On Kings, Cooks and 'mos horribilis'
Updated: Jun 21, 2019
Excuse me for the somewhat gruesome nature of this post. In spite of all the many advances that science has made, we have yet to resolve the problem of death. For some unfathomable reason people keep dying, and indeed, at ever increasing rates. Until the solution is found, there is, I think, a value in discussing issues relating to death, out of academic interest rather than morbidity.
Recently, in one of my more bored moments, I watched a documentary about a mass murderer who disposed of his bodies by boiling them. It proved to be not the most effective means of hiding the evidence (far from it) and not surprisingly, was his undoing. When in the Middle Ages bodies were boiled, it was either for the very "moral" aim of defending religion, or in order to preserve bodies that could not be immediately buried. Embalming was another (no less unsavoury) means of preserving human remains in conditions where they could not be immediately interred.
When in 1118 King Baldwin I fell ill during an expedition to Egypt, he requested of his men that after his death they carry his remains back to Jerusalem for burial in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A contemporary source, Albert of Aachen, recorded the king's request and how he expected it to be carried out:
As soon as I die, I entreat you to open up my stomach with a knife, take out my insides, embalm my body with salt and spices and wrap it in a skin or hangings, and in this way it may be taken back to a Christian burial in Jerusalem and buried next to my brother’s grave.*
And who would be better suited to carry out such a request than the king's chief cook? This unfortunate man, Addo by name, was made to take an oath to cut the king open after death, remove his internal organs and salt his body inside and out. To overcome his reluctance, the king played on Addo's loyalty:
You know that I am shortly to die. On this subject, as you love me, or as you used to love me when I was alive and well, so you should keep faith with me when I am dead. Disembowel me with the knife; rub me inside and outside especially with salt; fill my eyes, nostrils ears and mouth generously; and be sure to take me back with the rest. In this way know that you are fulfilling my wishes, and believe you are keeping faith with me in this matter.*
When the king died at al-Arish (Laris) on 2 April, Addo faithfully followed his instructions. The body was embalmed with spices and balsam, was sewn into a hide and wrapped in carpets. It was then returned to Jerusalem, arriving on Palm Sunday, by which time, Albert notes, it was already stinking.
Another perhaps even more gruesome method of enabling the transporting of bodies from a distant battlefield was by boiling them. The boiling of bodies post-mortem was known as mos Teutonicus – which, as its Latin name ("Teutonic custom") implies, had its origins as a medieval German funerary practise (it was also known as mos Gallicus). It enabled the convenient and hygienic transporting of the remains of high-ranking individuals and prelates. With excarnation, the body was dismembered, the organs removed and these with the flesh could be buried locally or preserved in salt for subsequent transportation. The bones and whatever remained attached were then placed in a pot of water, wine or vinegar and boiled for several hours until the remaining flesh could be easily separated (I did warn you this would be gruesome!). This technique was used in the West and in the Latin East. The body of King Louis IX, who died in Tunis in 1270, underwent mos Teutonicus so that it could be transported back to France. In 1299 Pope Boniface VIII condemned this technique in a papal bull as “mos horribilis”.
*Above quotations are from Albert of Aachen, Historia Ierosolimitani, ed and trans. S. Edgington, Oxford Medieval Texts 2007, pp. 866-69.