Embalmed hearts of French nobility analyzed

Last year, archaeologists discovered the exceptionally well-preserved remains of a 17th century French noblewoman in the Convent of the Jacobins site in Rennes, northwest France. The body of Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac (died 1656), was one of five bodies found buried in lead coffins. Interred with the five were five lead heart-shaped containers, each holding a human heart. The practice of removing hearts after death and burying them in vessels in the coffins of deceased loved ones was common among the societal elite of Middle Ages, Renaissance and early modern France. Louise de Quengo was buried with the heart of her husband, identified from the engraving on the heart-shaped box: “This is the heart of Toussaint de Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac, whose body lies at the Savior near Carhay in the convent of the Discalced Carmelites that he founded and died at Rennes the 30th of August, 1649.”

The Knight of Brefeillac’s heart and the four other hearts excavated by archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) at the site of the 14th century convent have been examined by a team of researchers including radiologists, forensic physicians, physicists and pathologists. They scanned the hearts with MRI and CT technology. The images looked good, but they weren’t usable for diagnostic purposes because the materials used to embalm the hearts got in the way.

“We tried to see if we could get health information from the hearts in their embalmed state, but the embalming material made it difficult,” said study author Fatima-Zohra Mokrane, M.D., radiologist at Rangueil Hospital at the University Hospital of Toulouse in France. “We needed to take necessary precautions to conduct the research carefully in order to get all possible information.”

Those necessary precautions included cleaning the hearts very carefully, removing the embalming materials, and then redoing the MRI and CT scans. This time the CT scans clearly showed the structures of the heart — chambers, valves, coronary arteries. The hearts were rehydrated which made it possible for researchers to identify myocardial muscles on the MRI images. The team also employed dissection, visual examination and study of the tissues with a microscope to find out as much as possible about the health of the hearts.

One heart appeared healthy and showed no signs of disease. Three of the hearts did show signs of disease, as plaque was found on the coronary arteries. The fifth heart had been poorly preserved and, therefore, could not be studied.

“Since four of the five hearts were very well preserved, we were able to see signs of present-day heart conditions, such as plaque and atherosclerosis,” Dr. Mokrane said.

It’s interesting that heart disease was so prevalent among the wealthy aristocrats. I imagine it’s a diet issue. Wide access to fatty meats made the upper classes more susceptible to heart conditions than the poor who subsisted on less rich and artery-clogging diets.

As for Louise de Quengo, her remains were reinterred in September. Numerous descendants were consulted as to the disposition of her body. There was a divide whether to bury her in Rennes where she slumbered for 358 years or in Tonquédec in the Côtes-d’Armor department of Brittany where several of her descendants live today. Patrick de Quengo de Tonquédec, father of actor Guillaume de Tonquédec whom you might have seen as Serge in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece Three Colors: Blue, and his brother General Pierre de Quengo de Tonquédec advocated for her reburial in town cemetery in the shadow of the Château de Tonquédec, a castle which in the 17th century belonged to the lady’s brother. A majority of descendants agreed and Louise de Quengo was reinterred in Tonquédec on Wednesday, September 23rd.

6 thoughts on “Embalmed hearts of French nobility analyzed

  1. The notion that fatty foods are “artery clogging” seems to be just a modern superstition, foisted on the world by a rogue medical scientist, Dr Ancel Keys.

  2. Yeah, what exactly were the FINAL archaeological results of unearthing Louise de Quengo ?

    And –maybe also very important– what happened to her most famous descendant …

    Johann Gambolputty de Quengo- de-Tonquédec-von Ausfern-shplendenshlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-Von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumblemeyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich-himbleeisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-nurnburger-bratwurst-gerspurten-mit-zwei-macheluber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shoenendanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm ?

  3. I remember reading the will of a mid-17th English clergyman who wanted his body opened “as soon as conveniently may be” after death, and his heart taken out buried under the altar of the chapel of the college at Oxford where he’d been a scholar. I don’t think it happened though, the Civil War was on and he died a good way off. Doesn’t seem to have struck anyone as an odd request.

  4. I’m curious to see what an ancient embalmed heart would look like, wish there was a picture of what was inside!

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