BBC Bitesize and others are touting an absurd view of Catholic history
“Did you know the Catholic Church held up medical progress in the Middle Ages because they banned the dissection of bodies?”
I was somewhat taken aback by this claim from a young acquaintance of mine, currently studying GCSE history at an excellent Catholic comprehensive. Being a lowly economist with a rather shameful lack of historical knowledge, I didn’t have an answer to hand. However, some cursory Googling confirmed my suspicion: the story is a long-standing myth which has its root in a misunderstanding of a 14th Century edict from Pope Boniface VIII.
The claim has long since been taken apart by scholars including Professor Katherine Park of Harvard University. She explains that although dissection was uncommon in the early Middle Ages, it was not prohibited by the Church. Indeed, from the 13th century on, dissection become much more widely practised, often encouraged by the Church and the Pope himself. The myth may be long-standing but there is no excuse for repeating it.
So where did my acquaintance get the idea from? Well, take a look at any current GCSE textbook and you will see that the Church’s ban on dissection is still being taught as fact to young people across the country. The popular BBC GCSE Bitesize revision website reflects the consensus. Its entry on Medical Stagnation in the Middle Ages states (with helpful bold type):
“The Church played a big part in medical stagnation in the Middle Ages. It discouraged progress by … forbidding dissection of human corpses”.