Inside the Charnel House: e Display of Skeletons in Europe, 1500–1800
The human skeleton and its role in anatomical collections move back and forth through history among multiple meanings: medical, scientific, symbolic. Perceptions have and continue to occupy differing and overlapping social worlds. These perceptions have shifted over time and place, and as anatomical study rose to prominence in early modern Europe, they collided but also coexisted. As skeletons became objects of scientific as well as medical scrutiny, their procurement, cleaning, assembly and display developed into highly skilled arts. Between the sixteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, medical and scientific uses never entirely displaced the long-held symbolic and emotional connotations of the human skeleton. Knowledge of the human skeleton – the size, shape and location of bones within the body – had long been deemed essential to medical and, particularly, surgical knowledge. The new science of the early modern era also viewed the skeleton in the context of new ideas about generation, function and comparative anatomy. Another scientific use has emerged in the last century, as archaeologists have increasingly used skeletal remains to tell us about lives in the past, including the uses of the human body after death.1 Skeletons in anatomical collections therefore illustrate particularly well the fluidity of such collections as their meanings and uses have changed over time. In this chapter I look at two themes: the problematic identity of the early modern skeleton as a scientific object, and the conditions of its display. Within these themes I examine the nature of the evidence: the skeleton itself and its representation.