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.