Medicine and Religion: A historical
Gary B. Ferngren
John Hopkins University Press £16
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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
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.