The 17th-century burial of a French noblewoman that included the embalmed heart of her husband is not only a trés romantic gesture but also a scientific phenomenon that has never been seen before in archaeology, according to a recent study on the emergence of modern burial practices in Europe.
The lead coffin of Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac, was excavated in 2013 at the former site of the Jacobin convent in Rennes, France by researchers with the country’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP).
Despite the fact that 65-year-old Louise de Quengo died in 1656, her sealed lead casket preserved her body unusually well, with even her simple religious cloaks and leather shoes still intact. Her identity was confirmed through a detailed listing in the convent’s burial register.
But the casket yielded an even bigger surprise: inside was a small lead container that contained the heart of her husband, Toussaint de Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac.
Initial news reports erroneously stated that burial with a lover’s heart was a common practice in pre-Revolutionary France, but in fact, this is the first-known archaeological example of the practice, according to INRAP anthropologist and study co-author Rozenn Colleter.
Some members of the French aristocracy did indeed arrange for certain organs to be removed after death and buried in separate locations, but until now this practice was only known to serve a political as well as religious purpose—not a romantic expression of spouses reunited in death.
According to an inscription on the heart-shaped urn, Toussaint de Perrien died in 1649—seven years earlier than Louise—and was buried 125 miles away in a Carmelite convent he founded near Carhaix.
Toussaint’s heart would have been removed before his burial, sealed in its air-tight lead container to prevent decomposition, and brought to the Jacobin convent in Rennes where Louise was living out her remaining years as a widow. Until her death, the urn was most likely on display in the chapel where Louise worshiped and was eventually buried, according to INRAP researcher Colleter.
A CT examination of the body of Louise de Quengo revealed that her heart had also been removed from her body.
Was Louise’s heart buried with Toussaint? It would be “logical” that the couple willed the exchange of their hearts during their lifetime, says Colleter.
Unfortunately, both Louise’s heart and the site of Toussaint’s burial in Carhaix have yet to be discovered. However, if Louise’s preserved heart were ever found—either associated with her husband’s burial or elsewhere—it would likely carry an identifying inscription similar to that found on the urn that contains Toussaint’s heart, Colleter adds.
Toussaint’s heart-shaped lead urn was one of five examples unearthed during the excavation of the Jacobin convent.
The other four containers, which date from 1584 to 1685 and also contain human hearts and inscriptions, do not appear to be associated with any particular burials at the site. The authors of the study suggest that they may have been possibly removed from their original locations and hidden by convent authorities during the French Revolution. Lead caskets and urns which contained the remains of nobility were often melted down to make bullets during the Revolution.
More than 1,380 burials from the 14th to 18th centuries, belonging primarily to clergy and nobility, were eventually recovered from the former Jacobin convent, which is now the site of a future convention center.
According to the study, a forensic analysis of 483 individuals buried in the convent between the 16th and 18th centuries revealed that less than three percent underwent the removal of organs after death and/or deliberate embalming. These results dispute the general assumption that that such practices, once reserved only for early European kings and queens, became progressively more common among the upper class as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance and the early modern era.>
Following the scientific investigation of Louise de Quengo, her body was claimed by descendants and reburied in September 2015 near a family castle in Tonquédec. Toussaint de Perrien’s heart, and the lead container in which it has traveled across the centuries, remains in a laboratory freezer pending possible future study.