Le thermalisme: Approches historiques et archéologiques d'un phénomène culturel et médical ed. by John Scheid, Marilyn Nicoud, Didier Boisseuil, and Joel Coste (review)
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Reviewed by
John Scheid, Marilyn Nicoud, Didier Boisseuil, and Joel Coste, eds. Le thermalisme: Approches historiques et archéologiques d'un phénomène culturel et médical. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2015. 302 pp. Ill. €35.00 (978-2-271-08651-8).

While most books devoted to the history of thermalism and spas focus on the two or three past centuries, considered the apogea of the phenomenon, this book examines antiquity, the Middle Ages, and early modern history, highlighting the old and complex uses of mineral water.

Looking at the impressive bibliography in the footnotes, readers will discover how rich a scientific literature exists on spas in ancient times. Mixing archeological, statistical, and classical approaches; using medical, literary, and administrative sources; and including appendices and large quotations in original idiom (most in Latin and Italian, not always translated), the book is a model of erudition.

Nevertheless, it is not a collection of disparate papers, but a real collective book built according to a guideline (it deals only with mineral water) and a main problematic (the relationship among medicine—and medical men—and thermalism). [End Page 440] However, it doesn't neglect the social and cultural aspects of thermalism and encompasses the political and economical implications of the phenomenon.

The relationship between medicine and thermalism was always complicated. Evelyne Samama and Philippe Mudry's papers demonstrate that, with the exception of the methodic medical school and the empirics, famous physicians like Celsius and Galen ignored thermalism. More generally, physicians of the Hippocratic tradition distrusted mineral waters and prescribed only baths of natural waters.

Although it isn't known exactly when the medical interest for mineral waters was born, it is clear that an increasing number of physicians had been deeply invested in the water question since the fourteenth century. Nevertheless, medical knowledge about waters was not the strongest branch of medical science. As Carole Carribon tells us, the famous Pancoucke's medical dictionary, published at the beginning of the nineteenth century, concluded that the origins of mineral waters were a total mystery. Joël Coste demonstrates how weak the theoretical argumentation of physicians prescribing mineral waters was and how poor their descriptions of waters were throughout the early modern period. In fact, their medical vocabulary was not quite different from the lay descriptions discussed in the papers of Maria Conforti and Jean-Marc Mandosio. Using a statistical study of two thousand consultations written by French physicians from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, Coste shows how widely spread prescriptions of water was among physicians (accounting for 54% of the non-drug prescriptions). However, Montpellier's physicians were more convinced by the benefits of water than their Parisian colleagues, and differences between individuals were very large.

Despite the scientific uncertainty of their knowledge, physicians laid claim to supervise the use of waters. Marilyn Nicoud and Didier Boisseuil describe the plentiful medical advice given concerning the right number of baths, the quantity of glasses that could be consumed, the ideal duration of the stay at spas, and so on. When Nicoud, using the concept of medicalization, suggests that the physicians could have taken supervision of the thermal practices, Boisseuil notes that physicians were often at the service of public authorities or rich visitors and suggests that medicalization could have been the result of pressure coming from below.

Indeed, thermalism was far from only a medical invention. It was also a lay practice that grew apart from medical and religious influences. However, thermal uses were not so old as humanity. John Scheid demonstrates that the worship of springs by the Celts is a myth invented by Romantics and developed by famous thinkers like Camille Jullian and Mircea Eliade. Samama indicates that the use of hot springs did not appear before the third or second centuries BC. Philippe Mudry notes that at the apogea of Rome, thermalism was praised by writers like Pline and Sénèque. Scheid and Henri Broise tell us that all over antiquity, even when the Roman hydropathic establishments were located in the neighbourhood of temples, water was not considered holy, but natural, and its quality was guaranteed by the gods.

If some allusions seem to imply that the frequentation...