Magic and medicine

Karel Dujardin - St Paul healing a cripple, 1663

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Supenatural healing

bulletSince disease was sometimes a punishment for sin, spiritual methods could sometimes produce a cure. The Church of England's authorities advised prayer and repentance for the sick.

"O most merciful God, which according to the multitude of thy mercies, doest so put away the sins of those which truly repent, that thou remembrest them no more: open thy eye of mercy upon this thy servant, who most earnestly desireth pardon and forgiveness: Renew in him, most loving father, whatsoever hath been decayed by the fraud and malice of the devil, or by his own carnal will, and frailness: preserve and continue this sick member in the unity of thy Church, consider his contrition, accept his tears, assuage his pain, as shall be seen to thee most expedient for him."

(Book of Common Prayer, Visitation of the Sick)


bulletAfter the Reformation, the Church of England rejected all forms of recourse to Saints, relics, holy water, and so on, which the Roman Catholic Church had recommended.
bulletTouching for the King's (/Queen's) Evil did survive the Reformation. This practice involved the ruling monarch curing victims of scrofula (a disfiguring disease characterized by swellings of the lymphatic glands, especially in the neck), and of similar ailments.
The king touched the victim and often also a gold coin  - usually an Angel, showing the Archangel Michael killing the dragon -  that was then worn around the victim's neck, and the person promptly recovered.

Only lawful monarchs could wield this mystical power, and the English took pride in the fact that their monarchs had done it better and for longer than the kings of France. (The French denied the truth of this and asserted the opposite).

bulletJames I frequently performed this ceremony, although in 1616 he did issue a proclamation forbidding people to come to Court for healing between the Feasts of Easter and Michaelmas (i.e. between late March and late September - the summer months when risk of plague was greatest).
bulletCharles I continued to perform the ceremony in the Banquetting House at Whitehall, but it fell out of use during the Interregnum.
bulletCharles II revived the ceremony and it was immensely popular. He touched as many as 90,000 people during his twenty-year reign.
bulletWilliam III was extremely skeptical about the whole procedure and refused to touch anyone - unlike his wife Mary, who may well have contracted the smallpox that killed her while performing the ceremony.
bulletQueen Anne was the last monarch to touch for the King's/ Queen's Evil, and the ceremony was removed from the Book of Common Prayer in the eighteenth century.



bulletThe ruling monarch was not the only person to claim innate powers of healing. The seventh son of a seventh son was also reputed to be able to heal by touch. Others also sometimes claimed special powers as healers.


The most famous seventeenth century healer of this kind was Valentine Greatrakes - an Irishman who had served under Oliver Cromwell. He cured many Irish patients of scrofula in the years after 1660, but failed in a demonstration before King Charles II in 1666.


"… such as Master Great-rake, the Irish stroker, seventh sons, and others that cure the King’s Evil, and chase away diseases and pains, with only stroking of the affected part; which (if it be not the relics of miraculous operations, or some secret virtue in the womb of the parent, which increaseth until seventh-sons be born, and decreaseth by the same degree afterwards,) proceeds only from the sanitive balsam of their healthful constitutions; virtue going out from them by spirituous effluxes unto the patient …"

(Robert Kirk, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, & Fairies)


bulletValentine Greatrakes was a wealthy gentleman, a friend of Anne Viscountess Conway and other powerful people including Henry More and Robert Boyle, but most healers were poorer and humbler.
bulletValentine Greatrakes also made no claim to magical powers - he believed his cures stemmed from natural causes.
bulletIn the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, some zealous puritans claimed various cures - particularly dispossession or exorcism - by the "prayer and fasting" methods recommended in Mark 9:29. They acted without official permission and faced immediate punishment by the Church of England's hierarchy. The most notable of them - John Darrell - was deposed from the ministry and imprisoned for a while.



Cunning men, blessers, and white witches

"What say'st thou, man? hast thou as yet conferr'd
With Margery Jourdain, the cunning witch,
With Roger Bolingbroke, the conjurer?
And will they undertake to do me good?"

(Henry VI ii, 1.2)


bulletCunning men were usually from the lower ranks of society and made money by fortune-telling, finding stolen goods, and tracing thieves. Female "white witches" sometimes provided similar services, and both sometimes healed illness.

"These good or white witches are commonly called blessers, healers, cunning wisemen or women (for there are of both sexes) but of this kind, many men."

(Bernard, Guide to grand jury men, 1629)


bulletVarious tools were used to assist in the detection of thieves.
The cunning man would place a crystal ball before the victim of theft, for example; in it, the victim would then see the features of the thief.

"…soothsayers or wizards which divine and foretell things to come and raise up evil spirits by certain superstition and conceived forms of words. And unto such questions as be demanded of them, do answer by voice, or else set before their eyes in glasses, crystal stones, or rings, the pictures or images of things sought for"

(West, Second part of Symboleography, 1601)


bullet The victim of theft might also be asked to hold a pair of shears on which a sieve was balanced. When the guilty culprit was named the sieve would shake violently. (This method was also used to discover who had bewitched someone). Both relied on tapping the victim's subconscious suspicions.
bulletCasting figures was another technique that appealed to hidden suspicions - a handful of gravel or earth was thrown down and the patterns it made used to detect the location of the stolen goods
bulletAnother method was to write the names of suspects on small pieces of paper, and drop these into water wrapped around clay balls - the name which unwrapped first was the guilty party.
bulletHealers, blessers and cunningmen often chanted rhyming prayers to help in their efforts:  The established church condemned these rhymes as "spells."
bulletThe complaints of ministers and moralists suggest that quasi-magical practitioners of all kinds were numerous. Local constables were instructed to arrest as rogues "all idle persons going about the country, either using any subtle craft, or unlawful games, or being fortune-tellers, or jugglers, or using any such crafty science.".

"If one's finger do but ache, or any part of the body be extraordinarily touched with any infirmity, straight to the witch thou runnest or sendest, and so for things lost or stolen, for which the wise man or the wise woman must be consulted with"

(Thomas, Seven sermons 1610)

Valentin de Boulogne, The Fortune Teller, 1628



Natural magic


bulletMany educated men of the late sixteenth century believed in "natural magic" - the notion that there were hidden (occult) connections between all parts of the world.
bulletSir Kenelm Digby was one of many early scientists who thought that action at a distance might be possible through these hidden forces. He accepted, for example, that the weapon-salve was a real possibility - i.e. that a wound could be cured by anointing the weapon that caused the injury.
bulletA prime example of action at a distance was the magnet (or loadstone/ lodestone). Sir William Gilbert's great work De Magnete (1600) was one of the most important early scientific works, but Gilbert believed that magnetism was an emanation from the earth's "soul."
bulletBelief in spontaneous generation was widespread - mushrooms were thought to sprout naturally from earth, worms from carrion, even rats in ships. All these were supposed to stem from the natural "generative and seminal powers" of the world.


Giovanni Stefano, Hermes Trismegistus

Many of these beliefs were founded in the Hermetic tradition, that purportedly preserved the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians (conveyed from God to man by Hermes Trismegistus) in a series of Greek astrological and alchemical texts.

In 1614, drawing on earlier scholarly work, Isaac Casaubon showed that these texts were mere forgeries. This (and the growing tendency to see all matter as inert mass subject to quantifiable laws) undermined the belief in alchemy and natural magic amongst intellectuals.


bulletBeliefs in natural magic and recourse to natural healers and cunning men survived amongst ordinary people in England well into the eighteenth century and even beyond. However, the elite increasingly dismissed all unofficial medicine and cures as mere superstition.


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