Hundreds of burials discovered in a convent in Brittany, France, have shed new light on medieval and Renaissance funerary practices. Archaeologists have identified mummified corpses, as well as hearts and brains extracted from the deceased bodies that suggest that burials were still deeply rooted in superstition and religious belief.

In 2015, a team from the French national institute for preventive archaeology (INRAP) fully excavated the Jacobin convent in the city of Rennes, which had been founded in 1368 and served as primary burial site for the local aristocracy.

The archaeologists encountered around 900 burials spanning two periods - the 14th to 15th centuries and the 16th through to the 18th century. A number of studies backed by major historical evidence have previously suggested that funeral rites in Europe evolved from the Middle Ages to the Modern era through a process of gradual secularisation.

burial skeletal remains
Another coffin discovered within the Convent in Rennes. Rozenn Colleter, Inrap

Embalming was a rare practice, usually reserved for the bodies of kings. During the Renaissance however, surgical interventions and embalming was seen as a common preparation for the display of the deceased's remains, one that had no religious or symbolic value. Thus, archaeologists believe that burials became more secular as years went by.

But the study recently published in the journal PLOS ONE has contradicted these hypotheses. It proposes a new view of the history of death in Europe and of the rituals that go with it.

Extracted hearts and mummies

During their excavations of the Rennes convent, the researchers came across a range of notable burial practices and used imaging and autopsies to study the remains. They were able to identify more than 600 skeletons, as well as two very well conserved mummies from the Renaissance.

For the first time, the archaeologists also documented the practice of heart extraction. They found five hearts which had been removed from the bodies and placed in heart-shaped urns, dating between 1584 and 1655. There was also evidence that the brains had been extracted from some of the corpses as some skulls had been opened.

burial skeletal remains
The scientists conducted autopsies on the corpses to find out more about how they were buried. Rozenn Colleter, Inrap

Louise and Toussaint

In some instances, the hearts had been placed in the coffin of the person's spouse. This was the case for Louise de Quengo, a benefactor of the church who was more than 65 years old when she died in 1656, during the Renaissance. The heart of Toussaint de Perrien, her husband, was placed on top of her coffin. He had been buried in another convent in a separate location.

While the team notes that embalming and surgical operations on bodies did occur in Renaissance burials, it is unclear whether this was done for secular and medical purposes or not.

"Louise de Quengo's internal organs had not been cleaned, no padding had been introduced, the skull had not been cut into, and there were no incisions on the upper or lower limbs, as was often recommended in medical treatises of the period," they point out.

The removal of the heart and the good state of conservation of the bodies rather served a spiritual and symbolic purpose. In the case of Louise and Toussaint, the idea may have been to honour them in two religious sites of which they had been benefactors. The husband's heart on the wife's coffin also suggests the strength of their marital love.

skeleton burials
Hearts were removed and placed in heart-shaped urns. Rozenn Colleter, Inrap

The fact that Toussaint de Perrien's remains are present at two different religious sites means that he honoured different religious orders, even in death. It also means that a greater number of prayers could be made in his name, giving him greater chances of entering heaven.

The scientists also believe that the presence of well conserved Renaissance mummies at the site echoes the Council of Trent's affirmation of the "Resurrection of the Flesh" - resurrection would come with the Last Judgement and so preserving bodies would ensure the faithfuls would rise from the dead. Bodies were embalmed to be preserved for religious purposes, but not to be displayed.

Investigations in the Jacobin convent in Rennes shows that Renaissance society's attitude towards burials was still influenced by age-old, religious practices, while the secularisation of burials likely came later.