This is a guest blog post from Stu Borman, a C&EN senior correspondent for science, technology & education.
A French-based research team recently had a rare opportunity to get to the heart—quite literally—of some 12th century European history.
Using a battery of scientific equipment, they took a closer look at how the heart of English king Richard I was preserved for posterity.
Also known as Richard the Lionheart because of his military prowess, Richard I was king of England from 1189 to 1199.
He led a Crusade to the Holy Land in 1190, but the mission failed to take Jerusalem, its main objective.
On the way back home he was imprisoned by an Austrian duke and the German emperor and then only released after payment of what was literally a king’s ransom.
He died in 1199 when he was shot with a crossbow while besieging a castle in Chalûs, France.
According to a then-common practice, his body was divided up for burial in multiple graves.
His internal organs were buried in Chalûs, his heart was embalmed and placed in a tomb at Notre Dame de Rouen cathedral, and the rest of his body was buried at an abbey in southern France.
In 1838, a lead box containing the remains of Richard’s heart was found at the cathedral.
The box is engraved “HIC IACET COR RICARDI REGIS ANGLORUM”—“Here is the heart of Richard, King of England.”
To learn more about how the seat of the king’s soul was preserved for posterity in medieval times, forensic medical investigator and pathologist Philippe Charlier of University Hospital Raymond Poincaré, in Garches, France, and coworkers analyzed Richard I’s mummified heart.
The wide variety of techniques they used to get to the heart of the matter included everything from scanning electron microscopy to mass spectrometry.
In their paper on the study, the team writes that the heart “was deposed in linen [and] associated with myrtle, daisy, mint, frankincense, creosote, mercury, and, possibly lime.”
They conclude that the goal of using these materials was both to preserve the heart and keep it smelling good, insofar as possible.
“This embalming method is of great importance, as we do not have any procedure or surgical treatise known for this period (end of the 12th century A.D.) describing the methodology and/or composition of the embalming material,” the researchers note.