Journal of the Northern Renaissance

~ Radical Open Access ~

Olaus Petri: A Protestant reformer who approved of dissection

Andrey Scheglov (Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences)

[1] Could a sixteenth-century cleric approve of dissecting human bodies for scientific purposes? The case of the Swedish Lutheran reformer Olaus Petri (c. 1493–1552) proves that it could be so. In his theological treatise, ‘A Teaching on the Noble Creation, Fall and Restoration of Man’ (‘Undervisning om människans ärliga skapelse, fall och upprättelse’, in his Samlade skrifter (henceforth OPSS), 3:513-75), Olaus[1] mentions dissection and speaks positively of it, in connection with his reflections on the human body as God’s masterpiece. This is a fact which is known by scholars (cf. Ingebrand 1964: 161-3), but the question of what particular treatise could have served as a source of Olaus Petri’s knowledge of anatomy has not been raised in scholarly literature and requires discussion. The aim of this essay is to give an answer to this question.

[2] Olaus Petri, or ‘Master Olof’, as he is often called, is a key figure in the history of the Swedish Reformation. Like many learned people of the Renaissance Age, he was a versatile personality and a prolific author – a theologian, a polemist, a historian, a translator, a poet and a law scholar (cf. Hallencreutz & Lindeberg, 1994).  He obtained his education in Germany, primarily at the University of Wittenberg where he experienced the influence of Luther and Melanchton (cf. Murray 1952; Bergendoff 1965). On his return to Sweden, he took an active part in the Reformation, together with King Gustav Vasa (1523–1569) and other Swedish reformers. In connection with this, he wrote a number of works in Swedish, one of which, the aforementioned ‘Teaching on the Noble Creation’, contains the author’s thoughts on the human body (see Appendix, below).

[3] The manuscript of this writing is preserved in the State Archives of Sweden. The work originally lacked the title, which was added by a later scribe. The editors of Olaus Petri’s Works express the opinion that the treatise was written in the 1530s; however, they do not provide any arguments to support this statement. We cannot exclude the possibility that the work was written later, in the 1540s. The treatise remained unfinished. Some parts are based upon an earlier work by Olaus Petri, ‘A Useful Teaching’ (‘En nyttig undervisning’), while the other parts do not have a parallel in Olaus Petri’s previous works.

[4] In the prologue, the author explains the meaning of the name of Christ – Anointed – and says that this meaning is used in two senses: Christ is an anointed priest and an anointed king. As a priest, He reconciles people with God, and as a king, He protects people from evil (OPSS 3:515). Olaus aims to explain how these two duties of Christ are performed, and in the first turn he expands on the subject, how perfectly man was created by God. Man was created in the image of God: not in the bodily sense, for God is a spirit, but regarding the nobleness and the powers of man (OPSS 3:518–9). The human body was created from the earth, which was by no means a shame, but an honour, because at that time the earth was sacred, blessed and pleasant to God (OPSS 3:519-20).

[5] Then follows a praise of the human body. Olaus explains that both parts of man, the spiritual and the temporal, were God’s masterpiece. The body contains numerous parts, and each of them fulfills its own duty. The powers of the external limbs can be seen by everyone, but the parts of body which are concealed, are endowed with even greater powers. Many learned people attempted to study the inner organs, Olaus says, and for this purpose they dissected many dead bodies, and yet they did not manage to discover everything. Still, they discovered so much that they called the man ‘the smaller world’. The perfectness of God’s work can be observed in the human eye which consists of many films with a liquid between them which looks like a mirror. And such a small thing as the eye stone possesses a magnificent power: through such a tiny dot one can watch the whole world. God gave miraculous power to the eye, and so He did with other human organs, so that we could see how wonderful His work is, and praise Him for that (OPSS 3:520-2)

[6] Thus Olaus Petri acknowledges dissection as a scientific method and demonstrates a knowledge of anatomy, in particular the anatomy of the human eye. His praise of the human body and his treatment of the man as a microcosm are common for thinkers of the Renaissance era. But what work on anatomy served as a source for Olaus Petri? Such a source must meet the following criteria: 1) it must be an internationally known treatise; 2) it must be a work which was published before the middle of the 16th century; 3) it must be written in (or translated into) Latin or German, the languages which Olaus spoke fluently. Several works which were accessible in Latin before 1550 match these criteria.

[7] The first work to be mentioned is Vesalius’ Humani corporis fabrica (1543), the most significant anatomic treatise at that time. In this book, Olaus could find reflections on the multiplicity of human organs and their functions, as well as a detailed description of the eye (643–50). However, Vesalius’s treatise lacks connotations with Olaus Petri’s description of the eye and of the human body in general as a masterpiece of God for which God should be praised.

[8] Another possible source is Charles Estienne, De dissectione partium (1545), which provides a detailed description of the eye as well as general reflections concerning the use of anatomy. However, this work, in its turn, lacks the thoughts on the wisdom of God, which could be similar to Olaus Petri’s ideas that are present in the treatise ‘On the Noble Creation’.

[9] There was, however, an author who expressed such thoughts – Berengario da Carpi. He declared that the benefit of anatomy consists not only in the knowledge of the structure of the body but also in the knowledge of the function of the organs (Da Carpi, Isagogae: 43). Da Carpi proclaims that anatomy is useful because by studying it we learn to admire the omnipotence of God (1521: v). In connection with this statement, Da Carpi quotes Galen.

10] This quotation is not accidental. Like Vesalius and Estienne, Da Carpi had a great respect for Galen. However, these scholars, especially Vesalius, not only followed Galen, but also verified and corrected his conclusions. They regarded anatomy as an experimental science, and they paid great attention to its practical use. Galen’s philosophic ideas were apparently less important for them.

[11] This leads us to the point that the philosophic ideas connected with the admiration of the human body, in particular, of the human eye, which are characteristic of Olaus Petri’s treatise, could be inspired by Galen rather than by Renaissance scholars. Concerning the description of the eye, the similarities between Olaus and Galen are striking. Galen describes the crystalline as white, transparent and clear; he characterizes the eye liquid as resembling a looking-glass (2.b.10; Ch. 1-6). He admires the perfectness of the eye, and in connection with this, he praises the wisdom of God (2.b.10; Ch. 3-4, 9) All these features are present in Olaus Petri’s work, and we can conclude that Olaus apparently used Galen’s treatise as a source on anatomy.

[12] However, it is also possible that Olaus was acquainted with another significant work: the treatise on optics written by the celebrated Arab scholar Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen. This treatise was translated into Latin and was widely known in medieval Europe. It is a well-known fact that Ibn Al-Haytham was a pioneer in the field of optics; but we also know that he experienced the influence of ancient scholars, in particular of Galen. The philosophic views expressed by Galen and by Ibn Al-Haytham in connection with the description of the eye are similar. Like Galen, Ibn Al-Haytham thought that the perfectness of the eye demonstrates the wisdom of God: ‘The matters we have mentioned are the utilities of the instruments of sight. They are subtle matters that show the wisdom and mercy of the exalted Artificer and the consummate perfection of His work, the skillful ways of nature and the subtlety of her productions.’ (Sabra 1989: 104)

[13] It would be logical to conclude that Olaus Petri, regarding the views on the human eye, was inspired by Galen, or by Ibn Al-Haytham, or by both scholars.


[14] The subject of this article relates to the history of medicine; but the conclusion is also interesting in the context of Reformation history. In this case, we see a particular example of how ‘the old’ and ‘the new’ interacted in Reformation and Renaissance thought. Although the Early Modern Age apparently gave Olaus Petri an intellectual impulse stimulating his interest towards anatomy and dissection, his concrete source of knowledge may have been an older one – either the work by Galen, created in Late Antiquity and known throughout the Middle Ages, or the medieval treatise by the distinguished Arab scientist.



Olaus Petri’s Reflections on the perfection of the human body,
extracted from his ‘On the Noble Creation, Fall and Restoration of Man’

(Olaus Petri, Samlade skrifter, vol. 3, pp.520-22)

[a] […] And so has God, wondrously and skillfully indeed, created human beings of two different things – the body and the soul, the flesh and the spirit; and he shaped and adorned both parts so masterly that no human can explore them perfectly in this temporal life.

[b] The body, which is possible yet to watch with the corporal eyes, is made of limbs, skin, flesh and bones, as well as of gristle, sinew and veins, in such a way that one ought to regard it as God’s masterpiece. And how remarkably many different parts are contained in the human body! And each part has its own duty: the eye sees, the ear hears, the nostrils smell, the tongue tastes and, together with the other parts that relate to the matter, speaks also. And, to say it shortly, every tiniest part of the human body carries out its own duty and work which is useful for the whole body. Everyone can see, what power the hands, the feet and the other outer limbs are endowed with. And still, the parts that are inside and are covered by the skin, are endowed with even greater powers than those one can see from outside. How the heart, the lung, the belly, the liver and the kidneys perform their duty and work in a human, is a wonder that no one will ever be able to describe. Many learned and wise people have tried to discover all the human limbs, sinew and veins, and to explore their work and powers. For this purpose, they cut many dead bodies, separating their parts and limbs, and yet they could not reveal everything that God has put into them. Still, they discovered so many wonderful things in the course of their studies that they called the human being ‘the smaller world’. By this they meant that, in the same way as the big world containing the sky and the earth, the air and the water, has many wonderful things with various powers, which are so many and so splendid that no one can comprehend them all, so it is in the case with the human being: God has put more in it than anyone can perceive. That is why it deserves to be called a world, although the smaller one, or just the small world. And for the sake of this small world, the big world was created.

[c] The one who wishes to see wonders, does not need too much to travel round the big world in order to watch rare and curious things. Instead, he can watch more of God’s splendid, magnificent and admirable works in oneself, in his own small world. There, he can find more wonders than he can understand. The one who just carefully examines the eye, which is but a small organ, will observe God’s wondrous work in it: how it is composed of many membranes – one over another, with a liquid between them, looking like a clear mirror. And there is a tiny dot called the eye stone, which possesses a wonderful power: through such a small thing one can contemplate the sky and the earth, with all the temporal things, in their width and magnitude. Who can understand and explain in a perfect way that such a tiny dot as the eye stone would be able to contemplate so wide and magnificent things? And yet we experience this ourselves, day by day! God has endowed the eye with a wonderful power, and so has he done with all other parts of the human body. This is what we can conclude if we consider the issue properly; and thus we can give God the praise that we owe Him.

~ translated from the Early Modern Swedish by Andrey Scheglov


[1] His first name is also spelled as ‘Olavus’. ‘Petri’, in its turn, is a patronymic, not a surname. That is why Olaus Petri’s name should not be reported as ‘Petri’ or ‘O. Petri’. Scholars often reduce it to the first name, and I follow this tradition.[back to text]

Works Cited

Bergendoff, Conrad. Olavus Petri and the Ecclesiastical Transformation in Sweden. Philadelphia, 1965.

[Da Carpi, Berengario], Isagogae breves et extatissimae in anatomiam humani corporis. (s.l., s.d.)

____. Carpi Commentaria cum amplissimis additionibus super anatomia mundini. s.l.; 1521.

Estienne, Charles. De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres, Paris, 1545.

[Galenus, Claudius]. De usu partium corporis humani, Libri XVII. [Ed. Niccoló da Reggio]. [Lyon], 1550.

Hallencreutz, Carl F., & Sven-Ola Lindeberg, Olaus Petri – den mångsidige svenske reformatorn. Uppsala, 1994.

Ingebrand, Sven. Olavus Petris reformatoriska åskådning. Uppsala, 1964.

Murray, Robert.  Olaus Petri. Stockholm, 1952.

Petri, Olaus. Samlade skrifter, vol. 3. Uppsala, 1916.

Sabra, A.I. (ed., trans.). The Optics of Ibn Al-Haytham. Books I-III: On Direct Vision. London: Warburg Institute, 1989.

[Vesalius, Andreas]. Humani corporis fabrica libri septem. Basel, 1543.

Next Post

Previous Post

Leave a Reply

© 2023 Journal of the Northern Renaissance

Theme by Anders Norén