You may have seen a fair few skeletons of late, prancing around your cookie packaging or littering your neighbor’s porch. But a fascination with our bodies’ bones goes back much further than modern Halloween merch — all the way to the Middle Ages.
Skeletons were particularly important to medieval thinkers and writers working in Europe and the Middle East, who knew that the bones formed the body’s foundation, a structural framework around which everything from muscles and nerves to veins and flesh were wrapped. Early medieval authors described most parts of the skeleton thoroughly in their medical treatises, individuating their different functions: the ribs fortified the chest, the skull protected the soft brain beneath, the clavicle—from the Latin, clavicula, meaning “little key”—locked the arms to the chest at the shoulder. Still, there was not always certainty as to the tally of bones the body contained. We now total them at 206, but medieval writers tended to stump for a few more. Some counted 229, while others maintained that men had 228 bones, two more than women who had 226. Others thought specifically that men had one fewer rib than women, a single bone missing in an echo of Genesis, which told of God creating Eve from Adam’s side.
This confusion was not the result of anatomical ignorance. Rather, it was a more practical problem. Bones don’t just sit inside the body as a clean, white and easy-to-count skeleton. Creating something like this from a cadaver first requires the removal of the tough tendons and ligaments that bind the muscles to them. Limbs and other body parts have to be carefully boiled to loosen the fibers of these fleshy elements and encourage the core to slip out. This was a time-consuming business, and in medieval Europe opening up the body in such a way was met with the same obvious social reservations as today. It was only later, in the Early Modern period, that the construction of traditional anatomical teaching skeletons rose to prominence.