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“The Secretes of Alexis.” A Sixteenth Century Psychiater

  • Hubert J. Norman

The sceptics maintain with some show of plausibility that medical treatment—the therapeutics of mental disorder included—has made little progress with the passage of the centuries; and that what is called progress is really pretentiousness, and is more verbal than actual. Some of the new schools of dogmatists certainly give reason for criticism of this kind; they bandy high-sounding phrases one against the other, until the plain man becomes confused with the welter of verbiage. It were invidious to specify too accurately. Each one according to his predilections can annotate the context. If he favours the neologisms of that school in which the new oneiromancy and the modified confessional bulk so largely in their dealings with the mentally disordered, he will exempt them from criticism; and he who considers that treatment should pass along lines less airy and less tenuous will, for his part, look elsewhere for firm ground from which to aim his darts at the flitting shadows beloved of the practisers of psychomancy. Yet, all this granted, a look backwards suffices generally to convince us that, when ephemeral and transient notions are regarded in their proper perspective, there has been a real and valuable progression towards clarity and truth—even, in some cases it may be, attainment. If there is, therefore, such good to be derived from this process of retrospection, one may be forgiven for directing attention for a short space to former times. As we look backwards, however, we are almost dismayed at the similarities which we notice between the errors and follies of those who lived many centuries ago and those of our time. At the first glance it appears that almost do we move in a circle. The same old errors, the same old superstitions in other guises. We are almost prevailed upon to say, with La Bruyère, “En effet les hommes n'ont point changé selon le cóur et selon les passions, ils sont encore tels qu'ils étoient alors,” more than two thousand years ago. There seems to be little abatement of what were designated as the “animal passions”; and along with that there has been an accompaniment of credulity which the few master-minds have not been able to overcome. Superstition holds its ground in many civilised communities, and as to war—in a time like the present—it is needless to speak. Yet withal we are prepared to maintain that enlightenment is being brought about.

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(1) de La Bruyère, J., “Caractères,” Discours sur Theophraste.
(2) Hippocrates, , De Morbo Sacro (Sydenham Society's edition).
(3) “Apoplexia” he defines as “a sicknesse engendered of grosse humors, filling the receptories or vessels of the braine, and therefore depriveth of feeling, speech and moving.”
(4) In the Syriac Book of Medicine which dates back to the early period of the Christian Era, there are some curiously similar prescriptions against the falling sickness. Certain of these contained more than thirty ingredients, and among these are found pepper, myrrh, ginger, cinnamon, musk. Instead of the brain of a crow the Syriac physician suggests the brain of a camel; and he is not outdone by the sage Alexis in what may be described as excrementitious therapeutics. (The Syriac Book of Medicine, edited and translated by Wallis Budge, E. A., vol. ii, p. 59. London, 1913.)
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The British Journal of Psychiatry
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  • EISSN: 2514-9946
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“The Secretes of Alexis.” A Sixteenth Century Psychiater

  • Hubert J. Norman
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