Not Alone

12 28 peder winstrupToday I want to tell you about Peder Winstrup, bishop of Lund. Peder was born in 1605 in Copenhagen. He was made bishop of Lund in 1638 and was clearly something of a diplomat, as he managed to hang on to his position when Lund moved from Danish to Swedish control in 1658. He was very interested in science, he made studies of animal behaviour and tried to find out if it was true that the cuckoo puts its young in another bird’s nest. Education was important to him and he was instrumental in the founding of the University of Lund which happened in 1666. He died on this day in 1679 and was laid to rest in the cathedral in Lund.

It isn’t really his life I want to tell you about though. In 1833 his burial vault was partially demolished and his body was found to be remarkably well preserved. Well enough for him to be easily recognised from his portraits. His coffin was opened again in 1923 and photographs were taken. Then, in 2012 the cathedral staff decided to move his coffin and by coincidence, at the same time, the archivist at Lund University’s museum was examining a glass plate from the 1923 opening. It was soon realised that the bishop was probably the best preserved 17th century body to be found in any of the Nordic countries. Here was an excellent opportunity to make a scientific study, using modern methods, to find out about life in seventeenth century Sweden and how it was that his body had been so well preserved. It was a time capsule from the year 1679.

His body has been accidentally preserved rather that deliberately mummified and all his internal organs are intact. There are several reasons why his body has dried out naturally. He had been laid on a mattress stuffed with wormwood, juniper berries, lavender and hyssop. His head rests on a pillow filled with hops. The herbs have probably played a role in preserving his body and so have the cold, draughty and dry conditions in the crypt. The fact that he was died and buried in the winter have also helped. Bishop Winstrup’s body was very emaciated at the time of death, suggesting a long illness. So the lack of body fat has also helped prevent decay.

Among the things that have been found out about the bishop are that he probably died of pneumonia, but also suffered from arthritis, gout and a shoulder injury. Missing and rotted teeth indicate a high amount of sugar in his diet, while the presence of gall stones suggest a high consumption of fat. So he lived well.

When the body of Peder Winstrup was put into a CT scanner, in order to build up a three-dimensional picture, a surprising discovery was made. The bishop has not been alone in his coffin. For close to 350 years he has had a companion. Tucked amongst the herbs beneath his feet is the body of a five or six month old foetus. Clearly it has been deliberately hidden there and no one would have known about it except whoever concealed it. Probably it was placed there by a member of the bishop’s staff and it is unlikely that the bishop and the baby are in any way related, but DNA tests may tell us in time. Probably that person was looking for a proper resting place for the child. A stillborn infant or one who died before baptism was not permitted a Christian burial and bereaved parents often resorted to desperate measures. They may have had to hang on to the body for months waiting for the right opportunity to bribe someone to place it in another coffin or to bury it in the church wall. Who better to look after the child than a bishop?

I am not in the habit of filling this blog with pictures of dead bodies, it seems disrespectful, but, as his body is so remarkably well preserved, if you want to see a short video, there is one here. The bishop’s body has now been re-interred. I couldn’t find out for sure whether he still has his companion, but I hope he has.


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