witness many autopsies at the hospital on the corpses of the poor. Duverney held court here from the 1680s to the 1710s, witnessed by physicians, surgeons, residents, apprentices, and medical students. Earlier in the century, the great anatomist Jean Riolan the younger (1580–1657) gave a private anatomy course in a house on the square in front of Notre Dame, between the hospital and the bishop's residence. The Hôtel-Dieu treated thousands of patients per year, and in Mercier's words, "vomit journellement" the dead. Until the early 1670s, the hospital buried its dead not at Saints-Innocents but farther to the north along the rue St. Denis at the cemetery of the medieval Hôpital de la Trinité, a public lodging house for pilgrims traveling to the Cathedral of Saint-Denis, several more miles north of the city walls. La Trinité had large pits for mass burials in time of plague, and as at Saints-Innocents (indeed probably more often, since la Trinité was smaller), bones were regularly exhumed and placed in charniers to make room for more corpses.

Fewer bodies reached la Trinité than had left the Hôtel-Dieu. Because of its distance from the Hôtel-Dieu, corpses destined for burial at la Trinité were particularly vulnerable to thieves. Eager surgeons importuned the emballeurs who shrouded the bodies (these dead were too poor for coffins) and piled them on carts for their evening journey to the cemetery, and those who were caught in the act and fired in 1626 for selling bodies were likely not the only ones who attempted this.

From the Hôtel-Dieu the doctors could look back across the river to the Hôtel de Ville and the wide-open area in front of it known as the Place de Grève, where most of the executions in Paris took place. Surgeons in particular came to executions in the hope of gaining an illicit corpse. From the gates of the Hôtel-Dieu, the medical men could cross the Seine again at the recently opened Pont au Double or the Pont de l'Hôtel-Dieu. Only a few yards away on the Left Bank stood the Paris Faculty of Medicine. Anatomists of all kinds worked in the medieval warren of Left Bank streets that spread out from the Sorbonne known as the Latin Quarter. Before it built an anatomical theater in 1620, the Paris Faculty of Medicine had established a site for dissection in the early sixteenth century—the first in Paris—at the Hôtel de Nesle, where the Institut de France now sits, directly across from the Louvre. The tower of the Hôtel de Nesle contained the third streetlight in Paris, to guide boatmen along the Seine. But when, a century later, the faculty finally built a lecture theater, it was located next to its ancient headquarters in the "house of the Iron Crown" at the corner of the rue des Rats and the rue de la Bûcherie.

The guild of surgeons of Saint-Côme was only a few hundred yards away at the Eglise Saint-Côme, on the corner of the rue de la Harpe and the rue des Cordeliers. The Paris Faculty of Medicine could, by law, claim the bodies of executed felons for dissection, and a 1552 ordinance had granted the faculty absolute power over the distribution of cadavers to the various teaching bodies, including the surgical school at Saint-Côme and those barber-surgeons who took apprentices. Unlike the physicians, the surgeons had no legal right to corpses and obtained them where they could. According to a complaint to the Parlement of Paris in 1615, surgeons absconded with bodies "either by violence or force, or by virtue of some license that they obtain by surprise." Sometimes they stole them from under the noses of the physicians, as in 1622, when a body from the faculty's new amphitheater was transported to Saint-Côme for a public demonstration. Fifty years later, the faculty called on the huissier of the Parlement of Paris to enforce the law and seize a corpse that had been transported to the Saint-Côme anatomy theater without its permission. After several unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the corpse, the huissier returned with several archers, and following a pitched battle with the surgical students, which entailed calling in reinforcements, the cadaver was transported to the medical school. However, this struggle took two weeks to resolve, by which time the cadaver was of little use.

Thus, surgeons and medical students haunted executions as well as the cemeteries. Gangs of barbers and surgeons assembled at the Place de Grève, the execution ground in front of the Hôtel de Ville, to seize the body of an executed criminal, although the faculty's huissier sometimes followed them and wrested back the corpse. Rumors abounded that medical and surgical students incited "vagabonds" to violence in order to obtain their bodies after execution—or simply murdered them. Physicians usually paid three livres each for legally obtained cadavers, but intense competition for dead bodies among surgeons led to prices as high as one hundred livres for a single corpse.

As well as teaching at the Hôtel-Dieu, from the early 1680s Duverney dissected humans and animals at the King's Garden, in the Faubourg Saint-Victor. Farther east along the Seine and outside the medieval city limits, but within the new area of development opened by the building of the Pont de la Tournelle in 1620, the garden was a short walk from the Latin Quarter. Duverney drew large crowds for his public anatomy lessons, and also did the anatomical work of the Paris Academy of Sciences. At the academy's foundation in 1666, dissections and other activities took place at the Royal Library on the Right Bank, not far from the palaces of the royal ministers Richelieu and Mazarin. But the library's limited space as well as the inherent messiness and noise of dissection, especially of live animals, soon drove the academy's dissections back to the Left Bank: before 1673, to the rooms of its dissector, the surgeon Louis Gayant, and from 1682 until the early eighteenth century to the King's Garden with Duverney. A 1673 royal order shifted the authority to obtain bodies from the Faculty of Medicine to the garden.

According to Martin Lister, the cemetery of Saints-Innocents was "in ruins" by the time he saw it in 1698, although it did not fully close until 1780, after which its charniers were cleared and the bones placed in what came to be known as the Catacombs beneath the city. La Trinité closed in 1678, and its place as the burial ground for the Hôtel-Dieu was taken by the new cemetery of Clamart, which opened in 1673 on the Left Bank south of the garden in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel. The corpses of the executed and those from the Châtelet morgue also now traveled south and east to what was then a far corner of the city, allowing further opportunities for plunder along the way.

Clamart also replaced the older cemeteries as the favored site for stealing corpses. Although the King's Garden had a guaranteed supply of corpses, this was never enough for Duverney, who continued to obtain bodies illicitly. The Hôtel-Dieu's records detail a number of violations. In 1682, the minutes of the hospital's governors record that the gravedigger at Clamart sold cadavers to surgeons and to the King's Garden. In August 1717, it was reported that Duverney's assistant "often" took "entire dead bodies" from the cemetery, hacking off limbs and cutting out internal organs on site, "to the great scandal of the people, who cannot view such a spectacle without horror." The Hôtel-Dieu decided in 1717 to forbid Duverney from obtaining corpses altogether, but his "suborning" of the gravedigger continued until the latter's dismissal in 1725.

2. Learning the Body

Paris, said Nicolas Habicot, was the best place to learn to dissect, because there were so many opportunities to dissect and to view dissection. When the royal minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert organized the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1666, the four men he appointed as anatomists had all gained their knowledge of anatomy in Paris. Claude Perrault (1613–88), Marin Cureau de la Chambre (1596–1669), Jean Pecquet (1622–74), and Louis Gayant (d. 1673) were all medical men, but they came to the study of animal and human bodies from very different perspectives. One of them may never have dissected. Their varying roads to the Paris Academy reveal that books, language, and patrons could be as important to an anatomical career as dead bodies, stray dogs, and sharp knives.


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Table of Contents

A Note on Names, Dates, and Other Matters
Abbreviations Used in the Notes
List of Illustrations
Chapter 1 Anatomists and Courtiers
Chapter 2 The Anatomical Origins of the Paris Academy of Sciences
Chapter 3 The Animal Projects of the Paris Academy of Sciences
Chapter 4 The Histoire des animaux
Chapter 5 Perrault, Duverney, and Animal Mechanism
Chapter 6 The Courtiers’ Anatomist: Duverney at the Jardin du roi
Epilogue: The Afterlife of the Histoire des animaux

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