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Miracle Cures

Miracle Cures: Saints, Pilgrimage, and the Healing Powers of Belief

Robert A. Scott
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Miracle Cures
    Book Description:

    Iconic images of medieval pilgrims, such as Chaucer's making their laborious way to Canterbury, conjure a distant time when faith was the only refuge of the ill and infirm, and thousands traveled great distances to pray for healing. Why, then, in an age of advanced biotechnology and medicine, do millions still go on pilgrimages? Why do journeys to important religious shrines-such as Lourdes, Compostela, Fátima, and Medjugorje-constitute a major industry? InMiracle Cures, Robert A. Scott explores these provocative questions and finds that pilgrimage continues to offer answers for many. Its benefits can range from a demonstrable improvement in health to complete recovery. Using research in biomedical and behavioral science, Scott examines accounts of miracle cures at medieval, early modern, and contemporary shrines. He inquires into the power of relics, apparitions, and the transformative nature of sacred journeying and shines new light on the roles belief, hope, and emotion can play in healing.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94620-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xxx)

    On December 14, 1421, in the English city of Salisbury, a fourteen-year-old girl named Agnes suffered a grievous injury when a hot spit pierced her torso. Bystanders managed to extract the spit, but her condition remained grave. She was all but given up for dead when her parents, along with several neighbors, prayed to Osmund, the eleventh-century bishop of Sarum (modern-day Salisbury), whose tomb was in Salisbury Cathedral. At the time, Osmund was still a saint-in-waiting; though he had been proposed for canonization in 1228, he was not officially canonized until 1457. In their prayers, the supplicants vowed to Osmund...


    • CHAPTER ONE Life in the Middle Ages
      (pp. 3-28)

      The German sociologist Max Weber once wrote: “The most elementary forms of behavior motivated by religious . . . factors are oriented to this world.”¹ He identifies one of religion’s most important functions as offering the hope of protection and relief from suffering and distress. The historian Michael Goodich identifies one of the key implications of Weber’s insight when he writes: “The supernatural tends to intercede when human mechanisms, such as the state, prove unreliable or flawed, and the brutalization of human relations demands outside intervention to achieve equity.”² These views imply that the appetite for divine protection and miracles...

    • CHAPTER TWO Saints
      (pp. 29-48)

      Yearning for divine protection and miracles, medieval people did not merely register their request with a saint and then stand by, waiting for good things to happen. Accounts of miracles always refer to some form of human activity undertaken in conjunction with requests made of saints—a prayer, an act of veneration, a confession, a pilgrimage, a presentation of gifts. These actions offered no guarantee of a miracle, but not engaging in them precluded any possibility of one.

      Actions undertaken in the hope of inducing a miracle were not improvised but highly codified by the dictates of medieval culture and...

    • CHAPTER THREE Apparitions
      (pp. 49-66)

      Although people may fervently believe in the idea of divine protection for the living, beliefs by themselves don’t suffice. Also seemingly needed is concrete, tangible evidence of a divine presence in the human midst. The impression that heaven is present in some form on earth may be created and sustained in any number of ways: with impressive tombs and ornately decorated reliquaries where music, art, and incense foster an aura of the saints’ presence; through publicizing of miracles that reportedly take place in connection with venerating saints; and as apparitions, in which figures such as Christ, the Virgin Mary, or...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Pilgrimage and Shrines
      (pp. 67-100)

      I have explained why people turned to saints in search of cures for illnesses, and how they were expected to comport themselves in appealing for relief. I now take up another aspect of practices associated with venerating saints: the custom of going on pilgrimage. This chapter explains why people chose to go on pilgrimage and what such journeys entailed.

      Pilgrimage is hardly unique to Christianity. Other scholars—including students of religion, history, archaeology, and spirituality—have written about it far more incisively that I could ever hope to do. By and large, however, they are mainly concerned with the spiritual...


    • CHAPTER FIVE Disease
      (pp. 103-120)

      Chapter 1 introduces the common forms that illness took during the Middle Ages. In this chapter I examine them in greater detail. I draw on two kinds of sources: studies that describe diseases common in this period, and reports of miracle cures that appear in registers of medieval healing shrines.

      No studies of medieval illness employ modern standards of epidemiological research. Instead, we must rely on sources that supply hints and clues, which are often murky.¹ Some of these come from the studies by medical historians cited earlier, and some from medievalists who study the epidemics that periodically swept these...

    • CHAPTER SIX The Role of Stress in Illness
      (pp. 121-127)

      I have described how stress-filled, fearful, and despairing life could be during the preindustrial era, especially for those who became ill and were shunned and isolated. Recent studies of health and illness suggest that social and emotional difficulties are among the root causes of many illnesses, and aggravating factors in others. This chapter examines four social factors directly related to the onset, course, and outcome of illnesses in contemporary populations. Research demonstrates that two of them—stress and emotions—are directly related to the onset of illness, and two others—shame and social isolation—can exacerbate existing illnesses. Because we...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Belief, Hope, and Healing
      (pp. 128-148)

      In matters of health, nothing is more fundamental to the practice of appealing to saints than hope and belief: the hope that cures for illness are possible and the abiding conviction that saints can facilitate them. Indeed, in the absence of belief—in God, in the possibility of miracles, in the existence of saints, in their special influence with God, and in their presence on earth—turning to a saint for help in curing an illness makes no sense at all. Among the faithful, it is belief that kindles the hope that they may become well.

      Belief also figures prominently...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Framing, Confessing, Self-Efficacy, and Healing
      (pp. 149-166)

      For pilgrims, the actions they engage in before leaving, en route, and at the shrine are strictly means to an end, that of receiving a cure. But several lines of recently published research point to the intriguing possibility that such actions may themselves enhance the pilgrim’s health and sense of well-being.

      Earlier I recounted the words of advice given to prospective pilgrims by Richard Alkenton, to pay one’s debts, set one’s house in order, and “array” oneself. The need to plan carefully for pilgrimage seems obvious; less obvious, perhaps, is that planning itself may enhance the pilgrim’s health. Recent research...

  8. CODA
    (pp. 167-176)

    I have explained the role I believe that social, cultural, situational, and psychological factors played in illnesses among medieval pilgrims. They suggest a narrative about how and why venerating saints and making pilgrimages to saints’ shrines might have helped people feel better and even to get better.

    Imagine a peasant living in Western Europe in the thirteenth century who suffers from, say, serious difficulty seeing. She probably calls it blindness, but it is quite likely that her loss of vision is due to some other condition, most likely a dietary deficiency impairing night vision or perhaps conjunctivitis. Both conditions are...

    (pp. 177-180)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 181-206)
    (pp. 207-226)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 227-235)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 236-236)