Medieval Homeopathy: Holy Blood, Wholly Water

November 22, 2011

Ronald C. Finucane was a professor of medieval history and chairman of the Department of History at Oakland University in Rochester, Minnesota. A couple of his works may hold interest for skeptics, particularly his book Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation (originally published as Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts), which traces the way accounts of ghosts changed as society and religious beliefs changed.

In another book, Miracles and Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in Medieval England, Finucane discusses several twelfth-century pilgrimage shrines known for their healing miracles. While his primary purpose is “to find out how medieval people interacted with their spiritual heroes, the saints” and to “look at the conditions of medieval life which reinforced this faith in wonder-working saints, and made them so important to the people who lived and died so many centuries ago” (p. 14), Finucane also notes that

perhaps the information provided by medieval curative cults may appeal to those interested in modern “faith-healing” and other alternative therapies in both the West and the East. Some findings may elucidate the behaviour of pilgrims at shrines which still play an important part in the lives of many people…. (p. 14)

Indeed, a number of Fincucane’s observations would be of interest to skeptics and those convinced of the efficacy of “alternative healing.” He notes, for instance, that some of the ailments “cured” by saints’ relics may have resolved on their own or were likely of a waxing and waning nature. Even “blindness” (which was not necessarily total) can be affected by diet and therefore by growing cycles. Some cures were partial; some were temporary. Many, if not most, were non-spontaneous. That is to say, the sufferers often weren’t instantaneously cured at the shrine. Instead, sometime after they returned home, they started feeling better. He also notes that psychological factors had a great effect on the apparent cures.

Finucane also discusses something that sounds suspiciously like the medieval equivalent of homeopathy:

A widely-used healing substance was water which had absorbed the virtues of a relic, for example by washing a saint’s corpse. (p. 89)

“Take two sips of corpse-wash and call me in the morning.” Canterbury Cathedral had something even better than Essence of Dirty Cadaver: they had the blood of Thomas à Becket, England’s most famous martyr.

One of the most common agents of cure among Becket’s followers was water containing–in theory–a tincture of the blood shed at his martyrdom (constantly diluted ever since to make up supplies to sell to pilgrims). (pp. 89-90)

Note the word “sell.”

Of course, it’s not really homeopathy: there is no question of “like curing like,” but there is a sense of “water memory.” Water that had come into contact with water that had come into contact with water that had come into contact (etc.) with Becket’s blood retained the healing properties of Becket’s blood, even if no blood remained. The explanation for why the water would remain efficacious was different in the Middle Ages. Proponents of homeopathy use pseudo-science to explain why their magic water is magic. Medieval proponents of cure-by-saint didn’t have a problem with the idea that the water was miraculous: that was pretty much the point, after all. Finucane explains how it worked:

Relics…emitted a kind of holy radioactivity which bombarded everything in the area, and as early as the sixth century it was believed that objects placed next to them would absorb some of their power and become heavier. They affected oil in lamps which burned above them, cloths placed nearby, water or wine which washed them, dust which settled on them, fragments of the tomb which enclosed them, gems or rings which touched them, the entire church which surrounded them, and of course the hopeful suppliants who approached to kiss, touch, pray before and gaze upon them. (p. 26)

And, yes, grave dust mixed with water also had curative properties. Sometimes the miracle substance got diluted even further:

Metal phials or ampullae of “Becket water” or “Canterbury water” became the symbol of the archbishop…. These ampoules, often worn round the neck, could be re-used…. (p. 90)

In some cases, pilgrims brought the phials back to their parish church, where they were hung from the ceiling,

to be taken down and rushed to the dying or ill as needed. One twelfth-century rural pastor [followed this practice]. Some of them he thought less full than they ought to have been, no doubt because of evaporation, so he poured out what was left of all of them into a basin, added “ordinary” holy water from the church supply, refilled them, and then hung them up out of reach. No one would know the difference anyway. (pp. 157-158)

True enough. From the point of view of medieval believers, it probably wouldn’t matter that the priest had tampered with the water in the phials. The nature of the relic’s “holy radioactivity” was such that it didn’t matter if the blood was diluted beyond Avogadro’s number. The miraculous powers of the saint (or God working through the saint) could transcend mere physics. Not so with homeopathy. For most people, “well, it’s magic” is no longer a good enough explanation, so homeopaths have to try to come up with sciencey-sounding explanations for why scientific laws don’t apply to their magic potions. These explanations often appeal to quantum physics. “Quantum:” it’s the new “abracadabra.”

By the way, you will be pleased to know that skeptics interfered with the workings of magic even in the Middle Ages:

While Hugh of Lincoln’s corpse was being embalmed…, his biographer Adam inspected the holy intestines and claimed that they were exceptionally clean–a miracle. He querulously added that certain bystanders, who “made light of the miracle,” replied that the physical condition of the body was due as much to Hugh’s dysentery and his pious abstinence as to any miracle. (pp. 50-51)