Plants and aromatics for embalming in Late Middle Ages and modern period: a synthesis of written sources and archaeobotanical data (France, Italy)

Abstract

Occasionally mentioned in written sources since the Early Middle Ages, embalming with evisceration spreads considerably and becomes quite usual practice for aristocratic elites from the late 13th century to the early 19th century. Apothecaries prepare aromatic powders including many plant organs and exudates supposed to preserve the body. Numerous encyclopaedias and treatises of medicine list these ingredients and show that the recipes are very diverse. Moreover, several studies of embalmed bodies have demonstrated the potential of archaeobotanical analyses coupling pollen and macro-remains for identifying this material. This paper aims to compile a synthesis of written and archaeological sources from France and Italy, and to assess the relevance of an interdisciplinary approach for a better understanding of this aristocratic burial practice. It demonstrates that both types of sources and approaches are strongly complementary and highlights their inherent advantages and methodological limitations. In order to understand which criteria were determinant in the composition of the embalming powders, their medicinal, odoriferous and symbolic properties are discussed. Finally, this work proposes some methodological perspectives and triggers new research avenues on the history of pharmacy in Late Medieval and modern Europe.

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Acknowledgements

This work is a part of a doctoral thesis carried out under the supervision of Aline Durand (University of Le Mans, France) and Stefano Campana (Università degli Studi di Siena, Italy). It has been funded by the Vinci programme (French-Italian University), the Fondation des Treilles, the ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche, programme EXSUDARCH), and the CNRS through the GDR 3644 BioArcheodat. We thank Bui-Thi-Mai and Michel Girard (CEPAM, UMR 7264), Romain Thomas (CRPP, UMR 7207), Djillali Hadjouis (Service départemental d’archéologie du Val-de-Marne), Patrice Georges-Zimmermann (INRAP), Prof. Paolo Emilio Tomei (Università di Pisa), and the archaeological teams in charge of the excavations in Rennes/Couvent des Jacobins (especially Gaëtan Le Cloirec, Sylvie Duchesne, Fabrice Dedouit, Éric Crubezy and Norbert Telmon) and in Flers/Place Saint-Germain (especially Raphaëlle Lefebvre, Cécile Chapelain de Seréville-Niel and Éric Broine) for their precious help during this research. We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and constructive comments. Finally we are grateful to the organization committee of the IWGP meeting 2016 for giving us the opportunity to present and publish this work.

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Correspondence to Rémi Corbineau.

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Communicated by V. Zech-Matterne.

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Corbineau, R., Ruas, MP., Barbier-Pain, D. et al. Plants and aromatics for embalming in Late Middle Ages and modern period: a synthesis of written sources and archaeobotanical data (France, Italy). Veget Hist Archaeobot 27, 151–164 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-017-0620-4

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Keywords

  • Embalming
  • Archaeobotany
  • Burial practice
  • Pharmacy
  • France
  • Italy