The Medical Man and the Witch During the Renaissance by Gregory Zilboorg

Note: This is the last of the previously-unpublished pieces from Dalrymple’s old BMJ column. When the column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 such pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We hope you’ve enjoyed them.

Some little time ago I was asked to appear on a television discussion programme about exorcism. The producers wanted a medical view of the matter, and persuaded me, rather reluctantly, to appear.

Not having had a television for many years, I naively supposed that a discussion programme was rather like The Brains Trust of my childhood: three or four people sitting round a table discussing a matter calmly and rationally. But we have made progress since then: an audience was plied with drink beforehand, and I was sat next to a man who had been persistently violent until an exorcist had made him vomit up a little green devil, whereupon he started to help old ladies across the road.

The camera switched to me and I was asked what I thought of that, then. I was in a completely invidious position: I had fifteen seconds in which to answer, and I was faced with the choice of either poo-pooing the man, which would have displeased the drunken audience, or appearing to endorse his story.

I thought of this wretched episode in my life as I read Gregory Zilboorg’s The Medical Man and the Witch During the Renaissance, published in 1935. Zilboorg was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who was born in Russia and took an active part in the Revolution, later thinking better of it and emigrating to the United States. He was clearly a man of distinction, a gifted linguist, fluent in several languages and writing elegant English, capable of reading mediaeval medical texts in Latin, and a learned historian: all this quite apart from his medical practice, which was extensive.

Zilboorg’s hero is Johannes Weyer (c. 1515 – 1588), a doctor who was physician to Duke Wilhelm of Jülich-Cleve-Berg. His principal work is De praestigis daemonum, a work published in 1563 in which he attempted to show that the belief in witchcraft was absurd, that confessions obtained by torture were worthless because people would say anything the torturers wanted to get them to stop the torture (how strange it is that this ever needed to be pointed out!), and that psychosis with hallucinations and delusions was an illness to be treated by physicians rather than a manifestation of diabolic possession to be punished by the Inquisition. The author rather overlooks the fact that the physicians of the time might not have been able to do much more for the sufferer than the Inquisition and indeed later medical treatment, predicated strictly on a naturalistic hypothesis, sometimes resembled a milder version of the inquisitorial torments.

History is full of ironies. On page 166, Dr Zilboorg writes of the effect of Weyer’s great book:

Instead of continuing to push his sense of sin into the overcrowded world of projections and paranoid delusions, man was now ready to shoulder the burden of it himself.

But in the 1930s and 40s, millions of people were to be killed because of political paranoia; and such paranoia has continued since then to manifest itself with disastrous effect.

Furthermore, the author mentions in a footnote that Weyer’s patron and intellectual follower, Duke Wilhelm, himself suffered a psychosis late in life and that this led to an orgy of witch-hunting in his own duchy.

Truly, the history of progress is often also the history of regression. Who would have thought that, in our age, it might be difficult to cast doubt on the process of exorcism on television? The latter is, of course, the instrument of the devil.

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