The Skeleton Trade: Life, Death, and Commerce in Early Modern Europe

Anita Guerrini, Horning Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University, discusses the fascinating research which she presented at Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object – scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius. Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the skeleton to view. The well-known illustrations of Vesalius were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.

Vesalius, "De humani corporis fabrica", 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius, “De humani corporis fabrica”, 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius was the first to give detailed instructions on how to make a skeleton, for although it was a natural object, it was also a crafted object whose construction entailed a lot of work. The human body became an object in motion as it travelled from the scaffold to the dissection table to the grisly cauldron where the bones were boiled to remove their flesh. While artists and anatomists employed skeletons for instruction, little evidence of their collection appears before the mid-seventeenth century, when they begin to appear in cabinets and collections. Both the Royal Society and the Paris Academy of Sciences owned several. At the Paris Academy, André Colson, described as an “ébeniste” or furniture maker, was charged with the making and maintenance of the skeleton room, while the physician Nehemiah Grew, who catalogued the Royal Society’s collections in 1681, may also have made its skeletons. By the end of the seventeenth century, a vigorous skeleton trade flourished across Europe, and they often appear in auction catalogues alongside books, works of art, and scientific instruments. At the same time, relics, both old and new, retained their potency in both Catholic and Protestant countries.

After Vesalius, detailed instructions for making a skeleton appeared in many anatomical texts and manuals as part of the education of a physician or surgeons; in the eighteenth century, William Hunter took it for granted that each of his students would need to construct a skeleton for his own use and in addition procure “several skulls.” While such a process would seem to confer anonymity to the finished skeleton, provenance and even identity often clung to the bones along with religious resonances. Most skeletons were of executed criminals, some of them widely known. The skeleton of the “Thief-taker General” Jonathan Wild, executed in 1725, still hangs in the gallery of the College of Surgeons in London, and Hogarth’s famous 1751 “Fourth Stage of Cruelty” shows the skeletons of other malefactors on display in niches at Surgeons’ Hall while a cauldron awaits the bones of Tom Nero, who is being dissected by the surgeons after his conviction for murder.

William Hogarth's "The Fourth Stage of Cruelty", 1751. Credit: Wikimedia.

William Hogarth’s “The Fourth Stage of Cruelty”, 1751. Credit: Wikimedia.

Widespread demand and changing scientific contexts expanded the market for skeletons (as well as skulls) beyond Europe to encompass much of the known world by the mid-eighteenth century. The prodigious collector Hans Sloane received skulls and bones from contacts throughout the world, including native bones that his Jamaican contacts apparently stumbled across in caves. Sloane’s meticulous catalogues of his collections allow one to trace the provenance of many of his human specimens though other collectors and agents. Such catalogues, along with account books, advertisements, and illustrations, reveal this worldwide commerce in skeletons alongside a continued trade in skeletal relics. Traveling across time and place, skeletons embodied beauty and deformity, crime and punishment, sin and sanctity, science and colonial power, often simultaneously.

18th-century trade card for the skeleton seller and preparator Nathaniel Longbottom of London. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

18th-century trade card for the skeleton seller and preparator Nathaniel Longbottom of London. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.