- Illness and Healing Alternatives in Western Europe
A dozen essays selected from a 1994 conference in the Netherlands form the core of this volume focusing on healing, magic, and belief in Europe since the fifteenth century. In their introduction, the editors explain that all the contributions reveal particular “cultural repertoires” of illness and healing, a stock of deeply rooted beliefs, emotions, and tangible responses to health problems. To uncover such repertoires, historians are urged to consult a broad range of sources, including literary material, medical writings, patient records, administrative documentation, newspapers, diaries, ethnographic accounts, and oral histories. The goal of this cultural history is to examine how particular groups of people came to perceive, explain, and react to suffering and illness within particular contexts of meaning shaped by political, economic, and social factors, and expressed in distinct language, behavior, and artifacts.
A recurrent theme in the selected papers is a revision of the Weberian notion of progressive “disenchantment of the world,” a movement away from the role of magic in human action and behavior. Eschewing the application of traditional labels such as “superstitious,” “irrational,” and “unscientific” to notions of illness, the authors argue instead for more flexible boundaries and greater continuity of ideas and behaviors across time as well as political frontiers. Of interest is the inclusion of the medical marketplace as a forum not only for the presentation of knowledge claims, but for competition shaped by the demand for and supply of healing services.
Provided with such scaffolding, the various contributions range widely. Among those of particular interest is a paper by Matthew Ramsey treating elite discourse in France on magical healing and witchcraft. Ramsey examines writings since the early eighteenth century in which traditional popular culture was marginalized, with folk medicine divided into religious and empirical aspects. By the twentieth [End Page 528] century, however, the decline of witchcraft was no longer seen as a progressive development in Western civilization, and popular healers were being unduly romanticized as authentic and selfless believers.
Following three additional essays on demonology and witchcraft, a paper by Sarah Ferber reexamines the issue of Charcot’s views on hysteria and the use of historical texts by members of his school to establish a lineage for their new clinical construction. Drawing on recent literature on this subject—by now a veritable industry—Ferber sketches hysteria at the Salpêtrière as a disease subjected to natural laws, rather than a religiously interpreted demonic manifestation. Hans de Waardt, for his part, follows the careers of three “irregular” healers in eighteenth-century Holland and examines the boundaries that separated them from the established medical orthodoxy. Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra, examines five narratives of prominent physicians who became homeopathic practitioners; like other testimonials, the “rational” conversions, in her view, were part of a propaganda to demonstrate the empirical value of the new medicine. The early discourse—including Hahnemann’s rhetoric that allopaths were “unbelievers”—was predominantly couched in religious terms, including charges of “sectarianism” and “false prophets” on the other side of the divide, only to be replaced by metaphors of science as the nineteenth century wore on.
Among the rest of this book’s case studies, Cornelie Usborne’s contribution about induced abortion in Weimar Germany is a finely crafted paper depicting the competition between quacks and physicians in performing this procedure. Usborne places the process within the demographic, economic, and professional contexts prevailing during the interwar years, while also stressing issues of class, gender, and race. For his part, Enrique Perdiguero discusses alternative medicine during the past century in the city of Alicante, Spain, focusing on the actions of local curanderos and the range of ailments they were called to treat. Finally, Gillian Bennet analyzes the language and content of eighty stories (culled from both medical and popular sources) about the presumed invasion and presence of live amphibians in the gastrointestinal tract of certain patients. While this pathogenesis is perhaps considered bizarre today...