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Visited with great sickness

17 October 2014

William Whyte reads an account of religion and the physician

Medicine and Religion: A historical introduction
Gary B. Ferngren
John Hopkins University Press £16
Church Times Bookshop £14.40 (Use code CT131 )

IMAGINE yourself in ancient Mesopotamia, some 5000 years ago or so. You fall ill, and go to see the local āšipu: a magician and an exorcist as well as a priest, whose job it is to diagnose your ailment. By prayer and divination, he seeks to identify the demon who has possessed you, or the god who decided to send you misfortune.

This is not easy. There were at least 6000 possible evil spirits who caused disease, and sometimes the āšipu was reduced to reciting a long list of possible sins in the hope that the patient would recognise the one likely to have brought about this punishment. It was not, in other words, all that different from my last visit to the GP.

Once the cause of the illness had been identified, the āšipu might refer you to an asû - a sort of pharmacist - who would apply a poultice or suggest a suppository, or offer an encouraging incanta-tion. The average life-expectancy was, it hardly needs saying, about 40.

Gary B. Ferngren's latest book is filled with stories like this. An ambitious undertaking, it surveys the whole scope of Western medicine from the beginnings of human history until the present day. But this is not just another textbook on the development of medicine. As the Mesopotamian example suggests, Professor Ferngren is profoundly interested in the inter-relationship between religion and medicine. He shows that the different, but in many respects complimentary functions of the āšipu and the asû - the physical and the spiritual healer - can be found across time.

Indeed, it is the achievement of this book to break down any simplistic assumption that religion and medicine are naturally opposed, or that medicine has expanded its role as religion has withered away. Perhaps the most interesting section is on Ferngren's own research area, the history of the Early Church, where he shows convincingly that the first Christians happily accepted purely rationalistic explanations for illness, while also believing that suffering was a holy and ennobling experience.

True enough, this is a personal and necessarily partial account. It is stronger on antiquity than on modernity, and more interested in Christianity in general and Protestantism in particular than it is in the wider story of modern monotheism. It is explicitly informed by the author's own beliefs. But Medicine and Religion will serve as a useful introduction to anyone - which means everyone - who will experience its twin themes.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor at St John's College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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