Medical Meddlers, Mediums and Magicians: The Victorian Age of Credulity, by Keith Souter

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Keith Souter brings together three areas he considers to have been closely linked in the nineteenth century: medical pseudoscience, Spiritualism (plus psychical research, which in his eyes had an ambiguous relationship with Spiritualism, both critical and credulous at various moments) and stage magic.  Their common feature as he sees it was a desire by some individuals to deceive others for their own gain, whether this was predatory (medical quacks, fraudulent mediums) or for entertainment (magicians).  In the space at his disposal he can only touch lightly on each of these so his chapters are composed of short sections that display little sense of cohesion, as if he had done most of his research by following Wikipedia hyperlinks.

The three sections are given unequal treatment: by far the longest is that devoted to medical issues, which as Souter is a retired GP is understandable.  Even though it is not a long book he spends a large amount of time on a superficial overview of ‘medical meddling’ from ancient times through the mediaeval period before he even gets to the nineteenth century.  The following two sections are much shorter, and while he tries to be even-handed it is clear he does not have a great deal of interest in the history of Spiritualism. The one on stage magicians is much more enthusiastic, and he is particularly keen on debunking efforts applied to physical mediumship.

He relies heavily on secondary sources, many not given in the bibliography, and that means reproducing errors which can creep in.  It is evident he had not got to grips with the primary literature from his references to Frederic Myers as Frederick (always a giveaway) and Henry Sidgwick as Sedgwick, though elsewhere both are correctly spelled.  Phantasms of the Living is ascribed to Edmund Gurney alone, his ‘magnum opus’, rather than having been co-authored with Myers and Frank Podmore.

Worse, usage of the word credulity in his subtitle is a dubious one.  It is easy to look back complacently from our heights of wisdom on the foolishness our Victorian forebears sometimes exhibited.  The period was not notably, however, an ‘age of credulity’ in Britain – on the contrary it was an age when the population espoused a variety of views based on what information was available, much of it inaccurate and beset by conflicting ideological preoccupations.  The rate of progress as the scientific method became increasingly refined was remarkable, and could not have happened if the zeitgeist had been one predominantly of credulity, an approach to life which suggests a lack of discrimination and thus limited growth of useful knowledge.

In short, Souter has produced a pleasant potboiler written in a breezy style but indifferently edited, with little depth and showing an inadequate appreciation of the social context within which scientific developments, and cul-de-sacs, occurred.  Mountebanks there certainly were, but to automatically characterise as either fraud or fool individuals whose notions we look askance at a hundred to two hundred years later is to do their society a disservice.

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