Conference Agenda

9A: Healing Miracles and Medical Expertise
Friday, 10/Sept/2021:
9:00am - 10:15am

Session Chair: Prof. Vincent Barras, Institute for the Humanities in Medicine


Healing miracles and medical expertise. The extraordinary case of the Convulsionaries of Saint-Médard in 18th-century France

Chair(s): Barras, Vincent (Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV))

We are proposing a panel consisting of three conferences, which will present the current research conducted within the major research project at the Lausanne University Hospital on the relations between medicine and religion in 18th-century France, and more specifically on medical expertise in cases of healing miracles, on medical theories on nervous diseases, and the role of the sick individual in the process of their natural and miraculous healing. Based on vast archival research, these three dimensions of the project explore collaborations, the controversies and cultural, professional and social implications of the articulation between medicine and religion in prerevolutionary France.


Presentations of the Symposium


The patient's role in healing miracles, or the pharmacological function of relics

Yampolsky, Eva
Lausanne University Hospital

Yampolsky will present her research based on extensive archival research consisting in great part of 1st-person official accounts of healing miracles. Her conference will focus on the natural and then miraculous healing process, as it is experienced and described by the miraculés themselves, and on the active role they played in this process. Even though these miracles were never validated or accepted by the Church, the documentation attests to the traditional protocols of miracle evaluation, including expertise by physicians and surgeons, as well as detailed accounts by miraculously healed individuals and other witnesses. Through an analysis of these case studies, she will show the porous and often ambiguous relationship between the medical and the religious spheres, as well as between the natural and the supernatural. More specifically, she will present the ways in which the miraculously healed individuals appropriated both medical and religious knowledge and healing techniques, namely through a “pharmacological” use of relics, as a way to participate in the healing process. Finally, she will show the relations between the medical and the religious spheres in early 18th-century France extends to the patients themselves, who incorporate not only various healing techniques, but also the language and discourse of both of these disciplines. In order to examine the role of the patient in their healing process (natural and supernatural), Yampolsky will present several case studies from the Archives of the Bibliothèque de Port-Royal (Paris), a rich source of miracle cases consisting of official manuscript documents.


Philippe Hecquet and healing miracles, between the natural and the supernatural

Margel, Serge
University of Neuchatel

The French physician Philippe Hecquet is an intermediary figure at the turn of the 18th century, in which we witness the close articulation between medicine and religion. However, the period during which he publishes his texts on the Convulsionaries, including his book entitled Le Naturalisme des convulsions [The Naturalism of Convulsions] (1733), this medico-theological stance becomes paradoxical, and especially as it relates to the question of healing miracles. He seeks to radically separate convulsions from miracles, following the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. He not only considers the “agitations” of the Convulsionaries as a nervous disease, but he also founds his naturalist explanations of convulsions on biblical and theological examples. Hecquet is close to the physician Borelli’s iatrophysical school, which combines Descartes’s mechanist vision and experimental observations. This vision allows him to interpret the body of the Convulsionaries in terms of a disordered hydraulic machine and to prove the natural origin of convulsions. This disequilibrium is produced by passions or by diseased imagination, which can in turn produce muscular movements, like convulsions, that are beyond the subject’s control. However, while refusing to see the hand of God in the convulsions, he admits, following the theological and philosophical tradition represented by the “figurism” of the theologian Etemare, the divine power of miracles.


Convulsions and nervous diseases in 18th-century medicine: a medico-religious controversy

Dolivo, Leonard
University of Lausanne

A great amount of medical writings is dedicated to convulsions during the 18th century. Physicians address this subject in various types of texts, such as academic dissertations, observations, treatises and letters. By doing so, they continue a rather ancient and well traceable tradition of writing about convulsions and modeling it as an object proper to medicine. One of the core characteristics of those archives is the omission or rejection of supernatural explanations. Theories of the nervous system, including animal spirit movements, succus nervosus propagation and the alteration of humours, provide a dominant explanatory framework for convulsions and other physiological phenomena that had often, until then, been attributed to supernatural forces. However, despite this consistent attempt to theorize and frame a phenomenon as a rational pathological entity, during the 18th century, medical expertise on involuntary bodily movements remains challenged by religious interpretations of these phenomena. Indeed, the case of the Convulsionaries of Saint-Médard reveals just how adjustable and sometimes powerless the physician’s expertise can be. Through a close analysis of several 18th-century medical writings, Léonard Dolivo will show that, in the struggle between the natural and the supernatural conceptions of convulsions, physicians position themselves as “natural” arbiters in this controversy.