A short previously untranslated comment by Foucault on religion, witches and madness – and the need for a structuralist study

In a post earlier this week I discussed a text of Foucault’s from 1969 on doctors, judges and witches in the 17th century. In that discussion I mentioned a related piece on “Religious Deviations and Medical Knowledge”, translated in the Religion and Culture book edited by Jeremy Carrette – delivered as a lecture in 1962 and published in 1968. I said then that the discussion following the lecture was not translated – an interesting discussion with a group of medievalists. Foucault only makes two interventions – a very brief remark and then a few sentences. I’ve made a translation of these, which are followed by a few notes.

But there is some relation between Cathars and magic…

We all agree on the progressive hereticisation [hérétisation] of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries, or at least that the heretic and the witch are treated in the same way. And I would agree with Canon Delaruelle on the anticipation of certain natural concepts by theology before their use by medicine: at the end of the 17th century it is the Church itself which convenes doctors in relation to Jansenists and the Cévennes Protestants. Fléchier asks doctors to testify that this is merely pathological phenomena, visions, hallucinations: religious conscience was more ‘progressive’ than medical conscience in this series of events. I also agree with Professor Abel that that is an association [appartenance] of madness to a number of phenomena of religious irredentism and it would need a structural study of the whole, a synchronic study, as the system is clearly different in each epoch (Hérésies et sociétés, p. 29; Dits et écrits, Vol I, p. 635).

  • Hérétisation is, I think, as much of an ugly word in French as hereticisation is in English.
  • Esprit Fléchier, Bishop of Nîmes, was involved in the church’s treatment of Protestants following the repeal of the Edict of Nantes. He is often looked as a lenient and progressive figure in this regard.
  • ‘religious irrendentism’ is a striking phrase, not entirely clear. Irredentism is a political movement seeking to incorporate territories outside the existing boundaries of a state on the grounds of national or ethnic affinity. The term is most associated with Italian claims in the late 19th century. Does Foucault mean it to imply that the Catholic Church is trying to reincorporate breakaway elements? Carrette translates the phrase as ‘religious territoriality’ in a note following the translation of the lecture (Religion and Culture, p. 56).
  • Foucault’s agreement with Professor Abel is intriguing because Abel mentions the relation between heresy and the “sinner with terrible morals (sexual anomalies, communities of women, etc.)” (Hérésies et sociétés, p. 27; Dits et écrits, Vol I, p. 633). This is Armand Abel, a Belgian medieval Islamic scholar who gave a talk at the Colloquium on Muslim heresies.
  • The last sentence is interesting given the Structuralist language, which is close to the way Foucault originally wrote The Birth of the Clinic. Later editions removed this language, but the English translation is based on the first edition – James Bernauer has a good analysis of the differences in his Michel Foucault’s Force of Flight.
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2 Responses to A short previously untranslated comment by Foucault on religion, witches and madness – and the need for a structuralist study

  1. Pingback: Michel Foucault, ‘Médecins, Juges Et Sorciers Au XVIIe Siècle’ – some thoughts on dating and content | Progressive Geographies

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

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