Conference Agenda

5A: Animal Magnetism, Hypnotism and Religion in Nineteenth Century Europe
Thursday, 09/Sept/2021:
9:00am - 10:15am

Session Chair: Prof. Heather Wolffram, University of Canterbury


Animal Magnetism, Hypnotism and Religion in 19th century Europe

Chair(s): Wolffram, Heather (University of Canterbury, New Zealand), Wils, Kaat (KU Leuven, Belgium)

19th century therapeutic uses of animal magnetism and later hypnotism interfered with religion in many ways. The bodily convulsions that were part of the treatment of physical ailments as developed by Mesmer in the late 18th century, reminded of practices of exorcism by Catholic priests. While the Catholic Church never condemned animal magnetism or hypnotism, it was nevertheless suspicious of its potential materialist character and warned against its moral dangers. When in the middle of the 19th century magnetism became intertwined with spiritualism in Protestant regions and spiritism in Catholic regions, religion entered the therapeutic field in a new way.


Presentations of the Symposium


The 19th century debate on animal magnetism viewed from Rome: the Holy Office’s decrees

Armando, David
Institute for the History of Philosophy and Science in the Modern Age, Italian National Research Council

From the end of the 1830s the Congregation of the Holy Office begun to examine the doctrines and practices of animal magnetism and hypnosis. The attitude of the Roman Inquisition towards the prodigies of mesmerist therapies and magnetic somnambulism was divided between a sharp condemnation of their materialistic interpretation, a strong but hidden suspicion of their demoniac nature, and a prudent attention to the progress of sciences. The Holy See’s concerns about animal magnetism became more and more explicit, but only in 1856 did Pius IX officially condemn its “abuses”. The Vatican records also reflect the interest - and the heated scientific and theological debate - that animal magnetism and hypnosis raised all over Europe and beyond. The Inquisition’s decrees did, indeed, respond to the demands addressed by ecclesiastic and civil authorities, thus revealing a network of correspondence between Roman theologians and clerics scattered all over the Catholic world, such as the Bruges canon Joseph Andries. But applicants to the Holy Office also include a few Catholic physicians, asking whether they were allowed to magnetize their patients in order to heal them. At the same time the Congregation itself often referred to the most recent scientific positions in order to fight animal magnetism, or to turn it against materialistic philosophy. In both cases, the disputes concerning these phenomena, which challenged both science and theology, help to highlight the shifting border between religion and medicine and their complex relationships, made up of contraposition and concurrence, but also of complementarities and reciprocal transfers.


Catholics, animal magnetism and therapeutic hypnosis in 19th century Belgium

Wils, Kaat
Research Group Cultural History since 1750, KU Leuven

During the 1830s and 1840s, a lively and in some cases spectacular culture of magnetic healing developed in Belgium. In this predominantly Catholic country, criticism against these practices did not only come in the form of allegations of unlawful practice of medicine, but also on religious grounds. Attitudes of Catholic authors were however diverse. While some undertook a moral crusade against a practice that was represented as immoral and potentially satanic, others tended to approach animal magnetism as a natural phenomenon which could be put to use in a therapeutic context. Still others, such as the cleric and aristocrat Louis De Robiano experimented with magnetism and propagated its therapeutic use. In the meantime, the public transnational correspondence on the matter with the Holy See (in which also a Belgian cleric, Joseph Andries, actively participated) was closely followed among Catholics. When in the late 1850s lay practices of magnetism became increasingly intermingled with religious spiritism and when in 1856 the pope issued an Encyclical that warned against magnetism’s potential dangers, Catholic skepticism towards its use seems to have grown. In the last quarter of the century, however, when hypnotism became popular within a more medicalized and academic setting, Catholic doctors started to embrace its practice and defended its natural character against more skeptical clerics. In so doing, they could tie in with a longstanding Catholic tradition of caring for the soul and develop a secular therapy which was not unfamiliar to the religious practice of exorcism in cases of demonic possession.


Animal magnetism, hypnosis research and religion in Hungary

Gyimesi, Júlia
Department of Personality and Clinical Psychology, the Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Hungary

Animal magnetism was known from the early 1800s in Hungary due to German and French influence. Several of the earliest proponents of animal magnetism in Hungary were physicians (such as Ferenc Szapáry, János Kováts, Mihály Lenhossék, Josa Oroszhegyi, János Gárdos, and János Mailáth) who considered animal magnetism to be an especially effective healing method in numerous diseases. Among them, the physician János Gárdos’ (1813–1893) theories on animal magnetism proved to be decisive in regard to the evolution of magnetic practices and hypnosis in Hungary. Gárdos identified magnetic phenomena as the result of as yet unknown capacities of the human psyche. The magnetic cures of Gárdos, in which he combined mesmeric techniques and his unique spiritualistic interpretation, gained great acclaim. However, contemporary representatives of early hypnosis research (especially Pál Ranschburg (1870–1945)) rejected his theory and identified it as magical-mystical and superstitious. As a result, animal magnetism was discredited within academic science, however, it subsisted in the field of spiritualism. The most important representative of spiritualistic animal magnetism was Adolf Grünhut (1826–1906). The animal magnetism represented by Grünhut had very strong Christian features. This was partly due to the impact of “evangelistic spiritism” in Hungary, a popular, religious branch of spiritualism. The influence of Grünhut became far-reaching in Hungary both in the fields of animal magnetism and popular healing techniques.