Some time ago, in a discussion on Richard Carrier’s blog, the historian Charles Freeman mentioned the bizarre treatment of St Thomas Aquinas’s body following the saint’s death on the 7th of March 1274. A summery of it’s fate is related in the introduction to Aquinas’s selected writings (ed Ralph M. McInerny):
‘Thomas was buried for the first time before the high alter of the church of the Cistercian abbey in which he had died after a funeral Mass attended by members of his family as well as by fellow Dominicans and other non Cistercians. Because the sub prior at Fossanova was cured of blindness when he touched Thomas’s body and soon other miracles occurred, the Cistercians began to fear that the remains would be stolen and taken off to a Dominican resting place. As a result of this fear, the body was disinterred and reinterred at Fossanova several times during the next two years. Jealous of their treasure the monks took macabre precautions. They exhumed the corpse of Brother Thomas from it’s resting place, cut off the head and placed it in a hiding place in a corner of the chapel. The idea was that, even if the corpse were taken, the head would be theirs. His sister was given a hand, a finger of which was to describe a grisly trajectory of its own...By the time the canonisation process began in 1319 the corpse had been reduced to bones from which the flesh had been removed by boiling.’
In his comment, Freeman also mentions that:
Then the story went around that you could find marks of sanctity inside a dead body. Clare of Montefalco's body was cut up in 1308 and sure enough ' a cross or an image of the crucified Christ' was found on her heart. Bynum goes on (p.323) ' By the fifteenth century inquisitors at canonization proceedings looked to autopsy evidence for proof of paramystical phenomena such as miraculous abstinence' .
Yet a similar - and if anything stranger- fate was to be met in the 20th century by the ‘secular saint’ Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that which has been related by Paul R Gregory in ‘Lenin’s Brain and other tales from the Soviet Archives’. After his death in 1924 Lenin's brain was removed as part of the autopsy and left to stew in formaldehyde for the next two years. It was then decided by Stalin and the Politburo that the organ should be studied to provide detailed scientific proof of the late leader’s genius.
The neurologist selected for this task was the German Oskar Vogt who proposed that Lenin’s brain be compared to other brains in his laboratory in Berlin. This transpired to be a problematic move for the communists. Having been sent a specimen of Lenin’s brain, the person charged with assessing his genius was now an independent scientist outside the grasp of communist censorship. More problematic were Vogt’s public lectures. Stetskii, the Russian Head of the culture and propaganda department of the central committee reported that:
‘Vogt’s presentations are of a questionable nature; he compares Lenin’s brain with those of criminals and assorted other persons. Professor Vogt has a mechanical theory of genius using an anatomic analysis based on the presence of a large number of giant cortical pyramidal cells’
Vogt had said in his initial reports that Lenin’s brain had shown a great number of ‘giant cells’ which he saw a sign of superior mental function. However as Stetskii reported, this made a mockery of Lenin’s brain since in the German encyclopaedia of mental illness, ‘a German authority (a professor Spielmaier) claims that such pyramidal cells are also characteristic of mental retardation’
In the event the research was transferred to the Moscow Brain Institute. The final report was published in 1936 and came to 153 pages. The brain of the great leader had been compared with ten average people and the brains of leading figures (including I.V Pavlov). It had shown an exceptional ‘high organisation..with an especially high functioning in the areas of speech, recognition and action’ and ‘with processes requiring great diversity and richness of cognitive powers, in other words with an exceptionally high functioning of the nervous system’. He had ratios of the temporal lobe to the total brain mass which were superior to those of the poet Mayakovsky and the physician philosopher Bogdanov. Somewhat amusingly (and perhaps typically) the report then ends with an impassioned appeal for more funding.
The report would not be publicised however, since by the time of it’s completion, Stalin was busily executing his prominent rivals. It would therefore have been imprudent to remind the public of the super-brained Lenin.
Odder still was the treatment of Lenin’s body. The original plan was to freeze it, but the body had begun to deteriorate while the super freezer was being built. Instead his corpse was embalmed and sealed in a glass sarcophagus. It now requires constant treatment and chemical baths every eighteen months to moisturise the features and keep spots of black mould from appearing on the face and hands. His blood, bodily fluids and internal organs were removed as part of the original process but his eyebrows, moustache and goatee remain intact, as do his genitals.
This is more than can be said for Napoleon’s. In 1972 what was alleged to have been his penis was infamously put up for auction at Christies, having supposedly been removed during his autopsy in 1821 and ended up in the personal effects of his friend Vignali. Newspaper reports of the Christies sale described the object as ‘something like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shrivelled eel’, another described it as ‘one inch long and resembling a grape’. To add to the indignity, the alleged penis failed to reach it’s reserve price and was withdrawn.
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