Witchcraft Continued: Popular Magic in Modern Europe

By Willem De Blécourt; Owen Davies | Go to book overview
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Magical healing in Spain (1875–1936):
medical pluralism and the search for hegemony1

Enrique Perdiguero

Was magic an essential part of the Spanish population’s cultural repertoires for understanding and dealing with illness during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? By ‘cultural repertoires’ is meant ‘the ways in which people have conceived and explained illness and reaction against illness’.2 For various reasons that will be discussed, the question is difficult to answer categorically, but in attempting to do so it is necessary to move beyond the typical generalizations found in the history of medicine. Like the other contributors in this volume, this chapter aims to explore the presence of magical elements in everyday life during the modern period, and thereby broaden the usual location of magical practice in the medieval and early modern periods.3 The chronological focus of the following discussion is defined by two major political events: the restoration of the monarchy and the outbreak of the Civil War.4 These years can be described as a period of far-reaching transformation in Spanish society. From a demographic point of view the most significant development was what can be described as the ‘sanitary transition’. From a social, economic and political perspective the perception of the so-called ‘social issue’, which showed the weaknesses and contradictions in the socio-economic system, became sharper. The loss of Spain’s last colonies in 1898 shook the national conscience. The country saw itself as being backward, and calls for national renewal became commonplace. In this situation social medicine claimed an important role for itself in the regeneration of the country.5

To assess the relevance of magic in the popular discourse and interpretation of illness it is important to consider the structure of health care more generally. This is a topic that still needs more in-depth research.6 Nevertheless, during the period concerned we can identify two main forms of collective medical care: charity provided by authorities and individuals, and so-called ‘friendly societies’. Charitable health care funded by public authorities (municipalities, provinces and the central government) covered home and institutional help for those defined as poor and who clearly had no means to take care of themselves. But the authorities’ provision for the


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