The Mos Teutonicus and the Excarnate
If a Medieval European aristocrat died far from home, what was to be done with the body? His family usually wanted it returned to be buried with his relatives, but that could entail a weeks-long Faulknerian trip with an ever-riper corpse. Embalming was one solution, but it was frightfully expensive. Enter the mos teutonicus, a practical solution with applications in RPG plots!
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The phrase ’mos teutonicus’ means ‘the German custom’. It was coined by a Medieval Italian historian who associated the practice with German crusaders. It consisted of chopping the limbs off a corpse, throwing the whole mess into a vat of water or wine, and cooking it until the meat fell off the bones. The result was a clean, disarticulated skeleton ready for transport! Depending on your needs, you could give the boiled flesh and entrails a Christian burial on the spot, or you could preserve them for the trip home by salting and drying them the same way you would any other meat. The whole process was pretty hygienic, especially if you boiled the body in wine.
The mos teutonicus is associated with nobles who died far from home, whether on military campaign, pilgrimage, or just traveling. But it fit into a broader Medieval European obsession with decay as sin. The bodies of saints were generally believed not to decay. They were ‘incorruptible’. The bodies of the wicked, by contrast, were extra gross. The corpse of English king Henry I supposedly leaked a black fluid even after it was embalmed, and no amount of salt or oxides could stop it. Thus, the bodies of knights and barons too poor for proper embalming but too rich for a common burial could, even at home, receive the mos teutonicus as a way to mimic saintly incorruptibility during a sometimes-lengthy funeral process.
A typical example was the processing of Henry of Almain, nephew of English King Henry III. He was in Italy, conducting diplomatic negotiations with exiled rebel aristocrats, when he was murdered by two of his cousins. His entrails and flesh were buried in a nice church in the town where he was murdered, and his bones and heart were returned to England. His heart was interred in a golden cup in the prestigious Westminster Abbey, and his bones were interred at Hailes Abbey, which was founded by his father.
Another example was the processing of King Louis IX of France, who died of dysentery on the Eighth Crusade. Muslim ground was unsuitable for burying a Christian king (and future saint), and embalming was impractical given the circumstances, so in the pot he went! His bones are buried at Saint-Denis and his heart and intestines are buried in Sicily.
Renowned Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas died in transit to the Second Council of Lyon. His body was boiled not just because he was traveling, but also because he was a holy man and the mos teutonicus made it easier to distribute his bones as relics. You can today find bits of Thomas Aquinas across Europe, including two skulls: one in Toulouse, and one in Priverno.
In 1299, Pope Boniface VIII banned the mos teutonicus as a perverse and sacrilegious practice contrary to Catholic teaching. The idea is that God will restore the dead in their natural bodies on the Day of Judgement, and separating the body into multiple pieces runs contrary to that goal. The papal bull banning the practice was vaguely-written, however, and some people at the time read it as also banning autopsies and any embalming that removes the entrails. Pope Clement VI reversed the ban on the mos teutonicus fifty years later.
This all suggests a monster for fantasy RPGs: the excarnate, a skeleton of disarticulated bones that can swap its component bones around as it wishes. It can add its ribs to its fingertips to give itself long, curving claws. If it needs bludgeoning weapons, it can replace its hands with its heavy pelvis and stout cranium. Worse, since an excarnate is the skeleton of an aristocrat, it may remember the debauched and power-hungry magic it learned in life.
It follows that an excarnate is almost impossible to contain. Need to pass through a pipe? It can link its bones up like railroad cars and slither like a snake. Need to pass through a portcullis? It can stick half its bones through the gaps, then start reassembling them even as the other half pass through. Finding and catching an excarnate could be a fun adventure; play to the monster’s strengths!
If you’re playing in a more real-world-ish supernatural Medieval setting (like Ars Magica or Deadlands Dark Ages), Pope Boniface’s order banning the mos teutonicus makes a lot more sense! The vagueness of the ban’s wording could be a way to outlaw the creation of excarnates without spreading the knowledge of how to do it. Pope Clement’s decision to overturn the ban could be a combination of well-intentioned ignorance and pressure from nobles seeking nice funerals – or it could suggest that dark forces have taken over the papacy. The same principle works in a more thoroughly fictional setting; just have the order come from an applicable monarch or religious authority.
I've been continuing to run a delightful campaign of Shanty Hunters, my upcoming RPG about hunting magical sea shanties in the year 1880. Last night, my PCs saved their captain from a death prophesied by the lines "We’ll dig for red gold, oh, me bully boys all/Or die of the fever, me bully boys all" in the shanty Rio Grande. They chose to accomplish this by blackmailing a fellow passenger into providing them with gold, turning it red by covering it in rust from an earlier misadventure, covering it in the sand the crew uses to scrub the decks, and getting the delirious captain to dig in the sand. They figured it's 'dig for the red gold or die of the fever,' so if he did the former, he wouldn't do the latter. And it worked!
In related news, I've still got room in one of my Shanty Hunters games at Gen Con Online in a few weeks. It happens to be my favorite of the three sessions I'm running, so if you like ships or shanties, consider signing up!
Source: Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England by Danielle Westerhof (2008)