Pre-Christian animism still exists in South America, Africa and Asia – and probably, in fact, on all continents – even among Christians.
For example, the slitting of the throat of a rooster and using its blood to make the protective Christian sign of the cross on the forehead of a child on his or her birthday anniversary is still practiced in some Christian homes in the Philippines.
It would not be unusual for a medieval European to ask an astrologer, for example, to discern signs that a pregnancy would be successful, especially at those levels in a society where both inheritance issues and infant mortality generated serious concern.
This particular article will focus on one woman, Eleanor Cobham, whose husband was second in line for the English Crown. She wished to discern whether her husband would ever be king, which would require the present monarch to die.
Yet for her or members of her household to announce abroad that the king would experience poor health in the following year could legally be construed as an attempt to alienate the populace from the king – that is, an act of treason.
To go further than to discern the king’s future by invoking evil spirits to bring about his death was a further crime – that of necromancy (invoking death).
The charge of necromancy was not unheard of in England. For example, at Coventry in 1324 there had been a major scandal when it was discovered that a number of rich and influential townsmen had long been consulting a professional necromancer, and paying him large sums of money to use his arts to cause the death of King Edward III and some of his nobles.
And again in 1419 Queen Joan, the second wife and widow of King Henry IV, was arrested on an accusation of necromancy but, after examination, she was not sent to trial.
And then, just over twenty years later, there was another scandal involving the accusation of necromancy in London. Even though probably in fact it was not as serious as was alleged, these series of events certainly became the most scandalous episode in England during the mid-fifteenth century.
One of the protagonists in this unfolding mid-fifteenth-century drama was Thomas Southwell, who was a priest who was also a physician. (In medieval times, the distinction between being a physician and a surgeon was considerable; a physician focused on the "bloodless" administration of herbal remedies and ailments.) Southwell had graduated in medicine from Oxford in 1423. The Church was striving to stop priests from practicising medicine of any form, but had not totally succeeded in doing so.
The first step taken by the Church had been to forbid priests from practising surgery, even if henceforth they chose to study medicine solely for the knowledge of herbal remedies.
(In earlier times when monasteries were a venue for medical assistance, some of the monks were akin to “physicians.” Noblemen with education sometimes practised surgery - especially on the field after battle. In the cities, barbers performed simple surgery.)
As a physician rather than a surgeon, Southwell probably would not have performed operations, but would have dispensed herbal medicines akin to the monastic practices.
(Continued on the next page.)