Weird History
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In The 16th-Century, People Watched Bodies Being Dissected The Way We Watch Movies Now

Updated September 29, 2017 12.5k views13 items

An unusual craze swept across Europe in the 16th century: dissection theatres. At an anatomical theatre, the audience could watch an anatomist slowly take a corpse apart, piece by piece. Across Europe, early anatomy studies relied on public dissections to educate medical students, but spectators also pushed their way into the anatomy theatres.

Anatomy theatres were a lot like live theater: people bought tickets, they were serenaded with music, and, if they got lucky, they might get a chance to poke the corpse. Some of the events even included live dissections in the 16th century. And that wasn't the only time people found corpses entertaining as the mummy unwrapping parties that swept Victorian England would go on to prove.

Spectators fought to see the dissections of criminals, women, and in one case, an anatomist’s own baby. Body-snatchers smuggled corpses from graveyards to fuel the trend. And dogs waited around for scraps of intestine. Read on for the gruesome history of anatomy theatres.

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  • Because The Cadavers Were Usually Executed Criminals, The Rarest Bodies Were Women And Children

    Because The Cadavers Were Usually Executed Criminals, The Rarest Bodies Were Women And Children
    Photo: Jan van Calcar / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The best source of bodies for public dissections was executed criminals. But the vast majority of dead criminals were men. Anatomy theatre enthusiasts must have grown tired of seeing another 20-something criminal on the block for dissection. The shortage of cadavers led to the rise of body-snatching, or digging up corpses from the graveyard to dissect them. Some enterprising folks, known as “resurrectionists,” were professional corpse thieves, selling stolen bodies to anatomy schools.

    When the anatomists did find a woman for dissection, it was big news. Vesalius prominently displayed the dissection of a woman on the cover of his book. It’s no surprise that Vesalius showed the woman’s reproductive organs opened to the eyes of the male viewers, putting the woman’s secrets on display. Vesalius himself even rested one hand on the cadaver’s womb.

  • Anatomy Theatres Were Designed To Look Just Like Other Theatres

    Anatomy Theatres Were Designed To Look Just Like Other Theatres
    Photo: Frode Inge Helland / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The anatomy theatres typically had curved rows of seats, a steep rake, and a stage, just like theaters meant for dramatic productions. The Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy, for example, which was a theater for dramatic performances as opposed to dissections, was built just a few years before the anatomy theatre in Padua, and it was only a few miles away. An eager theater-goer could visit Padua’s anatomy theatre for a morning dissection and then hop a horse to Vicenza to catch an evening performance at the Teatro Olimpico. 

    This was no mistake – both were popular forms of entertainment for growing audiences of people.

  • Audiences Were Serenaded With Music While They Watched The Dissections

    Audiences Were Serenaded With Music While They Watched The Dissections
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The similarities between public dissections and the theatre were not just limited to the physical spaces of both. Spectators had to purchase tickets, and once inside, they were treated to musical performances while watching dissections. One dissection in Leiden, Holland, brought in flute players to entertain the audience.

    As historian Giovanna Ferrari explains, “Like actors, all those who worked on stage... the medical theorist and the dissectors–had to show their faces to an audience and clearly display the actions they performed.” Just like theatre-goers, the audience expected a show.

  • Dissections Were Rare And Limited To Winter To Prevent Decay

    Dissections Were Rare And Limited To Winter To Prevent Decay
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    It was difficult to find bodies for public dissections – there was a limited supply of cadavers from public executions, and very few people willingly donated their bodies to science. In many places, there might only be two dissections in the course of a year. In Leiden, Holland, the bells would ring before a dissection and lectures would be halted so that everyone could crowd around the corpse. 

    Public dissections were often limited to the winter months. Some anatomists would dissect a single body over the course of 15 days, so cold temperatures were necessary to prevent the body from putrefying. In the warmer seasons, cadavers would begin to decay, making it impossible to carve up the corpse for an audience.