Dead Capital. The Corpse as Commodity in Early Modern History

Matthias Bähr / Alexander Kästner, Technische Universität Dresden, Institut für Geschichte
28.10.2019 - 29.10.2019
Matthias Bähr

Dead bodies are capital. In particular between the 16th and early 19th centuries corpses were not only a valuable but also a fiercely contested material resource. Vergers and parishes, doctors and naturalists, and even businesses and corporations were stalwart in their missions to profit from human cadavers. In doing so, they often broke competing religious and social rules such as the fundamental principle of respecting the dead and their corporeal integrity. Moreover, the dead were also an integral part of early modern concepts of community and honour.

Despite its obvious significance, however, to date the economics of the corpse in its basic sense has not been recognised by either cultural or economic history. Thus, the conference seeks to bring together scholars from different fields such as economic history, business ethics, art history, social history, cultural history, history of law, history of medicine, historical anthropology, material culture studies, archaeology, and museology to establish a dialogue that profits from different research traditions and perspectives.

Possible issues and questions include:

- Individuals and communities: Who bought and sold human cadavers or body parts? What were the backgrounds of those involved? How did clerics, surgeons, and natural scientists compete with each other and with the deceased’s relatives? What role did explorers, mariners and resurrectionists play in the buying and selling of human remains?

- Collections: How did anthropological collections acquire monetary value? Under which circumstances did scientific curiosity translate into economic success? Did avid collectors resort to illegal means such as extortion and theft and how did they justify their actions?

- Contexts: How did societies differ in their economic use of corpses? Where was it considered acceptable to make a profit by selling human remains?

- Ethics: Were human cadavers considered property? Under which circumstances was it deemed illegal or unethical to either buy or sell them?

- What is the big picture? What changed throughout the early modern period? What legal, religious, moral or social standards emerged? In museums and other collections all over the world, what should be done with human remains that were acquired against the wishes of the deceased or their relatives?

Papers are welcome from all academic fields concerned with early modern history. We ask those interested in delivering a paper to send an abstract of not more than 500 words along with a short CV to and by 30 April 2019. The conference will be held in English. Travel and accommodation costs will be covered.


Matthias Bähr

Alexander Kästner

Technische Universität Dresden
Institut für Geschichte

Dead Capital. The Corpse as Commodity in Early Modern History, 28.10.2019 – 29.10.2019 Dresden, in: H-Soz-Kult, 22.03.2019, <>.