H4, the hipster? / Philippe Charlier

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There is an old legend, you know, that Henri IV, the king of France, had 100 mistresses (perhaps a thousand? He had a gourmandise mood and a vagabond heart). He’d tattooed each ones of the first names of his conquests on the skin. You must imagine this hipster monarch of a fortnight, when Ravaillac murders him in the street, covered with tattoos from head to foot, with a generous beard and a particularly lively eye. The head? Perhaps not, for it was not a matter of letting others see this bodily specificity unlike any other.

The recent reappearance of the embalmed head of Henry IV nourished the hope of those who hoped to know at last: a black pigmentation was present, indeed, at the base of the neck… It was not a tattoo, but was it not a kind of a whitewash covering a tattoo, so that the very Christian king does not carry beyond the tomb embarrassing memory of his frivolity?

No, alas no, the story is too good to be true. It is only a stamping of the corpse by the embalmer (Pierre Pigray): this animal coal – calcined ivory powder, a very expensive product of great rarity – had to absorb the bad odors emanating of the dead body, and the moisture which oozes from the skin of the corpse.

But will we ever know the truth?

Philippe Charlier, MD, PhD, LittD, is a forensic practitioner and anthropologist. He works on representations of the human bodies, and rituals related to diseases and death. He loves words, and more.

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