Forensic Science and French History

CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) meets French history. DNA testing is being used to examine historical evidence in new ways. A recent study brings techniques of forensic science to examine the alleged remains of French King Henri IV.


Scientists studied an exhumed head and identified it as King Henri IV’s. They then compared DNA samples from the head with those from a handkerchief, supposedly soaked in the blood of King Louis XVI at his 1793 execution. The DNA from both samples shared traits that suggest that the samples are indeed related, according to the scientists.

Le Monde reports on this story in French, while the BBC provides a report in English.

The study’s results were published in an article in Forensic Science International.

Unfortunately, I will have to wait to evaluate the article, since my university’s library only gets access to this journal with a delay of several months.  This raises once again the issue of accessibility to academic research in the internet age.  For-profit database companies are strangling academic information diffusion by charging libraries exorbitant fees for subscriptions to their databases.

The online abstract from the article reads:

“A mummified head was identified in 2010 as belonging to Henri IV, King of France. A putative blood sample from the King Louis XVI preserved into a pyrographically decorated gourd was analyzed in 2011. Both kings are in a direct male-line descent, separated by seven generations. We have retrieved the hypervariable region 1 of the mitochondrial DNA as well as a partial Y-chromosome profile from Henri IV. Five STR loci match the alleles found in Louis XVI, while another locus shows an allele that is just one mutation step apart. Taking into consideration that the partial Y-chromosome profile is extremely rare in modern human databases, we concluded that both males could be paternally related. The likelihood ratio of the two samples belonging to males separated by seven generations (as opposed to unrelated males) was estimated as 246.3, with a 95% confidence interval between 44.2 and 9729. Historically speaking, this forensic DNA data would confirm the identity of the previous Louis XVI sample, and give another positive argument for the authenticity of the head of Henri IV.”

The usefulness of the research and evidence described in this abstract is unclear. It seems that the primary interest of these researchers is to prove the authenticity of the blood sample and the mummified head. If this is the goal, the research has little historical relevance and should be funded by the object’s owners.


This entry was posted in Academic Publishing, Early Modern Europe, European History, European Wars of Religion, French History, French Revolution and Napoleon, French Wars of Religion, History of Medicine, History of Science, Noble Culture and History of Elites. Bookmark the permalink.

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