This story was written by Shawn Ryan and published on the UTC News blog on Feb. 1.
Dr. Kira Robison, shown in her Brock Hall office, is an associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Photo by Angela Foster.
In the Middle Ages, some physicians used what are known as medico-magical methods that included charms to heal or ward off illnesses, healing incantations and religious prayers.
Palm and face reading also were tools used by physicians in the Middle Ages, “a way for physicians to understand on the outside of the body what is happening on the inside of the body,” said Dr. Kira Robison, associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Robison isn’t a hardcore proponent for blending medicine and magic, but she said she is fascinated by it.
In her first book, “Healers in the Making: Students, Physicians, and Medical Education in Medieval Bologna (1250-1550),” published in 2020, she wrote about the teaching of medicine and science through the writings of physicians Girolamo Manfredi (1430-1493) and Alessandro Achilli (1463-1512), both of whom taught medicine and philosophy at the University of Bologna in Italy and wrote extensively on the subjects. She also studied the writings of their student, Jacopo Berengario da Carpi (1460-1530), who taught surgery and anatomy.
In fall 2022, Robison used professional development time to leave the classroom and begin work on her second book, which focuses on peripheral medicinal practices also found in medieval medical philosophy.
Focusing on the 13th through 15th centuries, she found that, even as the scientific understanding of human anatomy and its relationship to illness moved forward, some physicians still used such methods as face- and palm-reading to treat sickness.
“For those who were trained in the practice through proper philosophical and medical courses, they were of potential use,” Robison said. “Earlier medical texts suggested these practices or other magic—such as healing amulets—might be a last resort for patients.”
These were tangential to the usual methods of physical examination, observation and analysis promoted by such ancient Greek philosophers as Aristotle.
His and others’ philosophy was based on the belief that the human body is a smaller representation of the larger universe, that each is made of multiple parts working in harmony and if one of those parts isn’t functioning properly, neither is the whole.
Reading palms or faces generally wasn’t used to predict the future health of the patient, but the practices are said by some to have value in assessing a person’s health in certain instances.
“A number of physicians and philosophers actually say that it is useful,” Robison said. “We can understand things that you wouldn’t normally see in a face-to-face doctor’s appointment where they ask you questions about your health.”
Most doctors using medico-magic techniques combined them with scientific diagnosis, Robison said.
“A physician who knows how to use face and palm reading also can look at you, can watch you walk, can watch the movement of your face, your complexion and all of that and understand more of what is going on inside you than what you tell them. Anything that causes noticeable differences.”
Palm reading in medicine involved looking at the color and texture of the skin in conjunction with other observation to diagnose physical problems such as restricted blood flow and kidney disease.
Still, prediction through palm reading wasn’t out of the equation. For some physicians, the line of the liver, which runs north to south along the outside edge of the right palm and also is known as the health line or Mercury line, was believed to reveal potential problems in the organ in the future.
“You could look at the line of the liver; see if there are breaks. Does it fork? Is it short? Is it long?” she explained.
Through those observations, physicians thought they might be able to predict potential problems with the liver or diseases associated with the liver, Robison said.
Face reading could detect obvious medical issues such as the yellow tint of jaundice, the bright red of rosacea and the scaliness of eczema, she explained.
Robison said she uses her research findings in many of the courses she teaches, especially her “Magic and Medicine,” a special topics class.
Students were instructed to demonstrate a medico-magic technique used in the Middle Ages. Some did face reading using photos of famous people such as Queen Elizabeth II. Some demonstrated anatomy by dissecting a watermelon. One student placed a curse on her across-the-hall neighbors who partied too much.
At the end of the course, Robison was subjected to an inquisitorial tribunal and found guilty as a heretic based on the readings in the class.
Being labeled a heretic was one of the punishments leveled by the Catholic Church for those who practiced palm and face reading and other medico-magical tools, she said.
“The religious-minded said, ‘You should be careful because this is either bad magic influenced by demons or spirits and, if it’s not that, then you’re trying to predict the future, and only God can know that because he’s all-knowing, all-seeing. So don’t be doing that.’”