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Witchcraft, Women & the Healing Arts in the Early Modern Period: Physicians & Witchcraft

This guide is an online version of the exhibit by the same title, which was on display at Sterne Library, Fall 2018 through Spring 2019.

Supernatural Diseases & Magical Medicines

Physicians, and all kinds of healers, played an integral role in the witch trials, since proof of witchcraft often depended upon whether they could diagnosis a physical or mental ailment as either caused by natural or supernatural means. Works of the period held in the Reynolds-Finley Historical Library show that even the most scholarly and practical physicians and surgeons believed supernatural forces caused at least some of the ailments they encountered. Diseases caused by the supernatural needed supernatural healing, and certainly early modern medicine was full of magic. From the alchemical pursuit of the mythical philosopher’s stone to the pervasive belief in astrology’s influence on all aspects of life and health, Western medicine of the period was intertwined with magic. Therefore, it is not difficult to see why healers could sometimes find themselves on the accused side of the witch trials as well, especially local female practitioners, as will be further explained in the next few pages of this exhibit.

Supernatural Disease: Eye Growths

Eye Growths

Founder of ophthalmology, Georg Bartisch (1535-1607), believed that the eye growths portrayed above were caused by witchcraft. This image comes from his vividly illustrated Ophthalmodouleia (1583).​

Magical Healing: Astrology

lunar cycle

Throughout medieval and early modern times, astrology played a very important role in the healing process. The human body, plants and animals were all thought to be governed by zodiac signs and planets. For example, the lunar cycle helped decide when to bleed patients, a common therapy at the time. Depending on the moon’s position, it was considered beneficial or dangerous to bleed from certain parts of the body which corresponded with the astrological signs.


Image: Lunar cycle, from Athanasius Kircher’s Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (1646). Click to enlarge.

Astrological Seals from Paracelsus' Archidoxis Magicae

Supernatural Disease: Leprosy


The illustrated manual of Renaissance surgery by Hans von Gersdorff, Feldtbuch der Wundtartzney (1517), portrays the notion that leprosy involved the imposition of witches and demons.

Astrological Healing

Zodiac man

The “zodiac man” shows the astrological signs governing each part of the body. Diagrams of the zodiac man helped physicians determine when surgery should be performed on particular areas of the body, which plant-based medicines should be used, as well as the patient’s likelihood for recovery.


Image from: Joannes de Ketham’s Fasciculus Medicinae (1500). Click to enlarge.


Arnold of Villanova (c. 1240-1311), a learned medieval physician, allegedly cured the bladder stone of Pope Boniface VIII by using an astrological seal. A variety of astrological seals can be found within Archidoxis Magicae, a work attributed (somewhat questionably) to the Renaissance alchemist/physician, Paracelsus (1493-1541), and included in his 1658 collected works, in the Reynolds-Finley Historical Library. Click on the icons in the box to the left to see two full pages of these protective seals and insignias - the first (left triangular icon) shows seals to protect against certain ailments; the right includes seals for various astrological signs.

Mental Illness & Witchcraft

Boorde's description of demoniacs

In his Second Booke of the Breviary of Health (1598), the eclectic practitioner of physick Andrew Boorde (c. 1490-1549)​ includes a detailed account of demonic possession, the second longest section in the book. Later, in his chapter on “kindes of madnesse,” Boorde distinguishes between Demoniacs and maniacs: “for maniake persons commeth of infirmities of the body, but demoniake persons be possessed of some evill spirit…” Click on the image to read more.

In 1563, another physician, Johann Weyer (1516-1588), bravely suggested that individuals known as witches were simply sufferers of mental disorders or drug-induced hallucinations. Though his work encouraged skepticism, the witch-hunts continued for at least another 150 years.​

Magical Healing: Alchemy

Paracelsus title pageAlchemists of the early modern period pursued the mysterious philosopher’s stone purported to have the ability to turn base metals into gold, cure all disease and provide immortality. They clung to the writings of the mythical Hermes Trismegistus, who supposedly wrote the text known as the “Emerald Tablet,” which was said to contain all astrologic, alchemical and magical wisdom. In the early 1500s, Paracelsus introduced chemicals into therapeutics and infused his medical works with magical alchemy, mysticism and lore. After his death, Paracelsus continued to inspire ideological descendants through the 17th century to question medical dogma and to seek hidden alchemical wisdom.

Click on the image above to see the elaborately ornamented title page of Paracelsus' Chirurgische Bücher und Schrifften (1605). Included are woodcuts of Hermes Trismegistus (right of title block), as well as Paracelsus (top center), clutching the pommel of his sword where he reportedly carried a powder called “Azoth,” a universal remedy which he claimed had the healing properties of the philosopher’s stone.

Magical Healing: Amulets

The recipe for an amulet to protect against plague and venereal disease, written by German alchemist Oswald Croll reflects the three types of magical wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus' alchemical tradition, and it also sounds very much like a witch’s brew. Croll instructs the gathering of:

“two ounces of toads dried in the air and sun and reduced to powder, ‘the menstruum of young girls: as much as you can get, crystals of white arsenic, an ounce and a half of red arsenic, three drams of root of dittany or an equal amount of tormentil, one dram of unpierced pearls, one dram of coral, one dram each of Eastern sapphire and Eastern emerald, two scruples of Eastern saffron.’… Everything must be then reduced to a fine powder, mixed together, and added to ‘gum tragancanth’ dissolved in rose-water to make a paste. When the Sun and Moon are in Scorpio, or when the Moon is new, the paste should be fashioned around an amulet… hanging around the neck by a silk cord or in the region of the heart” (Peter Marshall, The Magic Circle of Rudolf II, pp. 130-131).


Various types of amulets circulated in apothecary shops and were promoted by physicians to ward off magical disease. Small containers of holy water, copies of the gospels, signs of the cross and crucifix, and other holy objects were worn around the neck to protect against the evils of witchcraft. Shown here are amulets from Georg Bartisch’s Ophthalmodouleia (1583).

amulets         amulets



Apothecary shops of the Renaissance carried herbs, chemicals, stones and animal products said to possess magical healing powers. Various types of pharmaceutical containers and products are shown in this woodcut from Tacuini Sanitatis (1531), by Elluchasem Elimithar. In the middle is a beaded amber (“Ambra”) necklace, an amulet thought to protect against various ailments and diseases, including the plague, and to ward off witchcraft and evil enchantments. Amber necklaces were also used as charms in love and childbirth.

Amber amulet


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