As an emperor’s cook you often had a hard time. Special wishes had to be fulfilled, banquets prepared and gala dinners organised. But at the time of the Crusades, the fate of His Majesty’s cook could be even harsher. Then it happened that he had not only to fry the leg of a lamb, but also to boil the emperor. Really.
In many cultures the belief was widespread that great care was needed after the death of an important person so that after his demise paradise or eternal life could be secured. Treasures were piled up and mummies were produced.
A similar belief prevailed in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was a widespread conviction that it took all the bones of a deceased to rise from the dead on Judgment Day. Normally this need for completeness was met by burying the totality of the dead. However, problems arose when the deceased died far away from home, for example in Palestine on a crusade, and his return became unpleasant due to the progressive decay of the body. Then a rude practice was used. One cooked the sovereign – or the queen – and neatly separated bones from flesh.
This custom was called ‘mos teutonicus’ – in Latin ‘according to German custom’, even though French nobles also used this practice. Boncompagno da Signa offers a brief description in the 13th century: “The Germans remove the intestines from the corpses of high-ranking men when they die in foreign countries, and let the rest boil in cauldrons until all the meat, tendons and cartilage are separated from the bones. These bones, washed in fragrant wine and sprinkled with spices, are then taken back to their homeland.”
A particularly illustrious dead person to whom this happened was the famous Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. After drowning in a river during the 3rd Crusade in Cilicia in 1190, he was cut to pieces and cooked. His heart and intestines were buried in Tarsos, his flesh in St Peter’s Church in Antioch, and the bones were carried by his son Frederick VI at least to Tyros, probably to bury them in Jerusalem. It is not known exactly where they were buried. But imagine the scene in which the dead, drowned emperor was first chopped up and then hoisted into the kettle so that he could cook for hours.
Barbarossa himself seems to have agreed. When years before, in 1167 after his conquest of Rome, a plague considerably decimated his army, he had his ‘executives’, who had died of dysentery, cooked before returning home. Among the dead, the Historia Welforum Weingartensis names the bishops of Cologne, Speyer, Regensburg, Prague, Verden and Liège, the princes Friedrich IV of Swabia, Welf VII, Berengar III of Sulzbach and Heinrich von Tübingen. It adds, “in almost all of these cases the bones were returned to their respective homelands after they had been separated from the meat by cooking”. The image of the ten cooking princes must not have been for tender souls. After all, they were decontaminated… It is said that the French more often opted for the embalming of their noble dead, but the ‘Germanic way’ was more hygienic…
Archaeologists have been able to prove traces of this practice. When Emperor Lothar III died in 1137 crossing the Alps, his body is said to have been subjected to the Mos teutonicus. The findings of an amino acid analysis of his bones published in 1989 confirm this. The bones of the noble ruler were cooked for about six hours.
Apparently there were circles already at that time, which found the custom quite abhorrent. With the bull Detestande feritatis, first published on 27 September 1299 and again on 18 February 1300, Pope Bonifatius VIII ordered a ban on dividing or cooking corpses for burial purposes. The procedure remained in use in the following period, but the search began for suitable means of preserving at least temporary the corpses. And fortunately, the crusades were stopped and the need for cooking the Emperor was reduced…
The question remains whether Emperor Barbarossa, who, according to German legend, sleeps in the Kyffhäuser mountain, when he rises again, will come back as a whole or in the form of skeleton and salted meat.