My GP's pills having done me no good, and the common wisdom gleaned by my wife from local women pointing to the absolute necessity of seeking a 'healer,' I took my shingle-stricken self off to Mme M, who received me in a cabin at the bottom of her garden; a cabin windowless, containing wicker chairs, a carpet-covered plank bed, a desk supporting a lighted candle and an appointment book, and a stool on which I sat for half an hour or so while the lady gently stroked my painful right side -- face, neck, shoulder, arm -- descending to end at the wrist with a wringing of her hands, as though she were committing some substance to the earth.
I ought not to have let three weeks slip by before coming to her, she said; as the virus was now well established, more than one session with her would be needed, but she would certainly make me better. She does not charge; patients pay what they wish, or do not. She is not in it for the money, but is a sincere and dedicated worker. She is no quack, of that I'm convinced. If what she does is ineffectual she remains unaware of it. She exudes confidence; she believes unswervingly in her ability and in her mission of relieving pain. She boasts a loyal following in the region. Beginning by treating a nephew's third-degree burns, all traces of which vanished in two weeks, she claims, she has dealt with cases of shingles, burns, nervous ailments, over the last twenty years.
When she explained that her ability to heal had been passed on to her by her grandmother on her death bed, it flashed on me that she was a direct descendant of grandmothers and grand daughters, custodians of plant remedies and spells, passers on of secret knowledge, stretching back to the era of the witch mania; when many a harmless old woman was deemed to have entered into a pact with the devil and killed her neighbour's livestock or caused an outbreak of the King's Evil. Somehow, Mme M's progenitors had escaped; though many thousands of these poor 'sorcerers' were burned alive in towns and villages across Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
But I soon realized that this fanciful genealogy left something to be desired. When Mme M pressed and caressed a paper towel, then folded it and slipped it in an envelope which I was to put under my pillow for the night, I remembered Mesmer and the Magnetisers.
Born in 1734 in Swabia, FRANZ MESMER studied medecin in Vienna, before finding that he could cure merely by passing his hands downwards towards the feet of his patients. He formed the idea that a magnetic fluid pervaded the universe and could be used, charged by the will, as a cure-all. The laying on of hands was important; but objects -- paper, wood, glass -- could be rendered magnetic for his purpose. He set up shop in Paris and caused a furor. A royal commission of the Faculty of Medicin apppointed in 1784 and seconded by another commission of the Académie des Sciences to investigate his claims concluded that imagination accounted for any and all favourable results. It was a singular case of mind over matter; and of how 'we are fearfully and wonderfully made.'
Lack of official approval did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of Mesmer (or reduce his by then enormous income), however; his fame spread thoughout nineteenth century France, his pupils and imitators established 'Societies of Hamony' for curing diseases by means of magnetism.
It is from Mesmer that Mme M may trace her more direct descent, I suppose. Along with half a dozen other 'healers,' their cabins dotted among the charmed vineyards of South West France.
'The wonderful influence of imagination in the cure of diseases is well known,' Charles Mackay drily remarks in beginning his essay, 'The Magnetisers', in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.