The Saints of Epilepsy
Murphy, Edward L.
Medical History, Vol.3:4 (1959)
Epilepsy, at least in its grand mal variety, presents so dramatic and, to the lay observer, so terifyinga spectacle that it is not strange that its victims readily resorted to supernatural aid for alleviation. Unlike so many other diseases it offers no external signs of its presence and the horrifying suddenness with which apparently healthy and normal people could be transformed into writhing convulsives must have gone a long way in suggesting that the syndrome resulted from visitations of God or from His temporary defeat by the powers of evil. As we know, the Greeks thought ofthe disease as a divine intervention in the life of man, although the critical voice ofHippocrates had announced that it was no more divine than any other ailment. In early Christian times, and especially in the Middle Ages,the Devil and his attendant minor fiends came to play a very important role in religious concepts.It has been well said that the people of the Middle Ages loved God but feared the Devil. They had good reasons for their fear, for had not the Malleus Maleficarum, an authoritative text- book for the professional witch-
hunter, declared there is no infirmity,not even leprosy or epilepsy,which cannot because by witches,withGod’spermission’. Certainly many saints especially famed for their prowess over the powers of darkness were also invoked for the cure of epilepsy.It is to be remembered that the Church has always taught that saints cannot by their own powers work miracles or cure disease. They act only by mediation with God, who in His wisdom may or may not approve the appeals of the faithful who have approached Him through those whose sanctity is of universal repute.Despite these clear statements of doctrine there is no doubt that in the Middle Ages superstitious practices appeared in which the aid of the saints was invoked in a manner suggesting that they had powers of working miracles and effecting cures similar to God.