Magic, Health and Illness

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Magic, Health and Illness

Organiser: Catherine Rider, Department of History, University of Exeter

Moderator: Lauren Kassell, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.
In many different historical periods and societies, the action of magic and/or demons has been claimed as a cause of illness, but the subject has received comparatively little attention from historians of medicine. The aim of this session is to explore ideas about the role of magic in both causing and curing illnesses. Its chronological focus is very broad so that comparisons can be made between different periods.
1. Dr Siam Bhayro, Department of Theology, University of Exeter
The use of Therapeutic Magic in Pre-Islamic Mesopotamia: Its Possible Theoretical Basis
The corpus of Aramaic incantation bowls from pre-Islamic Mesopotamia provides many excellent examples of the use of magic to counteract various illnesses that were thought to be caused by demonic activity. This raises a number of questions, and we shall attempt to answer two: Where did the scribes believe the demons come from? Why were the texts considered to be effective against them? The answer to the first question is probably found in the Jewish aetiology of demons epitomised by the traditions found in the Book of Enoch. The answer to the second question is probably to be found in the many connections between the incantation bowls and Mesopotamian legal traditions, especially in regard to the recourse to an authoritative casuistic legal document, references to legal precedents, and appeals to those whose function is to enforce the law.
2. Dr Catherine Rider, Department of History, University of Exeter
Curing Magical Illness in the Middle Ages
This paper will examine attitudes to illnesses caused by magic in medieval medical writing and miracle narratives, which are rich sources for more widespread attitudes to illness. The most common of these was sexual impotence, but a range of other illnesses could also be linked to magic, including infertility and madness; although it was also recognised that these conditions often had natural causes. At the very end of the Middle Ages and during the early modern period, magical illnesses formed the subject of a few specialist medical treatises, but the situation for most of the Middle Ages remains unexplored. This paper will focus on the cures that were suggested for these conditions in both medical writing and in miracle stories. It will examine to what extent medical writers tried to explain the effects of magic on health and will also look at how magically-caused illnesses were treated. For example, were magically caused illnesses regarded as substantially different from non-magical ones and were they seen as requiring special, magical cures, or were they dealt with in the same ways as physical illnesses?
3. Jennifer Evans, Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter
Enchanted Privities and Provokers of Lust: Sexual Health in Early Modern England
This paper will investigate the predominantly naturalistic therapeutic response of early modern medical writers to cases of magically caused infertility. For much of the early modern period medical writers and others accepted that ‘The loss of Strength and Virtue in the Members of Generation … happens by divers accidents; some whereof are natural, other are against nature, by witchcraft’. This could be achieved in several ways through the use of an enchantment or by utilising the ligature spell. Across the period there were only two recorded cases of impotence magic in England. Although this may have made discussions about magically induced sterility a purely theoretical exercise, it is apparent that medical writers encouraged their readers to accept that the only legitimate response to this form of sexual health issue was to employ a natural remedy. In particular medical writers emphasised the efficacy of provokers of lust, aphrodisiacs, in curing sterility of this nature. In some cases such as Swiss physican Theophile Bonet medical writers claimed to have cured magical impotence with the use stimulating substances, like ‘Chocolad’. The use of aphrodisiacs in this situation may have continued from the medieval period, John of Gaddesden wrote, in the Rosa Anglica (1320) that a confection made of figs, nuts, hazelnuts, almonds and ginger was good even against magic. In suggesting that early modern medicine had a particular interest in promoting these natural medicinal cures for magically caused sexual health problems, this paper raises the question of whether, in the post-reformation landscape, men and women really turned to the ritualistic treatments offered by cunning folk.

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