Michel Foucault, ‘Médecins, Juges et Sorciers au XVIIe Siècle’ – some thoughts on dating and content

There is a curious text by Foucault, initially published as «Médecins, juges et sorciers au XVIIe siècle», Médecine de France, n°200, 1er trimestre 1969, pp.121-128; reprinted in Dits et écrits, text number 62 (Vol I, pp. 753-67 of the original edition); and available online here. As far as I am aware there is no published English translation – it’s not listed in Richard Lynch’s bibliography. Its title would be ‘Doctors, Judges and Witches in the 17th Century”. It doesn’t appear to be cited very often and I can’t remember any substantive discussions of it anywhere, but I’d be happy to be corrected.

The date is striking. It is closer to the work of the History of Madness and, in parts, to The Birth of the Clinic, than any other work of the 1960s, though it comes out several years later. It shares some interests with work of the early 1970s, particularly the likely content of Théories et institutions pénales and other lectures from that time (such as this one), but also as far forward as The Abnormals. It is of course conceivable that Foucault wrote it much earlier than its publication. There are no indications in Dits et écrits that it came from a lecture delivered somewhere – you could imagine Foucault being asked to speak about madness and medicine, rather than the topic of The Archaeology of Knowledge (which came out in March 1969), and finding this a new way to connect these questions. Or it may simply have been an occasional piece.

The material on possession is quite close to the discussion of this in The Abnormals, but – in one of the very few pieces I know which discusses this text – Colin Gordon suggests it might have been something more. It comes in his response to a number of pieces engaging with his article “Histoire de la folie: An Unknown Book by Michel Foucault“, published in 1990 in History of the Human Sciences (requires subscription).

On the question of the medical status accorded to religious possession, a topic whose neglect here Midelfort deplores, one should consult Foucault’s articles ‘Les deviations religieuses et le savoir medical” (Foucault 1968) and ‘Médecins, juges et sorciers en XVIIe siècles’ (Foucault, 1969). These pieces provide at least a fragment of the separate discussion of this issue which Foucault had promised in Histoire de la folie (1972: 39).

Colin Gordon, “History, madness and other errors: a response”, p. 389.

The first of these pieces appears as “Religious Deviations and Medical Knowledge” in the Religion and Culture collection edited by Jeremy Carrette, although the discussion that follows the lecture is not translated. The French original appeared in a book edited by Jacques le Goff, a medievalist and associate of the Annales school – Hérésies et sociétés dans l’Europe pré-industrielle, 11e-18e siècles (Mouton & Co, 1968). But, that book came from a Colloque de Royaumont of the Ecole pratique des hautes études, held between 27 and 30 May 1962 – a date which locates Foucault’s piece squarely between History of Madness and The Birth of the Clinic. In the ‘Note Liminaire’ Le Goff apologies for the delay in publication, and notes that some important scholarship has been produced in the interim, but thinks the analyses in the volume are still worthwhile. One of the reasons, he suggests, is that the texts are not independent of each other, but part of a communal reflection on the topic (p. 1). He notes that not everyone in the volume was present at Royaumont, but that some texts were read (p. 2). It appears Foucault was there because of the transcript of the discussion that followed his lecture, although he doesn’t seem to have contributed to discussion of other papers.

Foucault’s work of the mid-late 1960s is sometimes seen as comprising two main strands – the ‘archaeological’ work that led to The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge; and one that is somewhat neglected today, the literary work on the likes of Roussel, Flaubert, de Sade, Bataille, Klossowski, Breton, Robbe-Grillet, Verne, Blanchot etc – published in journals like Tel Quel and Critique. Some of that work blurs with what might be thought of as another element – the work on theorists like Deleuze (1970) and, partly with Deleuze, on Nietzsche (1967 and 1969-1971; see my note here). The book on Magritte and the abortive one on Manet come from this time period as well. But there is another strand of work, which is the continuation of work on questions of madness and medicine, and which partly anticipates later work on sexuality. The two works mentioned here appear to bookend that work – ‘Médecins, Juges Et Sorciers’ can then be seen as part of a sequence of papers that would include ‘L’eau et la folie’ (1963), ‘Madness, the Absence of Work’ (1964; and included as an appendix to the 1972 re-edition of Histoire de la folie, and so in History of Madness), and ‘Message ou bruit’ (1966). But even given that, its publication date seems late.

Here’s the text of the note Gordon cites promising a future work.

A later study will show how experience of the demonic and its waning between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries should not be understood as a victory of humanitarian or medical theory over the old, wild [sauvage] universe of superstition, but as a taking up again [reprise], within a critical experience, of the forms that had previously borne the threat of a tear in the fabric of the world [du déchirement du monde]

Histoire de la folie p. 39 n. 1; History of Madness, p. 597 n. 83.

The closest we have to that, in materials currently available at least, is the discussion in The Abnormals, but it is anticipated in pieces including ‘Médecins, Juges Et Sorciers Au XVIIe Siècle’ in some important ways.

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7 Responses to Michel Foucault, ‘Médecins, Juges et Sorciers au XVIIe Siècle’ – some thoughts on dating and content

  1. Pingback: A short previously untranslated comment by Foucault on religion, witches and madness – and the need for a structuralist study | Progressive Geographies

  2. Pingback: Foucault’s Last Decade – fifth update | Progressive Geographies

  3. John Iliopoulos says:

    The ‘medicins juges’ piece looks very interesting! Has there been an english translation yet? Also, what about the the aveux de chair english publication?

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