Bulletin of the History of Medicine 78.1 (2004) 214-216
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Jan Jacob Cobben. Duivelse Bezetenheid, beschreven door dokter Johannes Wier, 1515-1588. Rotterdam: Erasmus Publishing, 2002. 208 pp. Ill. €30.00 (paperbound, 90-5235-161-9).
In 1960, Jan Jacob Cobben (1926-98) published a well-received dissertation on Johannes Wier's ideas on witchcraft, demonic possession, and magic as expounded in his De praestigiis daemonum (Johannes Wier: Zijn opvattingen over bezetenheid, hekserij en magie, 1960, translated by S. Prins, slightly abridged, as Jan Wier, Devils, Witches and Magic, 1976). Cobben's professional career as a radiologist kept him from further medical-historical research, but after his retirement he resumed his inquiries into the life and work of Wier and was bent on publishing a translation and an analysis of many of the cases of demonic possession collected by Wier. Unfortunately, he could not complete this work, and his translations are now published posthumously. The book contains a brief memoir of the life and work of Jan Cobben, an introductory study on Wier and his De praestigiis by Hans de Waardt, Cobben's Dutch translation of Wier's case studies, and finally a few relevant sections from the 1960 dissertation.
The importance of Wier's work for medical history was already emphasized in the introduction to the first complete English translation of his book.1 Wier [End Page 214] coupled his medical knowledge and profound humanitarian interest in the lives and fates of common people with a careful empirical scrutiny of the physical and social conditions of the patients with whom he was confronted. It was this attitude, encoded in many anecdotes and case descriptions scattered throughout his highly erudite treatment of demons, witches, and the demonically possessed, that drew the attention of later historians and made them aware of the role of mental illness in cases of witchcraft and possession. Wier's empirical and psychiatric interests clearly surface in the many cases that Cobben singled out. The selected passages from Cobben's dissertation, chosen by Hans de Waardt, provide relevant background information for a better understanding of Wier's ideas; unfortunately, they cannot make up for the lack of the annotations, elucidations, and analyses that Cobben originally planned for his translation.
Hans de Waardt, a Dutch historian who in 1991 published a fine dissertation on the social context of witchcraft beliefs in Holland (Toverij en samenleving: Holland 1500-1800), was faced with the difficult task of maintaining the coherence of the book. His introductory study does not go into medical details. He provides information on Wier's biography, lays some emphasis on the indeterminacy of his nationality (German or Dutch; a point of minor interest) and on the historical reliability of his documented cases, and finally deals with what he calls Wier's world picture, which is essentially a reconstruction of his social and intellectual environment.
Wier's relationship with his sons and brothers is relevant to the translated case studies since he relied on them for information, but one brother in particular, Matthijs, is an interesting source, de Waardt believes, for his ideas. Matthijs was a "spiritualist," meaning an adherent of the belief that man by being reborn would regain Adam's prelapsarian endowments and could even achieve divine perfection. Wier's publisher Oporinus was associated with the spiritualist prophet David Joris, who contributed financially to the publication of the works of Guillaume Postel. The correspondence between Johannes and Matthijs shows that the former had at least some interest in the spiritualist movement, though it cannot be ascertained whether he actually belonged to the Family of Love, the spiritualist sect founded by Hendrik Niclaes. On the basis of these associations (to which Wier's apprenticeship under Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa can be added) De Waardt tries to make a case for a distinct spiritualist influence on Wier's work. He goes even further by suggesting that spiritualism was a motive for writing De praestigiis (cf. The Discoverie ofWitchcraft, whose author, Reginald Scot, may have belonged to an English branch of the Family of...