Science: Researchers have reconstructed Henry IV’s larynx to resurrect his voice!

“It is by no means a fantasy, we have the technological and anatomical capacity to do it”, clearly states Philippe Charlier. The famous forensic pathologist and paleopathologist is part of a multidisciplinary team of researchers that has just opened the way to what is possible. And thanks to Henry IV! This is what necessarily challenges us, in Béarn.

By publishing an article on September 23 in the journal “European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology”, the researchers formalized the success of their project. That is, to provide a morphological study…

“It is by no means a fantasy, we have the technological and anatomical capacity to do it”, clearly states Philippe Charlier. The famous forensic pathologist and paleopathologist is part of a multidisciplinary team of researchers that has just opened the way to what is possible. And thanks to Henry IV! This is what necessarily challenges us, in Béarn.

By publishing an article on September 23 in the journal “European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology”, the researchers formalized the success of their project. That is, to provide a morphological study of the larynx of Enrique IV, with a three-dimensional reconstruction.

Modeling of the larynx of Henry IV.


Modeling of the larynx of Henry IV.

“European Archives of Otorhinolaryngology”

Scientists were thus able to use the mummified head of the Vert Galant. As a reminder, embalmed and buried in Saint-Denis, his remains had been beheaded in 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution. The Béarnaise head (with its larynx) had been “saved” and had “survived” passing, over the years, from private collections to others.

No more controversy about the authenticity of the head

In December 2010, Philippe Charlier, and himself, confirmed the authentication of the head of Henry IV, found two years earlier. An event that later crowned a year of multidisciplinary research carried out by some thirty specialists.

Although having more than twenty medical-historical arguments, the paleopathologist and his discovery had subsequently been questioned on several occasions, in particular about the DNA that had not been able to be extracted at first.

But a few years later, the remains of good King Henry had spoken again. In 2014, a publication turned out to be definitively “decisive”, confirming a complete anatomical correspondence after the 3D superimposition of a death mask on the bone reliefs of the embalmed head. Argument “that it is enough in itself. Today there is no longer a shadow of a doubt, it is really the head of Henry IV. There is no longer any controversy on this subject”, Philippe Charlier confided to us on Monday.

Entire respiratory tree preserved

In short, the royal head has all the attributes to be a serious object of study. “Here, we are lucky to have his larynx fully preserved. Because the head was cut off at the level of the trachea, the first cervical vertebra. So we have this man’s entire respiratory tree, which is quite unique for an ancient body. Suddenly, the question arose of being able to make him speak again”, explains the scientist, now director of research and education at the Musée du quai Branly.

Philippe Charlier, the famous paleopathologist, is part of the research team that carried out this first.


Philippe Charlier, the famous paleopathologist, is part of the research team that carried out this first.

Jennifer Parpette

A great challenge to take on. In the past, examples are rare of those who tried. “In a number of Secrets d’Histoire, the voice of Louis XIV had been reconstructed by speech therapists. But it was more of an evocation, without anatomical parts. English colleagues had also recreated the voice, via vowels, of an Egyptian from pharaonic antiquity. But technically it wasn’t great, because you don’t know how ancient Egyptian was pronounced and there were a lot of anatomical changes due to the embalming process.”

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In the case of Enrique IV, nothing hindered the work of the ten investigators, which lasted for more than six months. “Almost nothing has changed. The tongue is a bit curled, but the larynx is absolutely intact in anatomical position, and we have the nostrils, the pharynx, the vocal cords… Just like a patient who died a few weeks or months ago”, says Philippe Charlier.

“For once, and it is extremely rare: we have the possibility of reconstitute the voice of a historical character, of making a dead person speak”, the paleopathologist enthuses. “In addition, we have the means to do realistic work, which is not the product of the imagination. We know the kind of French he spoke, how it was pronounced at the time. For the Béarnais Henri, probably rolling the R.

“Similar to a living subject”

Specifically, they are members of the ENT-cervicofacial surgery department of the Foch hospital, of the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, of the phonetics and phonology laboratory of the Sorbonne Nouvelle University, of the Lorraine laboratory in computer science and its applications from the University of Lorraine, the research and education department of the Quai Branly Museum and the Institut de France Anthropology, Archeology and Biology Foundation, which again bowed to the royal head.

For the project around the larynx, the September 23 publication, signed by Robin Baudouin, Angélique Amelot, Yves Laprié, Lise Crevier-Buchman, Shinji Maeda, Isabelle Huynh-Charlier, Stéphane Hans and Philippe Charlier, recounts the process.

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This is passed in particular through an endoscopy, by measurements collected from scanner images. The various components were identified, before being reconstituted by computer in 3D. “The 3D laryngeal model appeared morphologically similar to a live subject. The measurements were similar to but smaller than those of a modern subject”, the researchers point out.

A great first then. “But this is only the first step. We are interested in the voice now. We hope to have it in a few weeks. By the end of the year, that’s for sure”, announces Philippe Charlier. To do this, with the organ already 3D printed, the scientists are working on a physical model, passing air through the larynx and observing how it reacts. But they are also working on a computer model where the entire respiratory tree of the “patient” is recreated.

“The autopsy continues”

A certainty in any case: the head of Henry IV has not revealed all its secrets, “far from it, the autopsy continues”, smiles Philippe Charlier. “We are taking the opportunity that they haven’t buried it yet to work on it. About his state of health, always, that every time we begin to know better. It also allows us to better understand the structure of a skin from the early 17th century. And the voice now that we could present why not at the Château de Pau”, slides the doctor.

The mummified head of Henry IV is now kept in a bank vault. It is under the protection of the eldest of the Bourbons, Louis Alphonse de Bourbon, who periodically makes it available to the researchers who work on it “with the decency and respect due to it”.

Philippe Charlier soon on mission in Jerusalem

Forensic doctor specializing in funerary anthropology, Dr. Philippe Charlier is a man who shakes historical and scientific certainties. Before authenticating the head of Henry IV, the “doctor of the dead, as some call him, had already distinguished himself by studying other famous ancient remains such as those of Agnès Sorel, the favorite of Charles VII, or the presumed relics of Juana de Arc and Diane de Poitiers. With this new research, the doctor advances even further in his reading of the past. Today he is very interested in another “body”, he tells us, that of the mummy of Saint Mark in Venice. “It is probably not the body of one of the four evangelists. But without a doubt that of an important character who comes from Alexandria”, estimates the expert. But there are other remains that this research director of the Musée du Quai Branly will soon study. Soon he will fly to Jerusalem and his school Biblical, to lean “on the skeletons that come from Qumrâm, place of the Essenes who would have written the Dead Sea manuscripts. He will also work on skeletons from the Mount of Olives. Or how to find yourself on the borders of myth and history a.

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