- Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period ed. by Yasmin Haskell
Editor Yasmin Haskell has brilliantly and coherently brought together papers that seem to me for the most part to deal with diseases of the imagination (indicated by symptoms of illness such as delusions) rather than imaginary disease (a term which appears to be applicable to what we now call hypochondria). It would have been convenient to have a clear definition of the two categories, although the book is very much worth reading anyway. The quality of the essays is remarkably high, and - unusually - uniformly so, with enormous learning and power of reasoning persistently in evidence, along with excellent and jargon-free English. I found it a real pleasure to read so much outstanding, interesting, and well-presented work.
The book does not deal with easy material, lucid though the commentators are. What is required of the reader is a willingness to think like our forbears in order to comprehend them. Their understanding of disease was itself largely imaginative, as they worked on the basis of ancient theories (those of Hippocrates and Galen) rather than evidence found through exploring bodies. For example, the poet Tasso (1544-1595) elaborately corresponded, as a patient, with famous Italian physicians, who willingly supplied professional help, but without examining him physically. Most of what early modern doctors thought happened in the body we now know to be largely fanciful, leading to the conclusion that they themselves constructed, when diagnosing others, diseases produced by their own imagination. I do not mean that the symptoms noted by patient or doctor were invariably unreal, but that the diagnosis was often wildly incorrect, by modern standards.
Basically, doctors or theologians concerned with disease believed that any illness could be imputed to one of two causes: either unsound functioning of the four humours in the body (blood, phlegm, choler, and black bile), or demonic possession. At times the two causes were held to co-exist. These two presumed sources of disease function prominently in chapter after chapter.
To give a very extreme idea of the fantasies of patients, in which doctors often also believed, I shall say something about a fascinating chapter on vampires: 'Vampires as Creatures of the Imagination', by Koen Vermeir (pp. 341-73). It appears that originally vampires were particularly strongly believed in outside most western European countries, with Russia an important source. But insane belief (showing diseased functioning of the imagination) can spread quickly, and with a remarkable logic of its own. One [End Page 249] Des Noyers wrote in 1693 that in Poland and Rusland there were 'corpses filled with blood'. To cite Vermeir: '[Des Noyers] mentions that these dead bodies eat their shrouds, but he stresses in particular that they suck blood. Local people believe that a demon leaves the corpse between noon and midnight and harasses the kin and acquaintances of the deceased person. The demon crushes them, presents them with the image of the deceased person and sucks their blood. It then carries back the blood and deposits it in the corpse for storage, often in such quantities that it flows through all the orifices of the dead body. The victims become weaker and weaker until they die, and the demon does not stop until the whole family has been wiped out. The local remedy is to behead the suspect corpse, to open its heart and let the large quantities of blood flow out. To protect themselves, the villagers collect the blood, mingle it with flour, knead the dough and make bread from it. The victims eat this bread in order to save them from such a terrible vexation' (pp. 349-50).
We can see from such a passage that belief in vampires as real creatures developed relatively late during the early modern period, which has the advantage of showing us the extreme length to which a disease of the imagination could...