Can headless martyrs really walk? The belief in cephalophores in the Middle Ages
Saint Denis of Paris holding his severed head. Mid-15th century depiction from an illuminated prayer book (Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 5, fol. 35v, 84.ML.723.35v). The halos surrounding his decapitated head as well as the stump of his neck suggest that the soul and saintliness of St. Denis remain in both parts of his body.
“By the temple of Mercury, [he was] beheaded with [an] axe. And anon the body of St. Denis raised himself up, and bare his head between his arms, as the angel led him two leagues … unto the place where he now resteth, by his election, and by the purveyance of God.”1
St. Denis of Paris was a third-century bishop who was martyred under the persecutions of the Roman emperor Decius.2 St. Denis’s postmortem activities mark him as a cephalophore—literally, a “head bearer.”3 While stories of more than one hundred cephalophores have been recorded since the earliest days of the Catholic Church, their cultic status did not emerge in western Europe until the eighth through eleventh centuries.3,4 Many people have venerated these martyrs as symbols of the power of faith and the immortality of the soul.3,5
With the rise of cephalophoric cults, as evidenced by the increasing glorification of cephalophores in medieval art and hagiographies, comes an important and fundamental question: did contemporary believers truly think that decapitated saints could walk and, on occasion, even talk?3,5 Even in the absence of modern knowledge of anatomy and physiology, this seems to fly in the face of all logic. Indeed, centuries earlier, Aristotle had dismissed the idea that disembodied heads could speak, citing a lack of airflow through the windpipe.6,7 However, an understanding of the worldview of medieval western Europeans reveals how the seemingly illogical belief in the post-decapitation wanderings of cephalophores could come to pass in a rather logical manner. Without a universal formal education system, the average person in medieval western Europe utilized their daily experiences to understand the world around them.8 Chiefly, experiences with farm animals moving their decapitated bodies after slaughter as well as the Catholic religion heavily informed the ways in which people interacted with stories of cephalophoric martyrs.
Folk knowledge of anatomy and physiology derived from experiences with farm animals provides the necessary context for understanding how medieval commoners interpreted the actions of cephalophores. Despite the common perception that meat at this time was reserved for the aristocracy, commoners routinely ate pork, beef, lamb, and poultry.9–12 Although butchery as a trade did exist in western Europe, most commoners butchered their own animals, primarily those too old or infirm to be productive.11,13,14 Therefore, most people living in medieval western Europe would have had experience with decapitated animals. Physiological responses to decapitation in both animals and humans can vary widely. Most often, there is a complete cessation of movement, but in some cases, there may be minor twitching or spasms, or even fully coordinated muscle movements.15,16 Indeed, it is well known that animals such as chickens can ambulate after decapitation, owing to the presence of a pattern generator governing rhythmic walking in the spinal cord.17 The old adage “to run around like a chicken with its head cut off,” although originating after the medieval period, points to the common knowledge that some animals can walk around after apparent death.18 Either through personal experience or anecdotes told by others, medieval commoners were likely to have known about unexplained postmortem movements in the apparently dead bodies of animals that had been butchered. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine a scenario wherein people believed it was plausible that a subset of martyrs, with the help of God, could walk and carry their own decapitated heads after death.
In addition to folk knowledge of post-mortem muscular movements, the Catholicism of western Europe in the Middle Ages adds context to the contemporary belief in these headless, walking saints. As most of the religious laity were illiterate, their knowledge of cephalophores would have occurred through artistic depictions, stories, and sermons at church.3,6,19 Therefore, common people experienced cephalophores through the lens of a teacher, who was likely a priest and incentivized to make his parishioners believe in the validity of these stories. Additionally, as if to highlight divine endorsement of cephalophoric miracles, most stories included angels walking side-by-side with the cephalophore.3
While stories like that of St. Denis may seem physiologically impossible to modern observers, in the Middle Ages, Catholic believers would not have thought of physiology as something uncoupled from religiosity. In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas states that living things—defined as beings that possess knowledge and movement—have a soul, which is the origin of life and makes a composite with but exists independent of the body.20 To medieval theologians and commoners alike, the souls of martyrs held primacy and could have been easily conceived to control the actions of a maimed and decapitated body. The rationale given in the story of St. Denis’s decapitated walk even fits with this notion: the time and place were not right for the soul to leave the body and return to God.1 Thus, medieval understanding of the relationship between the body and the soul may partly explain the logic of believers.
It is easy to assume that people living in the medieval world were simple-minded, owing to high rates of illiteracy, a lack of technological innovations, and the prevalence of superstitious beliefs.8 However, this would ignore the social and cultural background that is so critical when trying to comprehend the frame of mind of the medieval commoner. Stated another way, taking a medieval belief out of its context distorts and misshapes our understanding of medieval minds. Indeed, the story of how medieval people believed in cephalophores highlights how we must always consider the background and context of others’ beliefs, however they may appear to us on the surface.
- de Voragine J. Legenda Aurea [in English]. Caxton, W., trans. Ellis FS, ed. Temple Classics; 1900.
- Stiglmayr J. “St. Denis,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 4. Robert Appleton Company; 1908.
- Montgomery SB. “Securing the Sacred Head: Cephalophory and Relic Claims,” in Baert B, Traninger A, Santing C, eds. Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. 2013:77-116.
- Saintyves P. “Les Saints Céphalophores: Etude de folklore hagiographique,” Rev Hist Relig. 1929; 99:158-231.
- Montgomery SB. “Mittite capud meum… ad matrem meam ut osculetur eum: The Form and Meaning of the Reliquary Bust of Saint Just,” Gesta 1997;36(1):48-64. doi:10.2307/767278
- Mills R. “Talking Heads, or, a Tale of Two Clerics,” in Baert B, Traninger A, Santing C, eds. Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. 2013:31-58.
- Aristotle. On the Parts of Animals. Lennox JG, trans. 1st ed. Clarendon Press; 2001.
- Rosenwein B. A Short History of the Middle Ages. University of Toronto Press; 2014.
- Dunne J, Chapman A, Blinkhorn P, Evershed RP. “Reconciling organic residue analysis, faunal, archaeobotanical and historical records: Diet and the medieval peasant at West Cotton, Raunds, Northamptonshire,” J Archaeol Sci. 2019;107:58-70. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2019.04.004
- Dyer C. “Changes in Diet in the Late Middle Ages: The Case of Harvest Workers,” Agric Hist Rev. 1988;36(1):21-37.
- Montanari M. “Hunger for Meat,” in Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table. Columbia University Press; 2012.
- Buonincontri MP, Pecci A, di Pasquale G, Ricci P, Lubritto C. “Multiproxy approach to the study of Medieval food habits in Tuscany (central Italy),” Archaeol Anthropol Sci. 2017;9(4):653-671. doi:10.1007/s12520-016-0428-7
- Dyer C. “Peasant Farming: Livestock and pasture,: in Peasants Making History: Living in an English Region 1200-1540. Oxford University Press; 2022:188-227.
- Seetah K. “The Middle Ages on the Block: Animals, guilds, and meat in the medieval period,” in Pluskowski A, ed. Breaking and Shaping Beastly Bodies. Oxbow Books; 2007:18-31.
- Wijdicks EFM, Varelas PN, Gronseth GS, Greer DM. “Evidence-based guideline update: Determining brain death in adults: Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology,” Neurology 2010;74(23):1911-1918. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181e242a8
- Verhoeven MTW, Gerritzen MA, Hellebrekers LJ, Kemp B. “Indicators used in livestock to assess unconsciousness after stunning: A review,” Animal 2014; 9(2):320-330. doi:10.1017/S1751731114002596
- Latash ML, Zatsiorsky VM. Biomechanics and Motor Control. Elsevier; 2016.
- “Headless chicken, n.” in Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press; 2013.
- Moran JH. “Literacy and Education in Northern England, 1350-1550: A Methodological Inquiry,” North Hist. 1981;17(1):1-23. doi:10.1179/nhi.1918.104.22.168
- Aquinas T. Summa Theologiae [in English]. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, trans. 2nd ed. Benziger Brothers; 1920.
ANDREW P.K. WODRICH, BS, is a sixth-year MD/PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at Georgetown University and the National Institutes of Health. Beyond his scientific interest in neurodegenerative diseases and brain aging, he is also interested in the history of medicine and disease in medieval Europe.
Submitted for the 2022–23 Medical Student Essay Contest
Winter 2023 | Sections | History Essays