Why are GCSE textbooks repeating bizarre anti-Catholic myths?

The University of Bologna in the 1350s: one of many universities fostered by the Church (Wikimedia)

“Did you know the Catholic Church held up medical progress in the Middle Ages because they banned the dissection of bodies?”

I was somewhat taken aback by this claim from a young acquaintance of mine, currently studying GCSE history at an excellent Catholic comprehensive. Being a lowly economist with a rather shameful lack of historical knowledge, I didn’t have an answer to hand. However, some cursory Googling confirmed my suspicion: the story is a long-standing myth which has its root in a misunderstanding of a 14th Century edict from Pope Boniface VIII.

The claim has long since been taken apart by scholars including Professor Katherine Park of Harvard University. She explains that although dissection was uncommon in the early Middle Ages, it was not prohibited by the Church. Indeed, from the 13th century on, dissection become much more widely practised, often encouraged by the Church and the Pope himself. The myth may be long-standing but there is no excuse for repeating it.

So where did my acquaintance get the idea from? Well, take a look at any current GCSE textbook and you will see that the Church’s ban on dissection is still being taught as fact to young people across the country. The popular BBC GCSE Bitesize revision website reflects the consensus. Its entry on Medical Stagnation in the Middle Ages states (with helpful bold type):

“The Church played a big part in medical stagnation in the Middle Ages. It discouraged progress by … forbidding dissection of human corpses”.

How can it be that such an easily-disprovable slur against the Church is being taught to thousands of youngsters across the country? In fact, the problem seems to be wider than one incorrect statement. I do urge you to read the BBC GCSE Bitesize page in its entirety. It places the blame for lack of medical progress in the Middle Ages almost entirely on the Church. Apart from the mythical ban on dissection, the website criticises the Church’s “encouragement of prayer and superstition” and the “emphasis on authority rather than observation and investigation”. Pupils are also told that the Church’s “belief that disease was a punishment from God” prevented investigation into cures.

There is one piece of good news: apparently the Church’s only positive contribution to medical progress was that it encouraged people to go on the Crusades, where they came into contact with more advanced Muslim doctors! I promise you, I am not making this up – check for yourselves.

It’s a complex subject, and of course no-one wants to whitewash the Church’s record. But is it really fair not to mention the contribution of monks to preserving Greek and Roman learning during the dark ages, the Catholic insistence on the use of reason in academic study, the Church’s sponsorship of universities, the developments in surgery in the 13th century under the patronage of Pope Innocent IV, or the contributions of Grosseteste, Bacon, Magnus and countless other Catholic scientists?

Professional historians will be able to give a more informed view here. Still, the overall content of the webpage (and indeed many standard textbooks) seems to me at best misleading. Frankly, it verges on straightforward anti-Catholic prejudice.

I am sure that many history teachers in our Catholic schools are doing their best to provide their pupils with a more balanced view than that given by the standard sources. But perhaps it is time for Catholic head teachers, heads of history and the Catholic Education Service to make more systematic representations to the exam boards, publishers and the BBC to set the record straight. 

Professor David Paton holds the Chair of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School and is Visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham