Why were bodies defleshed in the Crusades?

selective focus photography of skeleton

Why on earth were some bodies defleshed in the Crusades? And I’m talking about the removal of all muscle, sinew and fat off a dead noble. A thoroughly macabre practice!

In the year 1198, Duke Frederick of Austria died on crusade. His body was transported back from Palestine to the monastery at Heiligenkreuz in his home country where it was buried with full royal pomp. Well, not all his body. Because like several rich nobles who died on crusade, Frederick had been stripped of all his flesh at death through a process called “excarnation”.

Defleshed bodies: Evisceration and Excarnation

Defleshing of the dead was done to allow the body of a wealthy lord to be transported back across hundreds of miles to their homeland without rotting. It was simply unacceptable for a noble to be buried in a strange land that might not even be Christian. As well as the fact that kings expected to lie for eternity in their dynastic vault and not some random hole in the ground. So, they had to lose all the flesh – because it would decay in the heat.

And here I have to distinguish between excarnation and evisceration. It had become established practice to remove just the organs of medieval kings. This evisceration may have begun as an act of preserving the corpse but developed into a means of sharing the late king’s body with different locations.

So, the heart might be sent to a cathedral hundreds of miles away from the rest of the body. This is what happened to the heart of Richard the Lionheart after he was killed by an archer while on crusade. His body was interred at Fontevraud abbey but his heart was sent to the city of Rouen.

That was evisceration and it was practiced in royal courts down to the early 20th century. But the removal of all the flesh leaving just the bones – excarnation – was something peculiar to monarchs and nobles far, far away from their homeland. It increased in frequency during the crusades to the Holy Land and southern Europe.

LEARN MORE: The mummified heart of Richard the Lionheart

Defleshed bodies of royalty!

It’s such a gruesome thing to happen to a dead person that it’s an under-discussed topic. Basically, the deceased was boiled in water, wine or vinegar – then defleshed – and finally the remains were wrapped in animal skins for transportation.

In 1299, the Pope outlawed both the practice of evisceration and excarnation. Not least because on Judgment Day, the dead were supposed to rise bodily from their graves. Nobles who had been defleshed might not present a pretty sight! There was also a Roman Catholic aversion to cremating the dead and excarnation was done on some occasions by roasting the body – a big no-no for the Vatican!

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One defleshed body that didn’t make it back!

Not everybody who went through this procedure made it back home. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (pictured above) drowned while on crusade in modern Turkey. His body was boiled and then de-fleshed with the skeleton ready for transport. However, at some point, the skeleton was lost. Frederick Barbarossa never made it back to the family vault.

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