Life was different in the Middle Ages, and death even more so.
Take these last three images from a series showing "the art of dying well", Ars moriendi (all nine of the series can be seen at the bottom of this page):
To the left, the corpse is sewn into a shroud. In the church during the mass the corpse is enclosed in a coffin, which is then carried out to the cemetery (middle picture), but the coffin is solely for transportation and the corpse is interred only in the shroud it was sewn into (picture to the right).
Uncountable books of hours show how people are buried sewn into a shroud (to the left and right).
But the story doesn't end there, for when digging to make room for the newly departed, the diggers would unavoidably encounter bones from earlier burials (picture to the right).
Almost all of these scenes show how the diggers first have to remove the old bones in order to make room for the new customer (the picture to the left is in fact one of the exceptions).
These two scenes shows how the cemeteries have been busy. The diggers hardly have time to remove the old bones, before a new funeral procession arrives.
There has been a lack of consecrated ground inside the city wall, but St. Innocents' cemetery was famous for its ability to dissolve the bodies. It reportedly contained soil from the Holy Land, and Gilles Corrozet tells us in 1550, that the soil was so putrefying that it was able to consume a human body within nine days: »la Chapelle des S Innocents, […] c'est le grand cymetiere de Paris, la terre duquel on dit si pourrissante, qu'vn corps humain y est consumé en neuf iours«.(1)
St. Innocents' cemetery's legendary talent for consuming corpses was really put to a test. While the churchyard was rather big (see the images of the church and the churchyard), it served not only its own parishioners but also 22 other parish churches that didn't have a churchyard of their own,(2) besides the city's hospital/poorhouse, l'Hôtel-Dieu, and the unknown dead, those who were found on the highway or drowned in the river Seine.
Mercier estimates the number of burials at "close to 3,000 a year", but at the same time he estimates the total number since Philip the Fair at "10 millions cadavers at least".(3)
Mercier doesn't explain how "close to 3,000 a year" within less than 500 years could turn into "10 millions at least", but it is probably due to the fact that the number 3,000 didn't take into account those years when Death was assisted by his three comrades in arms: Famine, War and Pestilence (pictured left).
Just between 1348 and 1584 there were about 30 plague epidemics.(4) During one of these, in 1418, 50,000 died within less than 5 weeks. Here is a contemporary report that describes how the dead were placed in layers of 30 or 40 — »arrangez comme lars« — arranged as bacon sides:
Item, in the said month, September, there was in Paris and surroundings a pestilence
so very hard, which one had not seen for 300 years according to the elders.
For nobody who was struck by this epidemic escaped, in particular young people and children;
& so many died towards the end of said month
& so quickly that it was decided to dig large pits in the cemeteries of Paris,
where one would place thirty or forty in each, & they were arranged as bacon sides,
& and then a little soil was scattered over them.
& always day and night one could not go into the streets without meeting Our Lord who was carried to the sick & all had the most beautiful perception of Our Lord towards the end, as any Christian has ever had.
But according to the clerics, one had never seen nor heard of a malady that was so terrible and more fierce, nor one where so few escaped of those who had been struck; For in less than five weeks more than fifty thousand persons died in the City of Paris & so many people died that they buried four or six or eight heads of families during one sung mass & it was necessary to bargain with the priests about how much they should have & very often one had to pay sixteen or eighteen Parisian sols, & for a low mass four Parisian sols.(5)
The picture to the left shows another one of these funerals, where the ground is dotted with ancient bones and skulls. And what did people do then with all those old "bacon sides" that reappeared?
The detail-image to the right answers the question. In fact, the answer is staring us right in the face: The "bacon sides" were simply stored in the attic of an ossuary.
Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
Gilles Corrozet also wrote the quatrains for Holbein's great dance of death and for Holbein's illustrations for The Old Testament.
»4. Fevrier. Depuis long temps on se plaint de
l'infection que causent dans Paris les cimetieres,
entr'autres celui des Innocents, où vingt-deux
paroisses viennent journellement déposer leurs
cadavres. Il est question aujourd'hui sérieusement
de fermer ce séjour de corruption. On assure que
Mr. le lieutenant-général de police a proposé de
le clore par provision pour cinq ans, & d'aviser
pendant ce temps aux moyens de supprimer absolument
un usage aussi funeste«.
(Volume 19, pages 284-285)
Although the book has the character of pages from a diary written by Parisians, it wasn't released before 1786, and in London.
Nous avons dit que l'on déposoit dans le cimetière des Innocents, situé dans le quartier le plus habité, près de trois mille cadavres par année. On y enterroit des morts depuis Philippe le-Bel. Dix millions de cadavres au moins se sont dissous dans un étroit espace. Quel creuset! […] Oh! quelle histoire sortiroit de cette enceinte, si les morts pouvoient parler!«
(Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, 1783, volume 9, DCCLII, pages 322-323)
The number of plague epidemics is obviously hard to determine. Wikipedia has only about half that number, but then they also fail to include the epidemic of 1418, that we are about to look at.
Memoires pour servir à l'histoire de France et de Bourgogne, 1729, page 49.