The somewhat dubious mission of medical history

Posted by whughes on November 10, 2010 in Guest Blog, Prof William Hughes tagged with

First of all, my apologies for being your guest blogger from 10 November and not earlier! Weirdly, I am far more confident with the old fashioned, steam-driven non windows type of computer code, and I suspect that anything I have done in the past is probably hidden in a drafts folder somewhere on my PC here in Wiltshire. Ah well.

Medical history, then. I’m currently writing a book about popular perceptions of hypnotism in the nineteenth century – it’s in two parts, the first being a reading of sources such as newspapers and journal articles, with a touch of autobiography thrown in; the second takes the literary angle, albeit with the aid of a few texts less often encountered than Trilby. Here, though, is the intriguing thing that sticks in my mind more than anything. If you read an account of Mesmer’s practice in any C20 or C21 book (anything from Owen on Charcot to more recent stuff by Forrest and Waterfield), the vision advanced of the Viennese doctor is one that configures him almost as a stage magician, all purple robes and occult sigils. Read an early nineteenth-century account, and the portrait is far less grotesque.

Now, I’m seeing this as part of an implicit medical mission to distance earlier work in curative hypnotics as far as possible from later work. The past is occult, full of Gothic mysticism, modernity is open, clinically clean. But why attack the practitioner rather than his doctrine? Surely it would be more effective to lampoon invisible and intangible fluids rather than dress poor old Mesmer up as Harry Potter? Answers on a post card, please  … seriously, though, I’d be intrigued to hear your thoughts not just about what has been done to Mesmer but also regarding any other character that has been subjected to a similar rhetorical regime.

OK, Glennis – here we go:

from 2002

It is 1784. You are in a dimly lit salon in a mansion in a prosperous section of Paris. The room is presided over by a tall, slightly overweight man dressed in a purple cloak trimmed with lace and embroidered with occult symbols. Other sigils decorate the walls and heavy velvet curtains cover the windows, allowing just the odd ray of sunlight in to strike the thickly carpeted floor, and hardly a sound penetrates from the street outside. Melodious piano music can be heard softly from another room.

and from 1834

In the midst of this strange scene entrered Mesmer, clothed in a long-flowing robe of lilac coloured silk, richly embroidered with golden flowers, and holding in his hand a long white wand. Advancing with an air of authority and magic gravity, he seemed to govern the lives and movements of the individuals in crisis.

and finally 1887

Mesmer, wearing a coat of lilac silk, walked up and down amid this palpitating crowd, together with Deslon and his associates, whom he chose for their youth and comeliness. Mesmer carried a long iron wand, with which he touched the bodies of the patients, and especially those parts which were diseased….

Personally, I think the embroidery has been done with words in the twenty-first century and not with silk in the eighteenth! What intrigues me, though, is what this says about how modernity treats the pseudosciences.


Actually, I’ve worked a bit further beyond this section now, and have found that accounts of British mesmerists are far less fancy than those of their French associates. These British mesmerists, though, are scarecely described, even in terms of dress. Is this because people are just not interested? or because the readership assumes, one way or the other, that such figures do/do not resemble flamboyant continentals?

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