Will Pooley is a Past & Present Junior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research. He blogs at https://williamgpooley.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter @willpooley.

I’m not the first person to point out that witchcraft exerted a fascination over doctors and physicians. Historians of early-modern Europe have long argued that separating the science from the supernatural in medical writings is impossible.

But France makes a bit of an odd case. The medical fascination with witchcraft had largely dissipated in other European countries by the nineteenth century, yet in France this period saw a boom in serious medical writings about possession, sorcery, and alternative healing practices. The interest may have waned as the twentieth century progressed, but French doctors have continued to occasionally publish investigations of magical practices and epidemics of ‘demonopathy’ up until very recently.

(One of the many medical theses written about ‘superstitions’ and witchcraft. See http://gallica.bnf.fr)

(One of the many medical theses written about ‘superstitions’ and witchcraft. See http://gallica.bnf.fr)

This raises two questions:

  • why this continuing interest?
  • why should historians care?

At this stage in my research, it is easier for me to answer the second question than the first, although I do have some working hypotheses for why not only doctors, but also psychologists and veterinary professionals in France took such a pronounced interest in sorcery.

For a start, there was a lot of it.

My research uses newspaper reports to trace criminal cases involving witchcraft from the 1790s to the 1930s, and even at this early stage it is apparent that crimes related to witchcraft were prosecuted with depressing regularity across this period. In the secondary literature alone I have identified 15 cases of people who were murdered for being witches in this period. There were many more cases of attempted murder or assault which were not reported so widely in the newspapers, not to mention a multitude of prosecutions for fraud and illegal medical practice. Sometimes, men and women sued their neighbours for defaming them as witches. What all of this suggests is that witchcraft beliefs, fears, and fantasies were surprisingly widespread in France during this period.

And perhaps this is partly related to the other key explanation for why doctors and scientists took such an interest in sorcery: the tumultuous religious history of France during this period. The struggle between the Catholic Church and secularists inspired by Voltaire and the French Revolution had two contradictory effects on French culture.

On the one hand, there was an apparent hardening of boundaries, especially during periods when regime changes abruptly shifted the balance of power between the scientific establishment and the Church. The struggle over Bernadette Soubirous’ visions at Lourdes would be just the most obvious example of a case where Church and Doctor faced off over an issue of national importance and supernatural significance.

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(Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes. See: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c6/Bernadette_Soubirous_en_1861_photo_Bernadou_4.jpg)

Yet on the other hand, I think a strong case could be made for seeing this as a period when a cultural vacuum opened up. The very intensity of the public conflict between scientific secularists and defenders of the Church led to a willingness, at least among some elements, to court public opinion, to take seriously the feelings and beliefs of ordinary people such as the visionary Bernadette, or the many people who flocked to witness the miracles of Lourdes.

Many within the Church might have felt that condemning the ‘superstitions’ of the population was a slippery slope. Priests, too, read Voltaire and they were only too aware that condemning a belief in the supernatural powers of black masses and ringing church bells could seem inconsistent with the claims the Church made for the supernatural efficacy of its key rites.

And scientists also had to court public opinion. What use were immunization or pasteurization if the people could not be persuaded that they worked? Promoting professional midwifery, or psychology, or veterinary medicine partly depended on proving to a population that was predominantly rural that these new methods and theories were more than simply a way to interfere, charge higher fees, and defraud the paysans.

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(Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, ‘La paye des moissoneurs’. The rural population were not always known for their approachability… See: http://www.histoire-image.org/site/oeuvre/analyse.php?i=43)

This brings me on to my second question: why historians should care about all of this? It might be weird that French doctors were so interested in sorcery, and it is equally odd that witchcraft seems to have been so important to so many people among the general population, but why does it matter?

The answer, I argue, has to do with what a remarkable case study this odd convergence makes for ‘history from below’. I have been strongly influenced by historians such as Andy Wood, Guy Beiner, Katrina Navickas, David Hopkin, and by the Many-Headed-Monster blog symposium from last year on revisiting ‘history from below’ (see: http://bit.ly/17h9jmV).

These historians, I think, have developed incredibly subtle understandings of concepts such as ‘popular culture’, ‘social class’, and ‘resistance’. We recognize that such terms are always problematic, and we recognize how hard it can be to recover the ‘voices’ of the people history too often forgets, but we maintain that there is still value in trying (http://wp.me/p3QdQ9-2E).

And it seems to me that the point where medicine and witchcraft met in France is a particularly rich example for pursuing the kinds of complicated questions of cultural repression, resistance, and agency that the new history from below addresses. Yes, doctors and other scientific ‘experts’ attempted to impose their understandings of causality, the human body, and illness onto the general population. But ordinary people took these ideas and refashioned them to fit what was important to their lives, forcing the ‘experts’ to deal in the languages of possession and malevolence.

Far from being a simple case of ‘superstition’ swept away by reason, witchcraft and medicine in France during this period is a much more interesting story of accommodation and cultural negotiation, and one that puts working men and women into the spotlight as often as middle-class doctors and scientists.

What is more, this was not unique to medicine. As I have mentioned, the related disciplines of psychology, psychiatry, and veterinary science were also caught up in witchcraft debates. But sorcery also touched even wider domains. Victims and suspected witches related their experiences to new technologies and the ‘modern wonders’ that Bernard Rieger has studied, and addressed new theories of radiation, ions, and the laws of physics. They also argued about the law, challenging the basis for criminal and civil prosecutions, and provoking a series of legal theorists to address the problem of witchcraft in the same period.

This is why I have found that the more I study the witches and their accusers, the less drawn I am to the early-modern parallels that at first appear so obvious. Witchcraft was modern, and has a lot to tell historians about the agency and constraints of ordinary people grappling with new authorities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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