How the Black Death Advanced Medical Science, With Help From the Pope

One of the most awful diseases in the world caused a surprising advance in medicine. Though the Black Death killed roughly a third of the people in the nations it touched, it ended half a century of religion-induced medical ignorance.

The dissection of corpses has always been at least a little controversial. The need to educate physicians and scientists has warred with individual rights, a sense of propriety, and religion. Taking a body to pieces was a big deal when people believed that the destination of a person’s soul could depend on how their body was treated. Resistance to medical dissection reached its peak in 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull banning the practice entirely.


The decree did more than deny students a chance to practice their surgical skills. Although people did secretly dissect bodies, publication and dissemination of the knowledge gained by the dissection was a confession to a crime. A few lucky, or resourceful, physicians managed to sneak in some knowledge, but many were totally ignorant of the inner workings of the human body.

Then the Black Death hit Europe. Bodies piled up faster than anyone could bury them. Entire villages were wiped off the face of the Earth. It was a multi-year state of emergency. The emergency was met, and quite ably, by Pope Clement VI. The most famous story about Clement explains that he avoided the plague by isolating himself and by praying between two “purifying flames.” Perhaps he should be better known for his actions rather than his isolation.

At the time, people believed that if they did not confess their sins and get Last Rites, they would go to hell. This belief made the plague more terrifying. Priests were dying off as fast as anyone else, and often couldn’t be found, or weren’t willing to come to the bedsides of dying patients. Clement at first circulated decrees that people could confess to anyone, or simply out loud to God, and still receive absolution. When he learned people were dumping bodies in rivers, especially the Rhône river, he consecrated the river to make that burial in holy ground. When the Christians turned on Jews, blaming them for the plague, he officially condemned the violence. Eventually he granted absolution of all sin for everyone who died from the plague, calming and comforting the survivors.


In 1348, he made his most important decree. He began requiring thorough autopsies and dissections of plague victims. Anything that would help people understand what they were dealing with might save lives, he reasoned. That was more important than keeping a body whole, especially considering what was happening to most bodies at the time. Many physicians jumped at the chance to better understand anatomy, even if it meant being exposed to the plague. Though no one at the time figured out what caused the plague, new and accurate textbooks started circulating.

The Catholic Church’s stance on dissection would change back, but not before a great deal of information became publicly available. People’s attitudes about dissection began to change. Necessity made people adapt, and re-prioritize.


Share This Story

Get our newsletter