Marc Bloch on Thaumaturgy
On the 6th of July 1886, French Jewish historian Marc L. B. Bloch was born in Lyon, France. Known as the cofounder of the Annales School of French social history, Bloch is considered a quintessential modernist. Born into an academic Alsacian family, he studied in Berlin and Leipzig, fought in the trenches of the Western Front for four years and became a lecturer in medieval history at Strasbourg University in 1919. This was followed by a post as professor of economic history at the University of Paris in 1936. At the age of 58, he was captured and shot by the Gestapo during the German occupation of France for his activity in the Resistance.
Incidentally, Bloch is sometimes overlooked as being one of the first researchers into the realm of historical anthropology. In Les Rois Thaumaturges or The Royal Touch (1924), he looked at the long-standing folk belief that the king could cure scrofula – a disease which caused swelling of the cervical lymph nodes associated with tuberculosis – by touch. Thaumaturgy (from the Greek words for ‘miracle’ and ‘work’) defines the alleged capability of a magician, saint, or spiritual leader, to work magic or miracles.
The kings of France and England indeed regularly practised the ritual. “In The Royal Touch, Marc Bloch (…) used the alleged royal power of healing to illustrate the struggle between Pope and Emperor for spiritual authority. The Gregorian doctrine that emperors and kings had no spiritual or healing powers, in which they were inferior to the lowest ordained priest, was resisted by the Holy Roman Emperor, but the healing power claim gradually faded out of the central European power struggle and became confined to the Capetian dynasty in France and the Plantagenet successors of the Norman invaders in England. Scrofula yielded to the authentic royal touch, cramps (epilepsy) to blessed rings.” (George R. McRobert, ‘Healing By Royal Suggestion’, review of The Royal Touch. Sacred Monarchy And Scrofula In England And France, in The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 5864, May 26, 1973).
Bloch was not interested in the extent to which the royal touch would have been effective on the patients or not. He acted as an anthropologist when he researched the reasons why people believed that their leaders had indeed magical powers, and also the ways in which these shaped relations between king and commoner. “Using his superior medical knowledge to substitute his own explanation of the phenomenon for that of the actors, Bloch dismisses the actors’ beliefs that they or others had been miraculously cured, and explains that they believed they saw miraculous healing because they were expecting to see it.” (Egil Førland, ‘Historiography without God: A Reply to Gregory’, History and Theory, Vol. 47, No. 4, Dec., 2008). The book was very influential in introducing comparative studies (in this case France and England) in combination with historical studies, spanning over a thousand years (with specific events used as illustrations).
Bloch observed that “hardly anyone nowadays would dream of invoking [supernatural causes] in the matter under discussion” yet, thatit “is obviously not good enough simply to reject the ancient interpretation [that the kings were blessed with healing powers] out of hand because it is repugnant to reason,”. Instead, he suggested, that “we must try to discover and substitute a new interpretation acceptable to reason. This is a delicate task; yet to avoid it would be a kind of intellectual cowardice.” (Bloch, The Royal Touch).
In a very interesting article, Egil Førland quotes Bloch in aid of analysis of his ideas expressed in The Royal Touch: “Discussing the evidence in light of modern medical knowledge, he concludes that the physician-princes, while not impostors, never healed anyone. “The real problem, then, will be to understand how people believed in their wonder-working power when they did not in fact heal.” Bloch dismisses the testimony of contemporary witnesses and the effectiveness of the royal touch because he applies his superior, scientifically based knowledge. Describing how the notion of miracles abounded in medieval and early modern Europe-“there were no saints who did not have their miraculous exploits; no sacred things or persons without their supernatural powers”?and pointing to the political advantages kings could get from having healing powers bestowed upon them, Bloch moves from understanding the actors he studies to explaining them: It was noticed that a much-
feared disease would sometime yield – or appear to yield – after [the kings] had laid hands, which were almost unanimously considered as sacred, upon it. They could scarcely avoid seeing it in terms of cause and effect and concluding that the looked-for miracle had indeed occurred. What created faith in the miracle was the idea that there was bound to be a miracle. And this was what kept the belief alive, as well as the accumulating witness of the generations down the ages, all those whose testimony, apparently based upon experience, seemed impossible to doubt. As for the probably fairly numerous cases where the disease resisted the touch of the august hands, they were soon forgotten. Such is the happy optimism of believing souls.” (Egil Førland).
Feature Image: Mary I “healing” scrofula by touch. A 16th-century illustration by the Queen’s miniaturist Levina Teerlinc from Queen Mary’s manual for blessing cramp rings and touching for Evil. (Wiki)