Archive for June, 2010


We complain today about the time needed to separate two people, united by legal ties, who are asking to regain their liberty because of their incompatiblity.  Our ancestors had a more expeditive justice.  In former French legislation, the tribunals had no hesitation in annulling the marriage.  Not because of incompatibility – they didn’t much care about that – but for the unique fact that one of the spouses, usually the husband, refused, or was incapable of doing, his or her part in the conjugal duo.

This sort of private debate, under the eye of Justice, might appear to have been the invention of some sadistic magistrate, whose imagination needed this stimulant to move him.  However, it was the ecclesiastic tribunals, known as officialities, which introduced this practice.

Voltaire observed with great wisdom that canonists, particularly monks, usually sexually inactive, were the ones who delved the most deeply into the mysteries of love. 

“This astonishing research has only ever been done, anywhere in the world, by theologians.  It is only in the Christian religion that the tribunals have rung with these quarrels between brazen women and shameful husbands.  Jewish law allowed the husband to repudiate whichever one of his wives displeased him, without specifying the cause…  There was never any question of impotence in Jewish law.”

It would seem that “God could not permit impotence among a sacred people who had to multiply like the sands of the sea.”.

Voltaire explains how sexual things came to penetrate the theological domain.

“Marriage having been, over a period of time, raised to the dignity of sacrement, of mystery, the ecclesiastics gradually became the judges of everything which happened between husband and wife, and even of everything which didn’t happen…  Clerics pleaded, priests judged.  But what were they judging?  Things of which they must have known nothing.”

The canonical constitutions never admitted divorce.  They recognized only the nullity of the marriage for the cause of… inutility.

Saint Thomas d’Aquin, in his Somme, admits the principle, in vigour with the Romans, that the rupture of the marriage should be pronounced propter imbecillitatem mariti.  The word “imbecillity” has a material sense here, otherwise the ecclesiastical tribunals would have been very busy.  Stupid husbands are far from constituting the majority of impotent ones.

Canonical jurisprudence was not founded on Roman tradition because Justinien refused to admit feminine impotence, while Pope Gregoire III re-established the man and the woman as equals.  This pontiff judged that there were cases when the husband had the right to ask for his liberty, if the constitution of the wife’s private parts did not allow the physical act.

The following pontiffs, such as Alexander III and Luca III, confirmed this decree.  Innocent III shared the opinion of his predecessors on this subject, and pronounced the nullity of the marriage, when the impotence of the wife was duly shown.

Using these precedents, King Louis XII asked to repudiate the daughter of Louis XI, the unfortunate Jeanne de France, so as to be able to marry the widow of Charles VIII.

The case brought by Louis XII against his wife was conducted by commissionaries named by the Pope.  And the virtuous Queen Jeanne could protest as much as she wanted that the marriage had really been consummated, she had to be submitted to the shameful visit of the matrons, because her revolting husband maintained that she was deformed from birth, and that she could neither conceive nor give birth, because of her physical conformation.

Rather than submit to a degrading expertise, the princess preferred to renounce winning the case, saying that she was “pudic and ashamed”, and that she could not be “easily exposed to such a visit, whose judgement could even be misleading”.

Jeanne’s lawyers proposed replacing the matrons’ enquiry by prayers, exorcisms and other ecclesiastical remedies, designed to chase away the demon, considered responsible for the corporal incapacity alleged by the King as being the only obstacle to the consummation of the marriage.

At this time, no-one thought to ask for the meeting of a “congress”.  It was only later, around the middle of the XVIth Century, that this new procedure would be inaugurated.

To be continued.

Our ancestors did not for one moment think that an illness or a troubled imagination could be the cause of this problem.  Only the devil was capable of such a thing.

The Church, after having researched and described all connected spells, under the title De frigidis et maleficiatis, anathematised authors, agents and instigators of these detestable superstitions.  Not only the sorcerers and magicians, but also those who dared, with perverse intention,

“turn their hands out and lace their fingers one by one, when the husband presents the ring to the wife;  tie a wolf’s tail, while naming the newly-weds;  attach certain notes, certain pieces of cloth, to the clothes of the newly-weds;  touch these newly-weds with certain sticks made of a certain wood;  give them certain blows in certain parts of their bodies;  pronounce certain words while looking at them;  make certain signs with their hands, fingers, mouth, feet, etc.”.

As for the superstitions which were supposed to fix the problem, they were as numerous and as singular as those used to cause it.  The Church did not allow them either.  Here are the most common:

1 – Put two shirts on inside out on the day of the marriage;

2 – Place a ring under the feet of the husband during the ceremony;

3 – Say three times while making the sign of the cross:  Ribal, Nobal, and Zanarbi;

4 – Have said, before the marriage Mass, the Saint John Gospel extract, In principio;

5 – Rub wolf fat on the door-frame of the nuptial lodging;

6 – Pierce a barrel of white wine and make the first spray flow into the marriage ring;

7 – Urinate into the key-hole of the church where the marriage has been celebrated;

8 – Pronounce three times Yemon before sunrise;

9 – Write on a new parchment, at dawn: Aigazirtvor, etc.

Others gravely professed that the bird called green woodpecker was a sovereign remedy against the spell of lace-knotting.  It had to be eaten roasted, on an empty stomach, and with salt that had been blessed.

If you breathed in the smoke of the burning tooth of a recently dead man, you were also delivered from the charm.

The same effect was produced if you introduced mercury into an oat or wheat straw and put it under the side-table of the bed where the cursed man was to sleep.

If the man and the woman were both under the influence of the charm, the man had to urinate through the nuptial ring, which the woman had to hold during the operation.

How many seals, rings, amulets, sacks, talismans, hieroglyphes, phylacteries and particular remedies were used in the olden days, either to prevent charnel joining, at wedding times, or to protect from these devilries!

Paracelcius recommended writing, before sunrise, words which belonged to no language, on a blank parchment;  or to forge a fork, on a Sunday, from a horse-shoe found by accident and to pronounce at the same time a few cabalistic words.

Some conjuration methods were connected to ancient beliefs and had a traditional value.  For example, you were supposed to carry salt on you.  It was an ancient preservative from all corruptions.  You had to eat either a fish liver, possibly in memory of the story of Tobias, or some houseleek, a plant consecrated to Jupiter, which should, because of this, neutralise the bad wishes of less powerful spirits;  or follow to the letter Pliny’s recipe and rub the door of the nuptial chamber with wolf fat.

If the wizard had any astrological learning, he knew that, to infallibly untie the lace, he only had to prepare his talismans when the moon was “in Capricorn, favourised by the benign gaze of Venus and of Jupiter”.

With the aim of combatting the lace-knot, the people had adopted the custom of processionally carrying a broth, soup, pasty, or bride’s fricassee, which was brought to her to the sound of instruments and noisy songs, during the first night of the marriage.  This was destined to heat up the ardour of the newly-weds and stop them from sleeping, while the demon waited to play one of his tricks on them.

Such powerful remedies must work.  Some malicious jokers were only too happy to think up new ones such as this:  the newly-weds were undressed and made to lie down, completely naked, on the floor.  The husband kissed the toe of his wife’s left foot, and the wife the toe of her husband’s left foot.  Then they both made the sign of the cross with their heels, while muttering a prayer.

There were other ceremonies “dirty, ugly and impure, using the ring”, mixed with special prayers, the most famous starting with:  “Blessed lace, I untie you!”

The Church had a few other remedies at its disposition apart from prayers.  It helped the cursed by exorcisms, Masses, fasting, charity.  If they didn’t work, it resorted to excommunication.

There, where the theologians saw diabolical intervention, we recognize today the influence of imagination, suggestion and, above all, stress, as causes of impotence.

The word is of recent date, but the thing itself is very ancient.

To be continued.

One method recommended for escaping incantations which cause impotency is to recite backwards one of the verses of the Miserere psalm, and to pronounce three times the complete names of both of the newly-weds.  The first time, you form a knot on a lace.  The second time, you tighten it a bit.  The third time, you knot it completely.

You can also make three knots on a cord while saying:  Ribal, Nobal, Zanarbi, when the priest gives the nuptial benediction.

Some husbands thought that, to avoid such a disagreeable accident, putting salt in one of their pockets or in one of their shoes, when they went to their marriage, would work.  Others passed under the crucifix without bowing, at the moment of the nuptial benediction.  Urinating three times in the conjugal ring, while saying:  In nomine Patris is another method.  Or performing the husband’s act before the celebration of the marriage.

A rather more violent method was to hit the heads and the soles of the feet of the newly-weds with sticks, while they knelt under the stove.  Other husbands contented themselves with having two or three rings blessed, sometimes as many as five, all destined for the ring finger of the bride.  Or, they advised her to drop the ring when it was presented to her.  Weddings could also be performed in secret, at night, in some underground, locked chapel, so that the only people present at the nuptial benediction were people exempt of all suspicion.

The famous surgeon Ambroise Pare writes:

“There is no doubt that there are sorcerers who knot laces at the hour of weddings, to prevent the co-habitation of the newly-weds, on whom they want to nastily avenge themselves to sow discord, which is the true profession and office of the devil.”

Delrio, in his Disquisitions magiques, observes that this curse falls most frequently on men, and that, there being more witches than wizards, men feel the curse of these female magicians more than women.  We are able to cite a number of historical people who have suffered this curse – and they are in fact all men.

Peter the Cruel, King of Castille and of Leon, is prevented, by the charms of his concubine, Maria Padilla, from accomplishing his marriage with Blanche, his wife.

Ludovic Sforza prevents by spells, his nephew, Louis Galeas, Duke of Milano, from conjugal co-habitation with Duchess Isabella.

John, Count of Bohemia, is hit with impotence on his wedding night.  And the list goes on.

Bodin reports a story which took place in 1560.  The Criminal Judge of Niort, on the declaration of a new wife, who accused her neighbour of having bound her husband, had this enchantress imprisoned.  She was told that she would not be released until she had unbound those whom she had bound.

“Two days later, the prisoner sent a message to the newly-weds, telling them to sleep together.  As soon as the judge was averted that they were unbound, he released the prisoner.”

Doctor Dumont writes:  In reading one of the numerous memoires which talk about private life in the XVIIth Century, I saw that the famous Count de Guiche, being unable to honour a rendez-vous given to him by Countess d’Olonne, wrote about it in these terms to his friend M. de Vineuil:

“I do not understand such an extraordinary weakness in that part of me, through which I have, up until now, been a sort of chancellor.””

Rene de la Bigotiere, lord of Perchambault, author of the Commentaires sur la coutume de Bretagne and President of Parliamentary Enquiries in this province, says in his book, printed in Paris in 1702, that he had several times seen accusations of magic brought before his court, but had never found any basis for it,

“except that we have seen some poor people boast of having the art of preventing the consummation of marriage, so as to attract presents, and who really do prevent it by the impression which they make on the imagination of married people”.

The magistrate adds that he only punished this sort of people by publicly exposing them, with the inscription on their foreheads of public offender.

Dulaure, who wrote at the beginning of the XIXth Century, assures us that, shortly before the French Revolution, in the Department of l’Allier, there still existed a “fascinator”, named Gabriel Roux, known as Damiens.  He was a sharecropper at a place called Petit-Cros, in the canton of Chambon, in the town of Chatelet.  He was killed on 11 Fructidor Year X, by a miller who, married for three years, and not being able to have children, accused Roux of having put a spell on him.

Professor Brissaud wrote in the XXth Century that, only a few years before, phimosis was attributed to the curses of lace-knotters.  These sorcerers “who prevent a man from urinating, which they call blocking”, have always played a big role in the history of superstitions.

It goes without saying that, in a lot of cases of genital impotence, phimosis has nothing to do with it.

To be continued.

Alfred de Vigny and Michelet, each recalling the deep analysis made by the Church on the passion of love, were able to say that the romantic novel “is born from confession” (Vigny) and that Manon Lescaut is nothing more than a commentary on cases of conscience (Michelet).

Louis Ulbach, who reminds us of these two famous authors’ opinions, adds a rather singular remark:  all the Popes who have put their noses into these slightly scabrous questions, are all marked by the number 3.  They are Gregory III, Alexander III, Luca III, Innocent III, Celestin III, Honorius III.  Does this uneven number have a special virtue which makes the Popes particularly expert in resolving these sorts of problems?

This number 3 seems to have been a real obsession for the sovereigns of the Church.  According to Canon theory, the woman only has a chance of obtaining the nullity of her marriage, even if she has proven her virginity, if her husband is “useless” because of a vice of conformation or by flagrant frigidity.  Even then, it requires three years of co-habitation, after which a visit can be ordered.

Pope Honorius III ordered husbands and wives, “precipitating into such a process, to do penance”;  after which, after three years, if patience and penance had produced nothing, and if the woman was recognized intacta virgo, the marriage was declared null.

In most of these cases, it was believed that the frigidity was due to a curse.  So the Church launched its anathemae against those who used these diabolical manoeuvres.  The Councils hit them with the most severe sentences, notably the one which met at Melun in 1579.  The 1621 Rituel of Evreux also forbids this superstitious practice, and declares excommunicated ipso facto all those who do it.  The 1677 Ritual of Reims excommunicates as well “all the wizards and witches, fortune-tellers, and those who, by bindings and spells, prevent the use and consummation of marriage.”.

The magistrates are not afraid to punish “this nastiness” with capital punishment.  The Paris Parliament pronounced on it in 1582 and in 1597.  In 1718, one of the people known as “binders” or “knotters of laces” was burnt by order of the Bordeaux Parliament.

It must be remembered that clothes, in those days, were not fastened with buttons or zippers.  They were held together by metal-tipped cords – rather like today’s shoe-laces.  They were threaded into holes on either side of the opening, thereby lacing it shut.  The “binders” were accused of figuratively knotting the cord which fastened men’s breeches – a delicate way of describing the problem.

A legal expert of the time of Henri IV, Bodin, finds that such an atrocious crime cannot be too rigorously punished.  He points out that the knotters “are the cause of adulteries and debaucheries which are the result of it, for those who are bound, burning with cupidity for one another, ‘go adulterating’.”.

The same gentleman, in his Treatise on demonology, laments about the ravages and the extent of the problem:  “Of all of the most disgusting magical things, there is none so frequent everywhere, even children who make a profession of it with such impunity and licence that they don’t even hide it, and several boast about it…  ”

Boguet, still under the reign of Henri IV, writes:  “The practice is today more common than ever, as even children knot laces, a thing which merits an exemplary punishment…  ”

Pierre de Lancre, a contemporary of Boguet, tells us that the terror of this curse is so widespread at the beginning of the XVIIth Century, that most marriages are celebrated in great secret and hidden away.

According to Bodin, there are more than fifty ways to bind a man’s sexuality.  He can be bound for a day, for a year, or forever.

The most usual rite is commonly accomplished at the church, during the nuptial ceremony.  You take a lace to the wedding celebration.  When the rings are exchanged, you make a first knot in the lace.  You make a second one at the moment when the priest pronounces the essential words of the sacrement.  You make a third one when the couple is between the sheets.  The husband is bound.

Another method consists in lacing your fingers together with your hands twisted so that the palms are on the outside.  You start by the little finger of the left hand and continue slowly, until the two thumbs are joined.  Then the charm is perfect.  This rite must be accomplished in the church, at the moment when the husband presents the ring to his wife.

Abbot Thiers, the enemy of all superstition, does not go as far as casting doubt on the existence of such spells:  “It is not an imaginary and fantastic curse, it is real and effective.”.

The legal expert Fevret, invoking daily experience, adds:  “It is as easy to render a man impotent in the art of marriage by this magical art, as it is to bind the tongue and remove the use of speech, stop for a moment galloping horses, immobilise and block the wheels of a mill, charm the barrel of a hunter’s arquebus, and similar things, by spells that the sorcerers do with the help of the demon.”

To be continued.

Our ancestors, not knowing what was responsible for temporary performance failures in apparently vigorous men, attributed them to curses, or to something absorbed by them without their knowledge.  Certain women had a reputation for rendering men incapable of serving Venus, because of spells woven by them.

In Book II of Laws, Plato advises those who marry to be careful of these charms or bindings, which trouble the peace of couples, and, in Book IX, he adds that there is a kind of curse which, “thanks to certain reputation of enchantments and of what is known as binding, convince those who intend to hurt others, that they can do it in this way, and their victims, that in using these sorts of curses, they are in fact being hurt.”.

It is very difficult, he prudently adds, to know exactly what is true about this, and even if we did, it would still not be easy to convince others of it.  It is even useless to try to prove to some strongly convinced people, that they have nothing to fear from “little wax figures”, which someone may have placed at their door, or at a crossroads, or on the tomb of their ancestors.

“He who uses charms, enchantments and any other curse of this nature, to harm by such things, if he is a fortune-teller or instructed in the art of observing prodigies, may he die.

“If, having no knowledge of these arts, he is convicted of having used curses, the tribunal will decide what he must suffer in his person or in his possessions.”

Plato admitted, in certain cases, attenuating circumstances;  but the Athenians, who particularly hated sorcerers, usually condemned them to death, without even formally judging them like other citizens.

Tibullus exclaims, doubtless on leaving one of these sagae, sorceresses, fortune-tellers or abortionists, “What should I believe?  She told me that she could paralyse my love by her enchantments and by her philtres.”  And the poet is less confident than he wants to appear.  Poor Tibullus’ misadventure is worth telling.

His friend, Delia, having fallen ill, he is very upset.  It is nothing serious, to judge by the treatment he employs:  three times around the lady’s bed, he carries purifying sulphur.  After an old lady has pronounced her magical incantations, he chases away bad dreams, by offering to the gods a pious tribute of flour and salt.  Healing follows.

But the poet is badly rewarded for his care.  It is true that ingratitude is of every epoch.  The wayward Delia, scarcely back on her feet, starts to run around with anyone who takes her fancy, and Tibullus laments and curses the unfaithful lady.

He admits, “More than once, I would hold another woman in my arms, but, at the happy moment, Venus reminded me of Delia and betrayed my ardour.  Then the lady abandoned my bed, saying that I had been cursed, and, I blush to say it, told everyone of this shameful adventure.”  Tibullus believed himself to be enchanted and this autosuggestion was enough to paralyse his genital flight.

Ovid found himself in the same unfortunate position as his friend Tibullus, with his mistress Corinna.  But it is totally unusual for him, and he is careful to insist on this point, so that there is absolutely no doubt about it in our minds.  It could only have been a subtle poison to have produced in him such a change, unless he had had a spell cast on him.

Plato evokes “wax figures” but Ovid is even more explicit:  “Is it the magical virtue of a Thessalian poison which invades my members today?  Is it an enchantment or a venomous herb, which reduces me to such a sad state;  or has a witch engraved my name on red wax and stabbed fine needles into my liver?”

This seems to prove that, in Ovid’s time, “enchanters” used wax figures.  They wrapped them in cords or ribbons of different colours, then pronounced conjurations on their heads, while tightening the cords one after the other.

Ovid was evidently mistaken, and Tibullus, so worried about himself, finds reassuring and very plausible arguments for his friend.

“It isn’t an enchantment”, he tells him.  “It isn’t that evil herbs have invaded you during the night.  The real cause of your misfortune, is to have touched your mistress’ body too much, to have held her in your embrace for too long, to have been too pleased with her contact.”

The reason that Tibullus gives for Ovid’s passing frigidity appears most acceptable.  A few days or a few nights of rest would have been enough to cure him.  But it was believed, at this time, that the problem was due to having been bound or tied, and that, to conjure (or remove) the curse, it was necessary to follow certain practices.

We know a bit about these practices thanks to Apuleus, who has left us a curious description in his Metamorphoses.  “Take seven stalks of edelweiss, separated from their roots, and boil them in water at the waning moon.  Wash the patient with this water, at the beginning of the night, in front of the door to his house; and wash yourself with it too, you, the person doing this for him.  Then burn aristolochia grass, perfume the man with it, and enter with him into the house, without looking back, and he will immediately be delivered or unbound.”

This procedure is relatively easy to put into practice.  The one indicated by Petronius is more complicated.  It is a whole magical scene that he describes.

“The old woman pulls from her breast a net strewn with knotted threads, which she attaches around her neck.  Then, she takes some dust with her middle finger and mixes it with her saliva.  In spite of my repugnance, my forehead is anointed with it.  She invokes the god of gardens and orders me to spit three times, to throw little stones three times into my clothes.  They have been magically prepared by her and tinted purple.  Then her hands interrogate the sick organ.

“Faster than you can say it, it obeys the call and fills the old woman’s hands.  Then, trembling with joy, she says, “You see, you see…  but it isn’t for me that I have raised the hare.”.”

To be continued.

A Queen of Persia, seeing that a horse was being tormented, asked what was being done to it.  She was told that they wanted to castrate it.  She replied:  “Why go to all that trouble?  Give him coffee to drink.  You will arrive at the same result!”.

In 1695, a famous thesis was defended at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris.  The author proved that habitual coffee-drinking made men unable to procreate, and women to conceive.  To justify this property, attributed to coffee, of making frigid those who drink too much of it, Voltaire is cited as an example.

As we know, Voltaire used a lot of this cerebral excitant, which didn’t stop him from attaining an advanced age, but which is supposed to have considerably cooled him sexually, early in life.  This didn’t stop him from being jealous about the women he loved.  One of his biographers reports a curious conversation during which Mme du Chatelet, reminding Voltaire of his sexual insufficiency, gets him to agree to letting his friend Saint-Lambert replace him, instead of a stranger.  Voltaire accepts, and a new menage a trois is established on this day.

The same Mme du Chatelet, finding herself pregnant by Saint-Lambert, approached her husband, for a few days, to obtain at least his blessing.  “Why does she need to see her husband?” asks a mischievous wit.  “Doubtless, a pregnant lady’s craving,” answers another.

This anaphrodisiac reputation of coffee is very old.  Some authors have even called coffee potus caponum (capon liqueur).

Alcohol, which for a long time had the reputation of augmenting desire, only had this effect very fleetingly, as Fere notes:  “It diminishes resistance to perverse tendencies, which are more connected to impotence;  absence of desire soon comes.  In alcoholism, as in neurasthenia generally, sexual desire is sometimes increased for a time, but its strength is generally diminished.”

Tobacco has also been incriminated.  Doctor Le Juge of Segrais made the case against Nicot’s plant.  The tabacophobic clearly accused cigarettes of producing anaphrodisia, and he reported several facts from his medical practice in support of his claim.  In several of them, it was enough to advise the patients to stop smoking, to see their sexual desire return.  This curious property of tobacco is mentioned in a XVIth Century book whose author reports that, in America, the women abstain from using tobacco because they believe that it prevents conception and sexual desire.

Lesions of the spinal cord which directly or indirectly affect the genital centre produce this special anaesthesia, which is also observed in certain cases of lesions of the brain, notably in general progressive paralysis.  Nutrition problems can also produce it.  It can also be seen in hysteria, hypochondria, melancholy (Fere).  But it is above all in neurasthenia, or rather in neurasthenic states, that a marked diminution of sexual activity is observed.

These patients are more sensitive than others to sexual suggestion and remain inhibited.  They feel a sort of “genital fainting fit” when they are afraid of not being able to perform, either because the same thing has happened not long before, or because they are thinking too much about the act they are about to accomplish.

Tardieu has told the story of an individual who had a lot of problems arriving at the desired result, but that once, he had succeeded completely.  At the time he was in a top-floor room and had noticed a woman’s bonnet hanging to dry at a window opposite.  During the sexual act, his attention had been drawn to this bonnet, and this is what had allowed him to succeed.  Therefore, since that time, whenever he wanted to do the same thing, he took a bonnet with him and hung it up in the corner of the room.

We have seen that neurasthenia often shows its existence through sexual problems, more frequently with men than with women.  These problems consist mainly in excessive excitability, coinciding with impotence, often partial, sometimes complete, and accompanied by diverse perversions.

After this long introduction, we shall start our voyage through History next time, in the second part.

The fame of the miraculous cures procured by the virtus, that is to say the “beneficial power” of Saint Martin, owes its publicity at the time to two authors:  the poet Paulin de Perigueux in the Vth Century, then the chronicler Gregoire de Tours in the VIth Century.  At this time, the popularity of the pilgrimage is at its height.

However, all the great people from the Carolingian period still go on it.  Charlemagne, accompanied by Alcuin and by all of his family, makes the trip in the year 800.  The Martin epic song [geste] gives a very early account of the miracles occurring at Tours:  the curing of illness and infirmities of all kinds happening on the saint’s tomb.  Gradually, the pilgrimage is codified and an unchangeable ritual is born.

Because they see the virtus of Martin as something palpable, material, the faithful try to capture the mysterious fluid which still emanates from objects or places which have been in contact with the saint.  Near the tomb, the beneficial power infuses the earth of the atrium beside the basilica, the wall of the basilica, the curtains, the oil lamps and the candles which light it, the cloth which covers the tomb.

To expose oneself to the radiations emanating from the sanctuary, to rub one’s eyes with the pieces of cloth, remove fragments of stone, wood, material or drops of the oils which are used for the torches, so as to later make potions or unctions out of them, is particularly effective.  The Martin pharmacopia prefers these powders of finely ground substances mixed with water:  the dust obtained from scraping the tomb stones represents the panacea par excellence.  The bishop, himself, goes nowhere, without taking with him, as prevention, a capsula of this miraculous powder.  Once again, talismans and amulets are perfectly at home in divine proximity.

Medicine, in the sense which we give to this term today, was born only once.  And it could only happen after science had given it a model.  The XVIth Century, the pivotal period, is still marked by these paradoxes.

The great Paracelse (1493-1541) announces the principle of experimentation:  “Practice should not be based on speculative theory.”.  It will take two centuries for him to be heard.  However, this master of Western esotericism, alchemist and occultist, who says that he has made the homunculus and the elixir of longevity, is also the one who gives life to the “theory of signatures” which perfectly resumes the logic of the men of the Middle Ages.

According to this theory, each plant carries signals indicating the organs or the illnesses which it is able to heal:  the sap of chelidoine is the colour of bile, therefore it cures liver diseases;  the bulb of the autumn crocus (meadow saffron) looks like a toe deformed by gout, therefore it cures gout…

Water from Lourdes and parallel medicines are still used today.

The Inquisition is born in the XIIIth Century.  However, the Golden Age of Satan and his fiends and henchmen does not really begin until the XVth Century, with its accompanying fanatical persecutions.  There is no established distinction between black and white magic.

The Church does not always rely completely on doctors, whom it continues to watch closely, notably in the heart of the universities over which it has authority.  Arnaud de Villeneuve (1235-1311), master doctor of Montpellier, almost perishes by fire, but not because of any doubtful medical practices.  It is his theological treaties which incriminate him.  After his death, they are burnt publicly.

Christian customs strangely resemble the magical interventions of country healers.  The Church recognizes spells, because it practises exorcism ceremonies.

Rural priests, who share the peasants’ syncretic vision of the world, whose essence is amalgamation, read the Gospels over the heads of their parishioners to chase away illness.  The patient kneels in the same way before the priest and the conjurer.  Then there are the cults of saints and relics, practically animist, which are adored for themselves, instead of seeing in them, according to dogma, simple intercessors of the divine hand.

Thaumaturgic saints are smothered in prayers throughout the whole of the Middle Ages.  Pilgrimage historians estimate that 80% of the travellers who went to pray near sanctified relics, were sick people hoping to be cured.  The pilgrimage is a therapeutic institution, which produces many miracles, and brings a lot of money to the Church.  It also heals because everyone believes in it.

In the mentality of the people of the time, to be suddenly made to feel better after a rite, like the laying-on of hands or praying, seems no stranger than if it had happened after the incantation of the removal of a spell, after a blood-letting, or the taking of theriac.  The surnatural, above all Christian, ordered to deliver from divine punishment, has an obvious therapeutic place.

The saints are convoked in their multitudes for the narrative charms of healers.  We have already met Anne, Mary and Elizabeth for the pains of giving birth.  The haloed cohort is spread around in function of specialities due to circumstances of the life or death of its elected, but also in accordance with an analogical principle, because of a play on words with their names.

Saint Agatha, whose breasts were cut off, fights against the drying up of milk.  Saint Laurent, martyrised on a grill, attacks burns.  Saint Odile of Alsace, born blind, acts against eye diseases.  Saint Quentin is invoked for coughing fits [quintes de toux], Saint Cloud for nails [clous] or anthrax, Saint Meen or Saint Main [Hand] for any problems with hands.

However, it is not enough to call a saint to your bedside.  With any aggravation of the illness, the doctor, as well as the empiric, will advise going to a consecrated place.  Usually, near a fountain, a cave, at the top of a hill, near a tree, that the saint is reputed to have made to appear, or to have lived in its proximity.  A little chapel or a simple oratory welcomes the faithful.

In the immediate vicinity of these elements of Nature, which formerly served the cosmic cults of forgotten religions, the thaumaturgic powers of divine intercession are exacerbated.  The best day for praying there, is the day of the saint’s feast.  During these few hours of extraordinary collective piety, there is a multiplication of processions, parading of relics, benedictions of domestic animals, fields and visitors.

The most famous places are the most popular.  Whether devoted to Christ, to the Apostles or to the Archangels, the elite of Heaven’s armies, they must demand a certain effort from the patient to be successful.  It is at the tombs of highly venerated saints – James at Compostella, John in Rome, Michael on the mount that bears his name or in the Italian Pouilles, Christ in Palestine – that the therapeutic rituals are the oldest, the most surprising, often the most suspicious.

They repose on the principle of the “strength of contact”.  In the same way that health jewels, bones or animal teeth are supposed to protect those who wear them around their necks, touching relics has the immense power of curing illness.  The cult of Saint Martin of Tours, in the Middle Ages, gives us an eloquent example of this.

We shall look at this cult in detail in the eighth and last part of Remedies of the Middle Ages.

Everyone, from the top to the bottom of the social ladder, uses surnatural therapies at one time or another.  Bonesetters are called for Charles VI of France, to try to cure his madness.  They are unsuccessful, and are executed as sorcerers.

However, the same fate is reserved for the doctor who hasn’t done his work properly.  The doctor of Jean de Luxembourg (1296-1346), King of Bohemia, is unable to cure his sovereign’s blindness, and is sewn into a sack and thrown into the Oder.

Even in the XVIIIth Century, Louis XIV receives a village healer during his last illness.  The courtiers laugh at his appearance.  Saint-Simon recounts:  “A sort of Provencal manual labourer, very coarse, learned of the King’s extremity and came this morning to Versailles, with a remedy which he says cures gangrene.  The King was so ill and the doctors so at the end of their tether, that they consented with no difficulty.  The King was therefore given ten drops of this elixir in Alicante wine, at eleven o’clock in the morning… ”  It doesn’t work.

Louis XI

The warmest partisan of this magical medicine is definitely the rather frightening Louis XI.  He is as devout as he is superstitious, and an adept of therapeutic practices which frighten everyone.  Legend has amplified its darkness.

This King skips rather than walks.  He is hunched over, and his gaze is in turn cruel or stupid.  He usually wears a curious pointed hat with a long shade over his eyes.

At the age of fifty-five, he presents behavioural problems which are suddenly more serious:  suspicion, arbitrary measures, isolation, paranoia even, when he prefers the company of animals to that of his contemporaries, absence of auto-critique and overblown pride…

He has several strokes.  In 1480, he is unable to speak for several days.  In 1481, he has another attack.  Halfway through March 1482, he begins a pilgrimage to Saint-Claude, in the mountains of the Franche-Comte.  He wants to pray before the altar where he has been sending offerings for many years.

Then he locks himself up in Plessis-les-Tours Castle, where no person of note is henceforth allowed to enter, and devotes himself to experimenting with anything susceptible of prolonging his life.  His delirium takes sadistic forms.  He has iron cages made for his prisoners, although we don’t know if they are used.

During the last year of his life, he spends several hundreds of thousands of francs in offerings, which he distributes to favourite chapels and churches in France, but also in the whole of Europe, like Notre-Dame d’Aix-la-Chapelle or Saint Jacques de Compostella.

He adds sacred objects to the medicine, astrology and religion with which he treats himself.  He procures all of the relics and all of the remedies known in the West.

From the Pope, he borrows the caporal, the altar cloth on which Saint Peter is reputed to have chanted Mass.  From the Reims treasury, he claims the Holy Oil which is used at coronations and which, like everyone else, he thinks has preservative virtues.  Laurent the Magnificent sends him the pastoral ring of Bishop Zenobius, the patron saint of Florence, which is supposed to heal leprosy.  The King is convinced that he has caught this disease.

Suffering also from epileptic fits, he uses hematotherapy, on the advice of the doctors of the time who recommend bathing in blood for epilepsy.  The blood is from giant sea turtles which his best sea captain Georges Bissipal, known as Georges the Greek, goes to hunt, with three ships, as far away as the Cap-Vert Islands, at the edge of the then known world.

After the King’s death, it is frequently said that he also drank the blood of babies.  Was Louis XI an ogre?  It might be enough that he was depressive, hypochondriac, persecuted and, above all, seated in this state on the throne of France.

To be continued.

Most of the time, the natural medications of vegetal, animal or mineral origin, the potions that mix dozens of ingredients, even with the best astrological intentions added to them, are not sufficient for curing the patient.  If he is not cured by them, it means that the illness has other sources.  God, or the alignment of the planets, an evil being, possibly a demon, have already decided on an unhappy issue.  It becomes necessary to turn to other powers, to magico-religious practices tinted with Christian mysticism, or with an antique religion now transmitted as a superstition.

In a Limousin village, under the reign of the good king Charles VII (1422-1461), a piece of news is widely circulated.  It starts out as a banal dispute between neighbours.  For some time now, Pierrot de Merneres and his ten children have been suing Durant de la Planha and his family.  Both families are trying to prove their rights on a field of wheat, which they both claim to have sown.

One night, while the village sleeps, Pierrot de Merneres and his children, sensing that the case is turning against them, start to harvest the field.  Durant de la Planha’s people surprise them, and a fight to the death ensues.  Firstly blows and insults, then iron-tipped staffs, an axe, a spike and even a sword are drawn.  Men and women on both sides are wounded, and they all return home to patch themselves up.

It could have ended there, if they had all recovered from their wounds.  But there is a victim.  According to the minutes of the court case, Etienne de la Planha had “had his wound charmed” – it was a head wound – without using any “other remedy” – that is to say a “licit” remedy.  He was ill in bed for two weeks, then, “by his bad government or otherwise”, he died.  Because of this, the Merneres are considered to be murderers and are condemned to exile.

However, some time later, in 1444, a letter of remission allows them to return home.  Why?  Simply because, in this middle of the XVth Century, it is not acceptable for Etienne de la Planha to seek the help of the healer (or of the sorcerer) rather than that of the doctor, and it is preferable to accord a pardon to the accused.

The expression “charmed the wound” expressly refers to parallel medicine.  The word “charm” contains the double sense of its Latin origin carmen, which means both “charm” and “chant which casts a spell”, or incantation.  The best-known mediaeval magical medications are those where words are the most important.

While we possess very little reliable knowledge on other types of interventions, magical words are frequently used.  From the empiric to the healer, and probably also the sorcerer, therapists use these incantation formulae.  They are inherited from civilizations where words had a religious value, and who ritually practised sacred writing.  Runes by the Germans, ogham by the Celts.  In Northern Europe, the Finnish saga, the Kalevala, has kept a trace of the belief in the runnot of the bards, the magic power of words.

In the Middle Ages, that which seems to be senseless gabble is therefore often a lost language, copied and deformed.  To treat a man who has “swallowed a worm”, it is the custom to repeat:  “onomil, orgomil, marbumil”.  A Celtic speaker has recognized these words as perfectly understandable Ancient Irish, which mean :  “I wound the beast, I cut the beast, I kill the beast”.

Most often, the mediaeval conjurations are dressed up in new clothes.  The names of God or litanies of saints replace those of the demons of Antiquity, much too suspiciously pagan.  In the same way that the talisman has as much value as the medicine, and that the herb has just as many properties in a tea as carried around the neck, the treating person casts a spell when he delivers a medication, when he applies a remedy, to guarantee its future healing powers.

At the end of the XVth Century, Guillaume de Villiers, a specialist in veterinary medicine and the author of a treatise on hippiatry, assures us that these conjurations are “without danger for the soul and orthodox for the Catholic faith”.  He recommends the following formula, in Latin of course, which convokes all of the divine creatures:  “I adjure you, evil worms, by the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and by the angel of majesty, and by the will of all of the saints, so that you will have no power to harm your servant N… “.

In the hope that an analogy can show therapeutic virtues, “narrative charms” recount a short pious story, whose sanctified heroes have suffered, or are particularly specialized in, the sufferings of the patient.  For women in labour, submitted to the powerlessness of the matrons, the village specialists, sometimes just the neighbours, as soon as Nature refuses to do its work without danger, saints are invoked for a successful delivery:  “Anne gave birth to Mary, Mary gave birth to Jesus, and Elizabeth John the Baptist.  Child, come out, for Jesus is calling you to Baptism” is supposed to shorten pain which goes on too long.

Sometimes, the life of the saints has nothing to do with the therapeutic act.  It doesn’t matter.  It sounds good to the ear.  A doctor from Liege in the XIIIth Century, gives us this delightful:  “Saint Nazaire, Saint Thecla and Saint Aquila were sitting on the sea.  Saint Thecla says:  Let’s go.  Saint Nazaire says :  Let’s go.  Saint Aquila says:  Make this stain leave the eye of N… , whether it be white, red or black… “.

To be continued.

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