The Saintliness of Undecayed Corpses

In the medieval church, “incorrupt” remains signaled virtue, chastity, and holiness. An Object Lesson.

A statue of Saint Cecilia
A statue of Saint Cecilia, an incorrupt saint (Araldo De Luca / Getty)

As darkness fell on August 29, 1104, the monks of Durham Cathedral Priory prepared to exhume their patron saint, Cuthbert. After two decades, their new cathedral was almost complete, and its centerpiece was a splendid shrine for the saint. In preparation for the ceremonial relocation, Cuthbert’s coffin had been removed from its old tomb. After a day of fasting and prayers, the monks summoned up the courage to open the coffin lid.

What they reported finding was astonishing, given that Cuthbert had been dead for more than 400 years. His corpse was not merely undecayed, but flexible and lifelike. It was as if the saint were not dead, but sleeping.

The monks’ account was met with some skepticism. Undeterred, they repeated their inspection the following night, this time assisted by independent witnesses from other monasteries. One of them, Ralph of Séez, performed a thorough examination of the corpse. He first moved Cuthbert’s head around, proving that it was firmly attached to the torso. He then manipulated various parts of the body, including the ears, before taking the corpse by the head, shaking it, and raising it to a sitting position. Faced with such firm evidence, Cuthbert’s detractors gave way: This was indeed a miracle.

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The tale of Cuthbert’s corpse is vivid and improbable, but it is not unique. Devotion to the saints was one of the central features of the medieval church, and this devotion was often focused on relics—that is, physical remains. A saint’s tomb was more than a repository for a corpse. It was also a target for pilgrimage, for offering, and for prayer. It was a place where miracles were thought to happen.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the respect accorded to the saintly dead by medieval Christians, they were rarely allowed to rest in peace. As soon as a holy person died, his or her corpse would be scrutinized for signs of sanctity by those who prepared it for burial. When Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, died in 1200, his viscera were removed from his body, which was taken a long distance for burial. Some among his household were initially uncomfortable with this plan, but they warmed to it when the episcopal bowels provided first proof of their owner’s holiness. As the bishop’s chaplain Adam of Eynsham reported in his biography of Hugh, Magna Vita Sancti Hugonis, “no water or stool was found, and they were as clean and immaculate as if someone had carefully washed and wiped them.”

Certain cynics dismissed the results as the inevitable consequence of the dysentery that plagued Hugh in his final days, but others claimed it a miracle. Their faith was rewarded when, a week later, the body was put on display in Lincoln Cathedral. A normal corpse would have started to decay, but Hugh had “the fresh appearance of a man who has fallen asleep after a bath and not that of a dead man.”

A corpse’s appearance between its death and its burial could provide initial indications of sanctity. But the ultimate proof required inspecting the body many years later. This usually happened when remains were disturbed due to construction, or when the body of a new saint was ceremonially moved to a more substantial shrine. On such occasions, it was normal to open the coffin and subject the remains to a vigorous (but respectful) examination.

Such inspections were not without their risks, however. If a corpse was found to have decayed, a cult’s potential would be seriously undermined. When the Canterbury monks exhumed Archbishop Lanfranc in 1174, they were excited to find his remains seemingly intact. But they quickly lost interest when they realized that his bones had rotted away. Even a well-preserved corpse could be vulnerable. When Hugh of Lincoln’s remains were reinspected in 1280, his head fell off. Fortunately, this embarrassing incident was seen to provide further evidence of his sanctity, since the exposed neck appeared ruddy like that of a recently dead man.

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The insistence on the lifelike qualities of these corpses comes from the Christian tradition that “the saints are not called dead but sleeping,” as St. Jerome once put it. They were expected to possess lifelike qualities even in death. Pink and white coloring, for example, was thought to be a sign of readiness for the resurrection: Their intact, lifelike bodies would literally stand and walk, just as Jesus had done.

The medieval mind also connected bodily integrity with virginity. The condition of corpses was thought to reflect individuals’ conduct during their lifetimes. Rapid decay was indicative of sin, whereas miraculous preservation signified sexual purity. This was especially true if a well-preserved corpse oozed sweet-smelling balsam. White corpses, too, were strongly associated with white lilies, a common symbol of virginity. Sexual purity was one of the most important qualities for a would-be saint, but it was also one of the hardest attributes to prove. The discovery of a perfect corpse could provide evidence that few would dare to question.

The handling of saintly remains was also thought to shed light on the living. Although the ceremonial relocation of relics were very public events, only a few people would see the actual remains, and even fewer would be allowed to handle them. Those men were drawn from the upper ranks of the clergy, renowned for their own exemplary moral conduct. Only a holy virgin, it was believed, was fit to touch the remains of another holy virgin. A touch from an unsuitable individual would defile the body of a saint.

The consequences for doing so could be serious, as Archbishop Thomas of York found out. Confident in his own chastity, he decided to have breakfast before opening the tomb of St. Oswald, ignoring the advice of those who insisted that he should do so only after a period of prayer and fasting. As he left the church, he was struck down by illness. Four months later, he was dead.

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Despite the dangers of disrespecting the power of an incorrupt corpse, such objects have always been the focus of doubt. Over the centuries, St. Cuthbert was singled out for suspicion. In 1104, a second, less secretive examination of his corpse was prompted by claims that the monks were “dealing in fiction rather than in fact.” Those doubts only gained momentum after the Reformation. The 17th-century antiquarian Robert Hegge proclaimed that Cuthbert was “more beholden to the art of his monks, than to his own sanctity for his incorruption.”

James Raine, a clergyman and antiquarian who was present at the 1827 opening of Cuthbert’s tomb, went even further. He asserted that those who moved the saint in 1104 had performed a deliberate fraud, swathing the bones in so many robes that they resembled a corpse, and filling the eye socket with a “mere preparation.” He claimed the incorruption of St. Cuthbert to be a “tale of centuries, invented for interested purposes in a superstitious age.”

In their enthusiasm to denigrate medieval relics and their custodians, these Anglican antiquarians also dismissed some rational explanations for corporal incorruption. It might be possible to acknowledge the fact of well-preserved medieval corpses without accepting the explanations offered by their contemporary devotees. The effectiveness of medieval embalming practices has often been doubted, with skeptics drawing attention to corpses that decayed even before they were buried. But evidence also indicates that serious attempts were made to preserve high-status corpses in later medieval England.

By the 12th century, it was common for the viscera to be removed before a dead body was washed, treated with sweet spices, and wrapped in waxy cloth. Such techniques would have aided preservation of the corpse. Long after medieval Catholicism ended, well-preserved corpses were still being discovered in English cathedrals. The intact corpse of a 15th-century bishop of London was discovered at St. Paul’s after the Great Fire of 1666. More recently, in the 1960s, several medieval archbishops of York were exhumed, with substantial amounts of surviving soft tissue.

The preservation of a corpse is rarely interpreted as a testament to the power of God and the virtue of his saints anymore. Instead, a modern faith in science makes corpses signal the effectiveness of medieval embalming techniques. Still, rationality only goes so far. Even when preserved, corpses still provoke a strong emotional response. And on that front, the medieval might prevail. What inspired awe and reverence back then now elicits mostly fear or disgust today.