Doctors Strange: Early Modern Surgeons, Demonic Possession, and Witchcraft

8b4206c0ed5ded4e3db61f410f35b024In writing the social history of the supernatural, it’s all too easy for to create a pantheon of heroes and villains. For heroes we have educated doctors and humanists fighting fanatical magistrates, bringing modern wisdom to backward country farmers. As villains, we would have a field of straw men: Puritan preachers, ‘Witchfinder Generals’, ignorant yokels, conniving magnates, and corrupt search-women.

Yet, there were always those who didn’t believe in magic. From the 15th to 16th centuries, the Duchess of Bedford was accused of Witchcraft, and one of Jack Cade’s compatriots was executed for necromancy. Despite that, there are no mentions of magic or the supernatural in the Paston Letters – written by a family living in 15th and 16th century Norfolk.

Likewise, the papers of Reverend Oliver Heywood – a Presbyterian living and preaching in Lancashire while Matthew Hopkins was active in the South East – could reasonably be expected to contain page after page of ravings on the matter of witches. Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians had traditionally been a driving force behind persecution.

Nevertheless, Heywood’s only mention of Witchcraft is a case in 1683 where a child was believed to have been killed by ‘some kind of charm.’ Rather than witchcraft, Heywood’s judgement was, “I see no signes of witchcraft upon him, but a natural disease of runnings, swellings, and they acknowledge he was affrighted…”

If a Presbyterian minister, in a county famous for accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession, can be sceptical of witchcraft, even handedness would behove us to point out that physicians are capable of credulity.

Doctor Barrow, Mister Butler, and the Throckmorton Children

From 1589 to 1592-3, a household in Cambridgeshire – the Throckmortons – became afflicted with a strange and frightening complaint. Their daughter Jane began to fall into fits of sneezing or vacancy. Her stomach would swell, as would her other limbs, and she would begin shaking.

After a few days a neighbour, Alice Samuel, possibly a cunning woman with some knowledge of cures, was invited to the house. Immediately, young Jane began to worsen, crying out that Mother Samuel was a witch and begging for her to be removed.

Immediately, Master Throckmorton took action. Whether or not Mother Samuel was a cunning woman or healer, he engaged a Cambridge doctor named Barrow, who initially diagnosed the complaint as worms. After a course of medicine had no effect, he examined her urine to rule out her parents’ fear that she was suffering from epilepsy.

When a third attempt at diagnosis had failed, Barrow began to probe the Throckmortons on the matter of witchcraft, wondering how else a girl with such healthy urine samples could be suffering from deteriorating fits. Barrow even went so far as to farm out for a second opinion to a ‘Master Butler’, possibly an apothecary or unlicensed Chemical Physician, who also diagnosed worms.

With Butler’s diagnosis proving unsatisfactory, Barrow planted the seeds of what would follow: “he himself said that he had some experience of the malice of some witches, and he verily thought that there was some kind of sorcery and witchcraft wrought towards his child.”

This is similar to the case of Thomas Darling, the Boy of Burton, whose possession was only diagnosed after physicians had first checked his urine and suggested either worms or epilepsy, only resting on demonic possession by exhausting every other avenue of possibility.

Michel Marescot and Marthe Brossier

Marthe, the youngest daughter of a draper named Jacques, arrived in Paris in 1599 as the latest in a line of French demoniacs starting with Nicole Obry in 1566. Nicole’s success was legendary: huge crowds had assembled daily to watch her debate with the Bishop of Laon, atop a specially designed stage.

Like a number of other demoniacs, the start of Marthe’s story is a quarrel between neighbours. She claims to have been possessed after an argument with Anne Chevreau, but we hear very little of the details. There had been a number of other demoniacs making accusations of witchcraft in her home town of Romorantain, ending with various accused women being executed.

This came at a difficult time. The Edicts of Nantes had just been passed, attempting to force religious tolerance on the people of France. The chapters of Orleans and Clery had explicitly forbidden clerics from exorcising spirits… and yet Marthe spent eighteen months travelling the Loire valley, being exorcised in one town after another with huge audiences.

When finally the bishop intervened, Marthe did badly in tests. She drank a glass of holy water without effect, then recoiled from a glass of ordinary well water that she was told had been blessed. Likewise, when the bishop told her he was about to read from his book of exorcisms she began to thrash and hiss, despite his actually having read the first line of the Aenaid.

Once in Paris though, the Capuchins quickly moved to capitalise on Marthe’s arrival, exorcising her in front of huge crowds once again.

The Bishop of Paris appointed a group of theologians and physicians including Michel Marescot to examine Marthe and determine once and for all whether she was possessed. Marescot had been the King’s surgeon for four years by the events of 1599, and most definitely stood on the sceptical side of the examination.

While friendly priests were able to rouse Marthe into possessed fits fairly easily, Marescot was never convinced. In one very telling moment he placed his hand upon her neck after a lengthy and unsuccessful exorcism, preventing her from moving, at which point Marthe tried to save face by claiming that the Devil had left her. Marescot dryly remarked, “Then I have expelled the spirit.”

In his later book, A True Discourse on the Matter of Marthe Brossier of Romorantin, Pretended to be Possessed by a Devil, Marescot claimed that she failed important tests, such as showing consciousness and volition in not hurting herself or others during her fits, and not being able to understand new languages – a key trait of the demonically possessed.

He also argued that Marthe’s inability to bleed when pricked was an ordinary faculty of the human body: “when a pin is pricked directly and uprightly into a fleshy part, wherein there is no notable vein, it will make a very small and narrow hole, out of which blood doth not issue, especially if the blood be earthy and melancholic. Upon such a like argument… we have seen poor souls condemned to be burned for witches, and afterwards absolved and let go by the judges of the court.”

Edward Jordan, Mary Glover and a Failure for Reason

In any tale of epic heroism, the protagonists must suffer defeat if their victory is to have meaning. For our Legion of Extraordinary Physicians, this case could be argued to be the 1602 case of Mary Glover, the teenage daughter of a London shopkeeper.

Young Mary had long been engaged in a quarrel with middle aged Elizabeth Jackson – who came begging one Friday for some clothes she could give to her own daughter. After Mary’s parents sent her to apologise for being rude, Elizabeth had cornered the girl with a prolonged tirade of abuse.

Whether Mary’s initial illness was from emotional shock or something else cannot be known. She first became unable to swallow, then fell blind and mute. At first, as in other cases, Mary’s physician treated her for tonsillitis, then for ‘a rising of the womb’ before admitting defeat and withdrawing.

Mary’s symptoms became worse, falling into fits and convulsions. She thrashed against the bedpost so that she threatened to harm herself. By October 1602, John Crook, London’s chief legal officer, had summoned both Mary and Elizabeth to his presence, testing Mary for any giveaway signs that her possessions was pretended: however, she did not react to a woman disguised as Elizabeth, and seemed genuinely insensible to prolonged contact with fire.

Eventually, Mary would dispossess herself after a team of six local priests, including a Presbyterian named Lewis Hughes, panicked in the face of her performance. Still, the symptoms of her possession would prove sufficient divide medical opinion.

Crook had also assembled four doctors to examine her, with two being satisfied that she was not pretending her symptoms. One of the two dissenters was the Kentish doctor Edward Jorden.

Jorden had been educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and finished his medical training in Italy. He was a solid part of Queen Elizabeth’s debunking machine: even in defeat, the purpose of his book was to back up Samuel Harsnett’s anti-possession work, A Declaration of Popish Impostures.

Perhaps, though, unlike Marescot, Jorden didn’t go far enough. He disputed Mary’s possession, but never accused her of fakery. Instead, his work lists the alternative causes for the symptoms of the possessed: suffering convulsions could be a symptom of epilepsy, or ‘the Mother’ (a contemporary illness essentially the same as Hysteria). Lack of appetite could indicate uterine disease, and the cure from prayer and fasting could simply occur because such things were good for the body and calmed the mind.

Jourden and his compatriot failed to prove Jackson innocent, although the conviction did not cost her life: she was confined for a year and sentenced to be pilloried four times over the twelve months – two years later the more severe Witchcraft Act of 1604 would have seen her hang.

London and the Royal College of Physicians were torn apart: Londoners rioted and disrupted the trial. The pro-possession divine Lewis Hughes found himself imprisoned for a year after reporting his findings to Richard Bancroft, the Bishop of London.

William Harvey and the Late Lancashire Witches

In 1633, young Edmund Robinson was out looking for wild plumbs when he met two grayhounds. After he couldn’t persuade them to course after a hare, he beat them. As he thrashed at them with a stick, one transformed into ‘Dickinson’s wife’, while the other changed into a boy he’d never seen before. After offering to Edmund into silence, the woman transformed her companion into a horse, which they rode to a witches’ gathering near his home, which he escaped.

While, however, the 1612 trial of the Pendle witches had been both local and bloody, times had changed. Instead of being transported to a place of execution, the defendants were taken to London and examined above the Ship Tavern by a panel of medical experts led by William Harvey.

Like Jorden, Harvey was from Kent. Also, like Jorden, Harvey was Cambridge educated with time spent in Padua. He had been admitted into the Royal College of Physicians in 1603, the year that Jorden’s book would still have been dividing opinions on demonic possession, but unlike Jorden, he was living at a time when both the king and the courts were sympathetic with his ideas.

Harvey was also a medical pioneer. Based upon acts of vivisection that would shock the most hard-hearted modern reader, Harvey was able to understand the workings of the heart and the structure of blood flow in the human body. His work on veins and blood vessels was criticised for lacking practical application, but it was nonetheless accepted as an important work.

When Harvey examined four of the women at The Ship, his team failed to find any sign of unnatural illness. Harvey and his ‘medical jury’ issued a certificate which read:

“We have inspected the bodies of Jennet Hargreaves, Frances Dickinson and Mary Spencer, and have found nothing unnatural, nor anything like a teat or mark. There was nothing on the body of Margaret Johnson inconsistent with a well known disease.”

As to Edmund Robinson, his father and uncle briefly set him up as a witch finder. He was brought from one parish to the next, identifying local women as witches, and somehow earning enough money for his father to buy a number of cows.

We do not know what happened to the adults, but young Edmund later admitted his guilt. The trio were soon summoned to London, where Edmund admitted under interrogation that his original story had been fabricated to get him out of trouble for being late, and he was returned to his native village.


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