The Corpse Walk: Paris, 1660

[This is excerpted from the talk I gave at the New York Academy of Medicine on 13 September 2016, which was itself excerpted from my book The Courtiers’ Anatomists]

Under cover of night, the dead of Paris made their journey from the burial grounds to the places of dissection.  In this era of recurrent plagues, their numbers never dwindled, nor did they lie quiet in their graves.  The cemetery of Saints-Innocents, between the rue de Ferronerie and the rue St. Denis, was one of the few places with street lamps until the 1670s.

Saints-Innocents, ca 1550 (public domain)

But its dim beacon did not deter physicians and surgeons from exhuming bodies.  Shadows from their torches made the danse macabre painted onto into one of the bone-houses, the charniers, seem to move.

Charnier at Saints-Innocents with view of danse macabre.  (public domain)

Saints-Innocents had been filled many times over, and new bodies displaced the bones of the old to the charniers.  The Flemish anatomist known as Vesalius fondly remembered the piles of bones there during his days as a medical student; he and his friends blindfolded themselves and took bets as to who could identify the most bones by touch. Medical men trundled the bodies from Saints-Innocents south down the rue St. Denis. At the river they came to the fortress of the Grand Châtelet, which housed the prévôt de Paris who administered the king’s justice as well as a court and prisons, and the second street lamp in Paris.

An interior courtyard of the Châtelet served as a morgue for corpses of the drowned and the anonymous found dead in the streets, who were exposed to await identification.  An English physician reported in 1698 that the anatomist Joseph-Guichard Duverney obtained some of the many bodies used for anatomical demonstrations from “the Chatelet, (where those are exposed who are found murthered in the Streets, which is a very common business at Paris).”

Le Grand Chatelet (Gallica/BNF)


The very poor exposed in the Châtelet’s courtyard were referred to as “animaux urbains,”  urban animals.  But actual animals far outnumbered human corpses on early modern dissection tables.  Animals were as important to this new practice of anatomy as the human body for many reasons.  Anatomists could easily acquire them, and animals had no inconvenient relatives to protest their dissection.  Unlike “resurrected” corpses, they were fresh – so fresh that they were often still alive.  And in many important respects, they resembled humans enough to demonstrate human function.  These Humanist physicians, steeped in classical philosophy, knew that both Aristotle and Galen had relied upon the structure of animals to talk about the human body.

Even before they reached the dissection room, the human dead commingled with animals. The stalls of Les Halles, the biggest market in Paris, backed up to the walls of Saint-Innocents.  The stench of Saint-Innocents combined with the stink of the rue de la Boucherie, Butchers’ Row.  In the dark, the medical men could not see the banks of the Seine or the surrounding streets stained red with blood.  Here during the day the anatomists could get the pigs and sheep they preferred to dissect alive, as well as animal parts for practice.  Night was the time to round up stray cats and dogs that anatomists used by the dozen.  The Paris Academy of Sciences employed a man to “find” cats and dogs, not a difficult task.

From the Châtelet, the anatomists crossed a bridge to the Ile de la Cité and the Hôtel Dieu, the largest hospital in Paris, next to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

L0023829 L'hotel-Dieu, Paris, aerial view
L’hotel-Dieu, Paris, aerial view Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Until the early 1670s, the hospital buried its dead not at Saints-Innocents but farther north at the cemetery of la Trinité.  Eager surgeons importuned the emballeurs who shrouded the bodies (these dead were too poor for coffins) and piled them on carts for their evening journey to the cemetery, and those who were fired in 1626 for selling bodies were unlucky to be caught.