Human heart in a heart shaped cist of lead

Heart in cist

In the Court, in Case 122a (Treatment of the Dead) is a heart-shaped lead cist containing a deceased person’s heart (1884.57.18). It was found in a wooden box secreted in the crypt of Christ Church, the oldest church in Cork, in 1863. General Pitt Rivers collected this artefact when he was stationed in Ireland between 1862 and 1866. Donated as part of his founding collection in 1884, it was originally sent to Bethnal Green Museum as the centre-piece of the ‘Human Superstition’ display. This relic, as gruesome as it may appear on first acquaintance, nonetheless holds great historical and cultural interest, and can be the subject of a wealth of stories and associations. It is most likely that Pitt Rivers was quite aware of the import of the object with regard to human beliefs and the emotions that this artefact could engender.

It is evidence of a common and ancient burial rite as well as a traditional sentiment of mourning (Aries, 1974). In medieval times post-mortem removal of the heart (ablation) was in accordance with much older customs as well as separate burial (Puckle, B. S. 1926). For the medieval mind-set the heart represented the entire body and functioned as the receptacle for the record of a man’s life. Funerary practice in northern Europe often involved ablation of the heart and burial elsewhere, and this separation “…is the essence of the practice of heart burial.” (Dawson, 1933). Separate sepulture of the heart is therefore a “…funerary practice based on mystical belief in the power of the heart.” (Mafart et al, 2004). The practice of heart burial derives thus from the soul and human consciousness being associated with the heart. It follows that “…the part most sought after, the noblest part, was the heart, the secret of life and emotion.” (Puckle, 1926) The custom was known to be common in medieval times but “…the existence of procedures for which little Irish evidence exists” with that collected by Pitt Rivers being only one of a few recorded examples (Tait, C. 2001). Strangely, the heart of Daniel O’Connell, the Irish political liberator (1755-1847), was buried in Rome while his remains are interred in Dublin (Bullen, 1913). Indeed one antiquarian opinion thought his heart “…would have made its way to Erin.” (Baddeley, 1895).

The funerary practice of heart ablation and separate burial was a widespread custom among the elite classes of northern medieval Europe (Mafart, B. et al. 2004). From an ancient ritual the custom of heart burial and placement in a sanctified place was revived in the 12th to 18th centuries amongst royalty, nobility, warriors and ecclesiastics (Bradford, 1930). Nobles who died away from home, for practical and hygienic reasons, were dismembered prior to boiling in wine or water. The viscera were often burned at the place of death but the heart was then transported home. An example may be found with a heart-shrine in Leybourne Church thus we “…may lay it down for certain that the body from which the heart was taken was buried elsewhere that at Leybourne otherwise there would have been no separation of its parts…The hearts of some of the most distinguished Crusaders were frequently sent home to be enshrined in their own manorial church, or is some monastery which they founded or endowed.” (Fynemore, 1913). The body of Roland was treated in this manner (Chanson de Roland, CCXIII). It is thought that hearts were removed by those deemed apt for such a chore and these included butchers and cooks (Mafart, et al, 2004). Crusaders and other warriors (Hartshorne, 1861) often merited separate burial of heart and intestines as “…a custom which was promoted by the Catholic reformers and appears not only among ecclesiastical princes, bishops and royalty but also among important war leaders.” (Weiss-Krejci et al, 2010). There is a heart-shaped niche in Fordwich Church, Kent, reputed to be a depository of the heart of a crusader.

In Medieval England the church showed no qualms about burying a person in two (or even more) places at once (Marsden, 1996). The heart of Richard the First was put in a casket and interred in Rouen Cathedral as was that of Henry the First (the remainder of whom is buried in Reading Abbey). Again, Eleanor of Castile (wife of Edward I) has her heart and organs in Lincoln Cathedral whilst the rest of her is entombed in Westminster. The heart of Robert the Bruce was ablated and buried in Dunfermline. It was his wish to be interred in Jerusalem. Circumstances prevented this and the heart in a casket is now buried separately in Melrose Abbey. It has been suggested that separate burials of heart and corpse was used by the church as a financial expedient for enrichment (Hartshorne, 1861). Separated relics, e.g., hearts, intestines etc, became valuable commodities whereby bipartite or tripartite interments involving separate ceremonials engendered greater income. However, such redistribution of body parts provoked some opposition and led to a temporary ban by Pope Boniface VIII (Marshall, E. 1895). Executed traitors also had their hearts removed. One such state victim was reputed to be Hugh Dispenser the lover of Edward II, and who was hung drawn and quartered and whose skeletal evidence shows signs of an ablated heart (Lewis, M. E. 2008). The last king to have a separate burial for his heart was George II in 1760 at Westminster (Howse, C. 2008).

Over time separate sepulture of human hearts ceased to be a strictly religious rite and was replaced by a “…sentimental, aristocratic, or family tradition.” (Mafart et al, 2004). An example of one such notable burial was that of Lord Byron whose heart was removed and interred in Missolonghi, Greece, whilst his remains were despatched home to England (Time, 1933). Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned in the Gulf of Spezia in 1822, was cremated by his friends whereupon his heart was snatched from the funeral pyre by the explorer Edward Trelawney and given to the poet Leigh Hunt (Norman, 1955; Time, 1933). Shelley’s heart was given to Mary Shelley who treasured the organ between the pages of Adonais until she died herself. The heart, which by then had crumbled to dust, was finally buried with the remains of Shelley’s and Mary’s son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, in 1889.

With regard to local Oxford history it is reputed that the ablated heart of John Baliol (founder of Baliol College, Oxford) resided in a shrine at Brabourne Church, Ashford, Kent, whilst his body is interred near the high altar of Newby Abbey, near Dumfries (Pilcher, G. T. 1913). In fact his wife, who kept the heart within an ivory casket as a keepsake, had his heart buried beside her in 1289 some six miles south of Dumfries. (Bayley, A. R. 1913). An Oxford ghost story is attached to the heart burial of William King the principal of St Mary Hall (prior to its merger with Oriel College in 1806). The heart was supposedly contained within a silver or marble vase near the north wall of the chapel. According to one Reverend Phelps, Provost of Oriel College, he was haunted by the tapping of the heart of William King. Apparently Phelps, when living in St Mary Hall, had a bed which abutted the wall behind which the vase containing the heart was recessed. On asking the next occupant of the room about the tapping Reverend Phelps was told it was the beating of King’s heart in the vase (Magrath, J. R. 1916).

The lead cist collected by General Pitt Rivers in 1863 has no information as to whose heart resides within. It is not known how long the heart remained entombed or within a niche in the crypt of the church in Cork. Neither is it known what station in life the owner of the heart occupied in life. It is not known if it was a religious rite or sentimental gesture. It can be concluded, however, that it is an example of a very common funerary practice from pre-medieval times up to the nineteenth century – a practice surrounded by many stories and anecdotes of which Pitt Rivers may have himself been aware.

24 January, 2010.

Sources consulted

Aries, P.Western Attitudes Towards Death.Johns Hopkins University Press (1974).

Baddeley, St Clair.Notes and Queries.8th.S. VIII.November 9, 1895.

Bayley, A. R.Notes and Queries.II.S. VIII.November 15, 1913.

Bradford, C. A.Heart Burial.Allen & Unwin, London (1933).

Brown, E.’Death and the human body in the later middle ages’.Viator,12. 211-217,(1981).

Bullen, R. F.Notes and Queries.II.S. VIII. November 15, 1913.

Corfield, W.Notes and Queries.II.S. VIII.November 15, 1913.

Dawson, W. R.Review of Bradford (1933).Folklore, 44 (2), June 1933.

Fynemore, R. J.Notes and Queries.II.S. VIII. p 336. (1913).

Hartshorne, E. S.Enshrined Hearts of Warriors and Illustrious People…Robert Hardwicke, London (1861).

Howse, C.’The Burial of the Heart’.The Telegraph.12.4.2008.

Lewis, M. E.’A traitor’s death? The identity of a drawn, hanged and quartered man from Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire’.Antiquity, 82, 113-124. (2008).

Mafart, B. et al. ‘Post-mortem ablation of the heart: a medieval funerary practice…’International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 14, 67-73. (2004).

Magrath, J. R.Notes and Queries.12.S.I.March 4, 1916.

Marsden, Dr P.’A hearty burial’.The Independent, 27.4.1996.

Norman, A. M.Shelley’s Heart.Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.X (1), 114-116. (1955).

Notes and Queries.II.S. VIII.25 October, 1913.

Puckle, B. S.Funeral Customs: their origin and development.T. Lerner Laurie, London (1926).

Sparke, A.Notes and Queries.12.S.I.March 4, 1916.

Tait, C.History Ireland, Spring 2001. Review of Frey, S. L.’ ‘Burial in Medieval Ireland 900-1500′.Four Courts Press (2001).’

Time Magazine. ‘Science: Heart Burial’.31.7.1933.

Wainwright, J. B. Notes and Queries. 11.S. VIII. November 15, 1913.

Weiss-Krejci, E & Williams, H.Dead bodies animate the study of politics. In: Mortality – Interdisciplinary Approaches in the Archaeology of Death, Burial Commemoration.University of Exeter (2010).

Zigarovich, J. ‘Preserved Remains: Embalming Practices in Eighteenth Century England’.In Eighteenth Century Life, 33 (3), Fall 2009.

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