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.