By Lucie Laumonier
Forensic sciences as we know them today from TV shows and mystery novels started to develop with the scientific revolution – roughly from the seventeenth century onwards. Forensics thrived from the nineteenth century and the structuration of “modern science” – analysis of fingerprints, new medical theories, etc. But forensic sciences existed long before that.
This article looks at the state of forensic sciences in the Middle Ages and unveils the role of medical practitioners and coroners in the tedious process of crime-solving.
First, what does “forensic science” mean and encompass? Forensic comes from the Latin noun forensis, meaning public space, a forum where public discussions and public debates are held. So, why is the term “forensic” used to talk about legal science? Well, trials and justice were – and still are, to a great extent – public. Thus, the term “forensic” came to carry a strong judicial connotation.
Science, from the Latin scientia, means knowledge. So “forensic science” really means, today, science applied to criminal investigations. Forensic scientists collect and analyze evidence from a crime scene, give their conclusions to investigators, and are usually invited to testify during trials as expert witnesses.
Ancient Legal Medicine
Medicine is the first field of science to have been involved in criminal proceedings. As early as the third millennium BC, physicians performed autopsies on victims of crimes to try to establish the cause of death. The noun “autopsy” has Greek roots and means “seeing with one’s own eyes.” Greek physicians wrote treatises on how to recognize certain injuries and poisons and passed on their knowledge to others, such as the Romans. Julius Caesar, who was stabbed to death in the Roman Senate in 44 BC, was inspected by physicians after his death. The autopsy was performed at the Forum – the public square. The physicians concluded that the second stab wound was fatal. Evidence of forensic medicine peters out after the Fall of Rome but makes a comeback in the middle of the thirteenth century, in both Europe and Asia.
The Chinese Father of Forensic Sciences
We find the father of modern forensic sciences in Song Ci, a Chinese judiciary officer who lived during the thirteenth century. Circa 1250, Song Ci wrote a handbook for coroners, whose title translates to Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified or Washing Away of Wrongs. In the book, Song Ci explains how to draft autopsy reports for courts of justice; how to store evidence that will be presented in court; how to prepare bodies for autopsy; how to recover evidence of certain injuries; how to assess the cause of death; and how to determine if wounds had been inflicted before or after death, among other forensic concerns. For instance, he explains the impact of weather on the decomposition of corpses and how to assess post-mortem interval based on physical signs and on the appearance of maggots.
In extremely hot weather, decomposition begins after one day, the body assuming a dark, dull hue, and emitting a smell. In three or four days, the flesh becomes rotten, maggots appear, a dark fluid issues from the mouth and nose, and the hair gradually falls off. In spring and autumn, when the weather is mild, two or three days are equal to one in summer…
Song Ci also played a major role in the first developments of forensic entomology in explaining that certain insects can be indicative of the location of wounds and are attracted to human blood. In his book, he presents a case study where a murder was solved by using entomology. It is known today as the first murder solved by forensic entomology.
The coroner had identified the wounds as inflicted by a sickle, and had found out that a certain man had quarrelled with the deceased….He went to the village where the suspected man lived and caused every man to produce his sickle, laying them on the ground before him. In a little while … the coroner pointed to the flies which had singled out [the suspect’s] sickle among seventy others, attracted by the smell of blood. The murderer confessed.
But while Song Ci left a tremendous legacy in China, he was unknown in the West for centuries. In the medieval West, forensic sciences were less developed, and no treatise framed the work of legal scientists.
Forensic Science in the West
In England, coroners and their jurors investigated unnatural or unexpected deaths. They analyzed the scene of death, looked at the body of the deceased, and interviewed witnesses and neighbours to draw a preliminary verdict that would inform the trial — if a trial had to be held. The coroners and the jurors were responsible for assessing the cause of death. But coroners were not men of science. They sometimes consulted physicians who were experts in the matter, but such consulting work was far from systematic.
In continental Europe, however, courts of law were prone to turn to medical professionals to determine the cause of death or the consequences of an assault or to rule on suspicions of poisoning. From the 1250s, evidence from Italy, France, and Iberia shows expert witnesses called to testify in court. In Venice, from 1281, medical practitioners who suspected a patient had been a victim of violence were compelled to inform the police. Likewise, victims of homicide or people who had died in unclear circumstances were autopsied. In Aragon, the victim’s physician was called to assess the gravity of the wounds. In Manosque, southern France, the court wrote down the names of all physicians and picked two names randomly to conduct an assessment of a victim’s wounds.
While autopsies were regularly performed in continental Europe (once sanctioned by the authorities), in England autopsies were scarce. It was not because of concerns about the sacrality of the body. Rather, science historian Katharine Park has argued that the English discomfort with autopsies could have been tied to “contrasting attitudes toward the recently dead body.” In Italy, the soul was believed to separate quickly from the body, while in Northern Europe, the process was construed as slow and gradual, following the decomposition of the corpse. Its dissection or autopsy would compromise the process.
Today, forensic sciences are central to the process of investigation and trials. In the Middle Ages, forensic medicine was more developed in continental Europe than in England because it was tackled by expert witnesses, primarily physicians, who played a major role in the courts of justice. In England, it was the coroner’s and the jurors’ responsibility to establish (uninformed) medical diagnoses, and this gave the whole system a pretty bad reputation. Meanwhile, in China, the profession was much more structured and knowledge was readily available to anyone who could read and wanted to learn.
Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page.
Butler, Sara M. Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England. Routledge, 2014.
Giles, Herbert Allen. “The ‘Hsi Yüan Lu’ or ‘Instructions to Coroners,’ Translated from the Chinese”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine – Section of the History of Medicine, issue 17, 1924, pp. 59-107.
Park, Katharine. “The Criminal and the Saintly Body: Autopsy and Dissection in Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 1, 1994, pp. 1-33.
Top Image: A man having his tongue and throat cut. British Library MS Harley 4425 fol. 111r.