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Working Magic in Byzantium: Coping with life at the intersection of medicine, science, and faith

University Club

Event Poster

Dr. Richard Greenfield will give our annual Faculty Lecture this year in the George Teves Room at the University Club. 

A reception will follow. Graduate students and faculty are encouraged to attend. Spouses and partners are welcome.

Working Magic in Byzantium: Coping with life at the intersection of medicine, science, and faith

Although the study of magic traditionally found little space in modern intellectual history, where scientific rationalism tended to exclude or ridicule the alternative constructions of reality in which it was rooted, the value in appreciating different ways of seeing the world when trying to understand historical cultures and societies is happily, nowadays, more widely recognised. In this talk I’ll be considering the often-misunderstood space that ‘magical’ approaches to problem solving occupied in the Byzantine world. Working primarily from the handbook (MS Bononiensis 3632) of a fifteenth century Byzantine physician, Dr Ioannes, I’ll illustrate how he evidently saw himself, and was seen by his clients, not just as a physician of bodily illness, but as someone who could look after people in a more holistic way, one we might describe as ‘wellness.’ Curing sickness (whether through Galenic medicine, by sympathetic principles, or on a theory involving the powers and names of spiritual beings) was one aspect of his work and interests; but another was proactively providing people with protection against disease and misfortune, through amulets and charms; and, in a world starved of information, being able to assist in decision making, problem solving, and gaining an edge over competitors, was a very important third aspect clearly thought possible through a vast array of more or less elaborate prognosticatory techniques. The content of Bononiensis 3632 illustrates a seamless flow between pluralistic approaches to coping and problem solving in the Late Byzantine thought world and, by demonstrating how this material and its underlying theories, transgresses the boundaries traditionally set up between magic, science, and religion, may have lessons for us all.

Department of History, Queen's University

49 Bader Lane, Watson Hall 212
Kingston ON K7L 3N6




Queen's University is situated on traditional Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe territory.