Valentine Greatrakes was born on St Valentine’s Day, 1629 (and hence his name). He was Irish, a Protestant, served as a lieutenant in the Cromwellian army in Ireland for six years, then ‘betook my self to a Country life, and lived at Affane the habitation of my Ancestors, where I have continued ever since, and got by my Industry a livelihood out of the bowels of the Earth’.
Then a message from heaven changed his life, and propelled him into short blaze of fame: “About four years since I had an Impulse, or a strange persuasion in my own mind (of which I am not able to give any rational account to another) which did very frequently suggest to me that there was bestowed on me the gift of curing the Kings-Evil: which, for the extraordinariness of it, I thought fit to conceal for some time, but at length I communicated this to my Wife”.
In scrofula he had chosen an illness which, from what one has read about cures or amelioration after ‘the royal touch’, could see some patients respond well to a charismatic healer. It was also a condition that, because of its main recognized form of treatment, made his act latently political, an encroachment upon a special preserve of those who were absolutely his social superiors. Greatrakes would be reviled because he was perceived to have infringed, to have intervened repeatedly in matters that were, properly, far beyond him. Peter Elmer’s ODNB life of Greatrakes endorses a political motive, either in Greatrakes or his backers, suggesting (to paraphrase loosely) that there was an implicit rebuke to King Charles II in Greatrakes so conspicuously surpassing the monarch in this role of ‘touching’, alongside his carefully advertised piety and moderation.
The ODNB life covers the biography (obviously), but this emphasis leaves one far short of appreciating what Greatrakes did, the hysteria and squalor around the hard-pressed, sometimes revolted, but heroic and sincere thaumaturge. This is my emphasis here: in late 17th century London – a society that considered itself Christian through-and-through - a reappearance of Shamanism.
As soon as Greatrakes was persuaded that he could also touch for the King’s-Evil, a potential patient, in a desperate condition, was found him (he reamrks elsewhere that God always found him patients promptly after his latest healing power had been imparted): “Margaret Macshane of Ballinecly … who had the Evil 7 years and upwards, which had spread it self from the bottom of her stomach upwards, all over to her throat, neck, and nose, and so all over her back, shoulders and arm-pits, so that I could not see one place free from the Evil, where you might put a sixpence, and to speak the truth she looked so dreadfully, and stunk so exceedingly.”
What he was up against is partly caught in the photograph of a sufferer here:
Greatrakes says he was (understandably) squeamish about many of his clients. But he was astonishingly successful: “My hand suppurated the Nodes, and drew and healed the Sores, which formerly I could not have endured the sight of, nor smell, nor touched them without vomiting; so great an aversion had I naturally to all wounds and sores: so that the poor woman (i.e., Macshane) about six weeks afterwards came perfectly well to my house.”
A year later further divine assurance came to Greatrakes that he must use the same cure-by-touching for the ague (there was a large local outbreak, and Greatrakes was always sincere in his sense of mission). Now the ague is an intermittent disease (malaria), and, like the successes Greatrakes would soon have with people suffering from falling sickness (epilepsy), the natural course of the condition would favour him with the appearance of success. Both Greatrakes and his supporters acknowledged that some of his clients did relapse, though this usually happened after a longer remission than was normal for them. Finally, word came to him from heaven that he could cure all most ailments. A correspondent of Joseph Granvill’s explains that Greatrakes doubted this, until one night when one of his hands was “struck dead”. But stroking this hand with his other returned it to “its former liveliness”. This experience was repeated over several nights, until Greatrakes was finally convinced of his general gift. He treated people without personally taking any money (his opponent David Lloyd asserts that his minders did take money for access to him), and the greater part of those he touched early in his career trudged back off into obscurity. Follow-up care after a miracle cure is hardly to be expected.
Large numbers flocked to Greatrakes as his fame spread. People – including the young John Flamsteed - were crossing the Irish Sea to get to him, and he was soon brought to England to attempt a cure for the migraines and general debilitating pain suffered by Lady Conway (Anne Finch, the thinker). The attempted cure failed, but with other local English clients, Greatrakes continued to have miraculous successes. He did cures in Warwickshire, and through Berkshire. Anthony a Wood says that he was finally summoned to Whitehall by the King. Now Greatrakes does not mention this himself, nor did his supporter in print, Henry Stubbe. According to Elmer (ODNB), Charles was not impressed by his emulator, so perhaps this was an aspect of his career Greatrakes wanted to pass over. Charles apparently had Sir John Denham seek a cure for his lameness, but the stroking cure failed.
In London, Greatrakes published, or there was published about him, a single sheet flier, The great cures and strange miracles performed by Mr. Valentine Gertrux who restoreth the blind to sight, the deaf to hearing, the lame to strength, and cripples to walk without crutches: as also, he cureth all manner of diseases, with a stroak of his hand and prayer.
It sounds very good: “He takes away all sorts of pain and old Aches, though of twelve, sixteen or twenty years continuance, or longer, only with stroking and smoothing the party grieved with his Hand: for immediately upon laying his Hand upon the part grieved, the pain removes; and if at any time they feel it sensibly in another part of the body; as, from the back to the breast, from thence into the Legs and Arms, or other extreme parts, and when the party telleth him where it is removed, he followeth it with his hand, which driveth it out, sometimes at the fingers ends, sometimes at the Toes, other times at the Crown of the Head, and sometimes at the Mouth; and when the person saith, it is gone, and he feeleth no more pain, He biddeth him be gone, and glorifie GOD, and forsake his sins.”
One can understand the appeal. A qualified 17th century doctor would want high fees for a painful regime of phlebotomy and brutal purges. But even in this brief account of Greatrakes with a patient undergoing treatment, one can see that both are sharing a view of pain that is conceptually based on demonic possession. The pain is chased by Greatrakes from one part of the body to another (he explains that he relies on the patient to tell him where the pain has shifted to, he cannot drive it, only follow it). Once the pain has no retreat to the torso, Greatrakes can get it to leave via an extremity. Rather original in him are recurrent cures where the pain finally leaves by the tongue of the patient, and the tongue is discovered to be left as cold as ice.
Greatrakes is quite candid about this, he clearly regards demonic possession as a valid diagnosis for some of the afflictions he has treated: “my Experience inclines me to believe, in saying that I have met with several Instances which seemed to me to be Possessions by dumb Devils, deaf Devils, and talking Devils … many, when they have but heard my voice, and have been tormented in so strange a manner that no one that has been present could conceive it less then a Possession”.
Look how in these sentences an initial ‘somewhat within her’ becomes an ‘it’ that seems to have its own volition and malignity: “as I will instance in one at York-house … who had somewhat within her which would swell her Body to that excessive degree on a sudden as if it would burst her; and then as soon as I put my hand on that part of her Body where it did rise up, it would fly up to her Throat (or some other place), and then it would cause her neck to swell half so big again, and then almost choke her, then blind her, and make her dumb and foam … I oftentimes brought it up into her Tongue … which it has swollen in an instant nigh as big again, and has been seen plainly to play from place to place, and at length with great violence of belching … it went forth, and so the Woman went away well. Whether this were a natural Distemper, let any one judge that is either a Divine, a Philosopher, or Physician.”
He even has the same motive as the John Darrel type of renegade protestant exorcist: “God may, to abate the pride of the Papists (that make Miracles the undeniable Manifesto of the truth of their Church) make use of a Protestant to do such strange things in the face of the Sun, which they pretend to do in Cells.” Greatrakes was only an ordinary man of his time. The afflictions are as mysterious to him as his power to cure. These are essentially supernatural encounters, the power that came to him from heaven against the afflicting force.
Greatrakes does not mention any other local or family traditions of healing that might have provided other models. He presents his career as simply following the divine inspirations that came to him, but as he progressed, he become more confident, and more experienced at what had to be done. He then seems to have been more willing to undertake what must have been standard procedures of incisions and lancings. He was always going to collide with the medical profession, and he duly did, both in Ireland and in England: “Then the Judge asked me, where is your Licence for practising, as all Physitians and Chirurgeons ought to have from the Ordinary of the Diocese? my answer was, that I knew no reason I had to take a Licence, since I took no Reward from any one, and that I knew no Law of the Nation, which prohibited any person from doing what good he could to his Neighbours.”
This was in Ireland; I have possibly made a small discovery about Greatrakes in associating with his London career with a set of verses published as RUB for RUB: OR, AN ANSWER TO A PHYSICIANS PAMPHLET, STYLED, The Stroker stroked. The author here, a supporter, is writing to answer a (lost) verse attack on Greatrakes penned by a qualified physician. Now Greatrakes’ modus operandi obviously involved a lot of touching. His opponent could not resist making imputations about this (the italicized lines are clearly quotations), but was effectively answered by having this represented as products of his own lechery (a bawdy anecdote is told about the doctor administering ‘oil of man’ to a female client):
What if he clip’d and clap’d, what’s that to you?
You’ve clip’d and clap’d, and have been clap’d too …
Your foul report betrays you, and in truth,
I fear the Doctor hath a liquorish Tooth.
Her Stocking off, he strokes her Lilly-foot,
What then? The Doctor had a mind to do’t.
Her Legs, her Knees, her Thighs, a little higher.
And there’s the Doctors Center of Desire…
The sense of Greatrakes as an exorcist appears here too:
His hand is truly powerful whose stroke
Twice dispossessed and made the Devil smoke.
Greatrakes had many supporters: his ‘Brief Account’ of himself and his blameless activities is bulked out by many testimonials and witnesses, some of them gentry, some clerics. He was also susceptible to being recruited to other people’s agendas. Joseph Glanvill could use him to vapour on about latter-day apparent miracles. The unpredictable Henry Stubbe wrote the longest defence: The miraculous conformist, or, An account of severall marvailous cures performed by the stroking of the hands of Mr. Valentine Greatarick with a physicall discourse thereupon.
The title is telling. Stubbe set out to defend Greatrakes’ orthodoxy: “It may seeme equitable that I tell you why I call the Gentleman the Miraculous Conformist: many strange reports have and do run of him; but he is reclaimed from all that is fanatique; and this gift of Healing was bestowed on him, since the Restoration of his Sacred Majesty, and the restitution of the Doctrine and Discipline of the English Church”. The sensitivity concerns Greatrakes as a throw-back to the ‘fanatic’ times of the interregnum. But even as Stubbe defends by citing gentry and clerics who endorsing the cures as valid, he strays into making Greatrakes sound too Christ-like: “An infinite number of the Nobility, Gentry, and Clergy of Warwick-shire and Worcestershire, persons too understanding to be deceived, and too Honourable and Worthy to deceive, will avow, that they have seen him publicly cure the lame, the blind, the deaf, the perhaps not unjustly supposed Daemoniacks, and Lepers.”
The ‘physical discourse’ in Stubbe is just that, an attempt to apply some Royal Society-style investigative rigour in place of the possession model. Robert Boyle was interested enough to be the addressee of both Stubbe and Greatrakes, the former angling his speculations about how the cures were effected towards further investigation by the Royal Society, and though Boyle actually had objections to Stubbe’s rationalizing conclusions, he apparently attended sixty stroking sessions. Glanvill’s correspondent does the same, ingeniously speculating that what Greatrakes did was transmit a “sanative contagion” – instead of catching a disease off him, you could catch health (in A philosophical endeavor in the defence of the being of witches and apparitions, 1668). Glanvill also warmly recommends Greatrakes to scrutiny by the Royal Society.
Stubbe gave a lot of attention to Greatrakes’ own body. He was closely observed: that he was not putting some undisclosed and highly effective ointment on his hands is sagely noted, he did his cures absolutely bare handed. He had a distinctive personal odour, not unpleasant, but, again, his hands did not smell. The attempt to account for it all rationally led Stubbe into speculations about the ‘crasis’ of Greatrake’s body, in his case a perfect humoral balance and temperament. It’s not very far from seeing him as a living, breathing philosophers’ stone. “It seems to me very imaginable that there may be given by God such a Natural Crasis and Effluvia consequential thereunto, that the stroking with his Hand for some space so as to communicate the Virtue may restore the Blood and Spirits to that vigour and strength which is natural to them, and resuscitate the contracted imbecility of any part.”
Meanwhile, at his over-crowded places of practice, the curative power of Greatrake’s body was eagerly believed. We lurch backwards into the abyss of time: the Royal Society competes with diabolism for an explanation, but rearing up from the dim and distant past comes Shamanism. He imparted his touch. His saliva was used by way of finishing touch to any minor surgery he had performed. Whether his gloves had the same power, through their close contact with the wonder-working hands was investigated, and they did. But a napkin that had merely been rubbed on his chest, or his shirt, did not transmit his ‘crasis’ to the sufferer.
Either in his desperation to cope with the crowds seeking contact with him, or in his growing belief in his own powers, Greatrakes started taking along his own bottled urine for distribution as some kind of lotion (it was noted to smell like violets). This too was eagerly consumed, and was equally effective: “Eleanor Dickinson, aged 45 years, had a Dropsy 12 years in her belly … was stroked by Mr. Greatrakes about 16 days since, at 7. a clock at night, and drank at the same time about 6 spoonfuls of his water, and rubbed some of it on her body, which she did of her own accord: the same night she felt a queasiness in her stomach”. Her own testimonial brings us closer to the chaos around Greatrakes: “not being able to come near him by reason of the throng, she snatched some of his urine and drank it, some of which she also put into her ears, which were so stopped she could not hear, and immediately she heard the noise of the people all round about her: Then going home, some hours after the same urine began to work in her belly…”
This is Shamanistic healing: the body fluids of the healer being consumed, a belief that the healer is a conduit for a supernatural force that he allows you to access, his body processing the occult power into something that you can use for a cure.
With chaotic scenes like these taking place in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Greatrakes was attracting so much attention that attacks on his methods and character was inevitable. We have seen that there was a verse attack by a jealous doctor. David Lloyd’s Wonders no miracles overflows with indignation and paranoia. Lloyd was a chaplain at the Charter House, where Greatrakes had both performed cures and had a bad failure. Lloyd sees that Greatrakes has a popular following for what people think he can do, and professes alarm that soon he might start being followed for what he tells people. For Lloyd, it’s an imperative that Greatrakes be disbelieved, as he represents “An opportunity in distracted and divided Times, to broach strange and dangerous Opinions. For if a man can but prevail with the People, to believe that God assists him, to Effect new and extraordinary things; he may easily persuade them, that the same God inspires him to speak new and extraordinary Opinions; when they see God in what he doth, they will easily believe he is in what he saith; and where they observe omnipotence, there they will believe infallibility: and if the man saith now, I received a voice from Heaven, bidding me Cure all Diseases; he may if this take, say anon, I am Commissioned by a Voice from Heaven, to reduce the World to the unity of the Roman Church, to teach the infallibility of the Pope, to reveal a Messiah to come, a fifth Monarchy, and what not?”
Lloyd is either not interested in, or incapable of a reasoned or balanced response. Greatrakes was obviously hurt by the imputations made about his character, and, well accustomed to getting testimonials, produced witnesses to attest otherwise (and they seem convincing). Henry Stubbe’s work was also prompted by Lloyd’s vitriolic hatred. Lloyd, for instance, was willing to see Greatrakes as under diabolical guidance: “In a word, should a man have familiarity and make a compact with Satan, and should the Lord permit Satan to work some strange things, not that Satan can do any thing above nature; but that he may do many things that seem to us above nature, because above our understanding, it might exercise and try our Faith” and a harbinger to a diabolic attempt to overthrow the Church of England.
Probably the overtures made by Greatrakes and Stubbe to Robert Boyle were an attempt to find shelter and, ideally, legitimization. Boyle’s brother has been an early patron of Greatrakes over in Ireland. But protection does not seem to have come quickly enough. London gave just too much publicity, and no chance to control the nature of the stories getting out. Anthony a Wood said Greatrakes went to “Whitehall by command from his Majesty and performing several cures there and in London, but more mistakes”. And David Lloyd scores a shrewd hit about Greatrakes’ star waning: “they follow him not in any place so eagerly at first, as they leave him discontentedly at last: He is not so much cried up in the places where he comes, as he is cried down in the places where he hath been”.
Greatrakes, Elmer says, had gone back to Ireland by May 1666. He continued to stroke away ailments, but without publicity.
The staggering name to see as testifying to two of his cures is Andrew Marvell. The shrewd, cautious Marvell, attending Shamanistic séances!
(Greatrakes’ story is also told in the biographical dictionary issued by the subject of my previous post, James Granger, who ends by saying that Greatrakes stroked his female patients in a rather different way to his male patients, though it’s hard to tell whether this is exoneration or insinuation.)