The History of Hypnosis: The Medieval Era

The unconscious is a state that happens automatically, and the thoughts and decisions of the unconscious are not available for introspection. A cenote of thoughts, feelings, memories, and desires that live outside of our conscious mind is known as the unconscious mind. We are unaware of these feelings, desires, and memories in the functional state of the mind that we use to cope with our daily chores, relationships, and society. The subconscious is the vault where the pain, anxiety, suffering, conflicting ideas, and complaints are put away, and the entry to the vault is locked. Therefore, we cannot enter the subconscious in our daily life. The subconscious often intrudes on the conscious state. However, we are oblivious to the core reasons for our actions, behaviors, and speech. A professional hypnotist can assist us in examining the subconscious and helping us to have breakthroughs.

The History of Hypnosis in the ancient world observed that hypnosis and hypnotherapy have been studied in the early civilizations, and hypnosis IS NOT associated with supernatural activities, magic, and fraudulence. The ancient world practiced and researched medicines in the temples, and the seekers (patients) would seek help in the religious sanctuaries. The health practitioners were seen as the high priests/priestesses, and mind science was studied in the forms of yoga, in the dream temples, and in spiritual texts. Medicine was practiced by the high priests, and the seekers would be treated with a combination of natural medications and hypnotherapy. The seekers would interpret this as spiritual healing and believed the caregivers and the high priests/priestesses possessed mystical qualities and powers. This is an acceptable state of belief in the ancient world (300BC-500AD).

We shall now look at the development of hypnosis in the medieval era and the progress towards modern hypnosis.

Medieval Era: 500 AD-1500 AD.  Renaissance Period (1300-1600 AD)

The middle-age is often imagined with gory social structures and cultures full of ignorance. We even refer to it as the dark age. However, this is debatable. The agrarian societies in Europe lived under autocracy and did not have access to education. Christian faith was restructured in the eighth century in Rome, and there was an amalgamation of the reformed Christian practices and the local rituals. The difference between the Dream-Temples science, Christian mysticism, and witchcraft was not clear; hence we hear stories about magic, bewitchments, and sorcery from this era. We know the early Christians brought practices of hypnosis from Asia Minor, and it was developed in the Catholic Church as the “touch”. A priest would touch the head or the forehead of the seeker and say a series of commands. The Pentecostal Churches still use this technique, and the priests embed a set of suggestions on the disciples’ minds. The monarchies in France and England adopted this method and practiced it on the peasants as the “Royal Touch”, and in England, it ended when the Church of England was formed in the 17th century. However, it is still evident in the catholic cultures. The medieval people believed that some people have the power of magnetism and can heal the seekers from suffering. It was also known as mesmerism, and this word has been profoundly used in the popular media; hence we often confuse mesmerism with mind science studies.

The word “hypnotism” wasn’t born until the 19th century. Mind science in ancient India was understood on a greater level, and they called it Sammohona, and a hypnotist was a Mohna. However, medieval Europe was still trying to understand the phenomenon, and different branches of hypnotism were referred to as magnetism, autosuggestion, mesmerism with many other names.

Previously we looked at ancient India and learned about the Yogi Veda. The yogis continued to practice in the middle-ages. However, Self-hypnotism (Atam Sammohan) and hypnotizing seekers to help to boost confidence and productivity took different forms due to political and social changes. By the 6th century, Buddhism was formed, and the Buddhist sanyasi, like the yogi, also practiced self-hypnotism. Buddhism was assimilated within the Chinese culture, and the Chinese created new techniques of self-hypnotisms, and it spread in East Asia. By the thirteenth century, the Islamic empire began in the Indian subcontinent, and the Muslims adopted local studies and practices. The fakir or dervish (poor) in the Muslim society also practiced hypnotism, and the yogi, rishi, fakir, Tantrik Sadhu, and sanyasi all worked with the subconscious mind and aimed to have total control over self and free self from external sufferings. The third Mughal (Mongol) emperor in India, Akbar the Great (1556-1605), created a multi-cultural temple known as the Ibadat Khana, where he would host scholars from all faiths, and he would meet the yogis. Hence the Fakirs and mysticism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent (Cited on Britannica).

Rabi ah al-Adahwiah, a mystic woman in Basra, Iraq, formulated the Sufi ideal in the 9th century and created a denomination of Islam that would work on mysticism at a greater level and form strategies for self-hypnosis, group hypnosis, and hypnotherapy on individuals. Sufism exchanged thoughts with the Christian hermits and formed further. It would study Egyptian strategies and later would adopt a few Hellenic values (cited on Britannica). Sufism developed in India by learning from the Yogis and Hindu-Buddhist practices. It helped to develop concertation and focus on set tasks, which undoubtedly helped the evangelical Muslim empire to spread over Asia and Europe.

Tomb of Sufi Saint, Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli, Delhi, India. People visit the Sufi tombs or Mazar to receive healing from the dervishes; however, the sanctuaries also attract charlatans Source: Ekabhishek, Wikimedia

Sufi Fakir or dervish played a great part in spreading and educating the Islamic concepts. A set of words is repeatedly chanted in a swaying motion called Dhikr puts one in a Trans like state in a group environment or individually. It is still observed in South and Central Asia and in parts of Africa. Sema (hear), a mystical dance, was performed by the dervish who whirled and turned continuously in a group environment and entered a trans-state. It was developed in central Asia inspired by the Persian Sufi poet and philosopher Rumi. Rumi would spin three days and three nights at a time, and Sufi meditation helped to deal with the new world the Muslims were experiencing because of the evangelical movements, and Sufism helped to accept freedom of thoughts and love for humanity. Sema dance is still performed in Turkey.

But the Sufi fakirs did more than spreading love; they performed hypnotism on individuals to overcome depression and ailments. The most well-known phenomenon performed by the dervishes in the Indian subcontinent was the miraculous conceptions. There are uncountable local tales of women of all religions reporting to conceive after visiting the dervishes. The shrines of the dervishes in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are still visited by the women who are trying to conceive; in fact, women with a mainstream education still seek help from the fakirs. Today, it has been proven that the mental health state affects conception. Stress, depression, and anxiety affect the women. Detaching the woman from her regular hectic environment and engaging her in dhikr and putting suggestions in her help her to follow a steady lifestyle. This practice is also evident in Chinese medicine, and assisting women with similar strategies in the Chinese clinics is apparent today. In modern terms, the dervish is a practitioner, and the women are clients. However, these health recoveries were seen as a miraculous phenomenon; hence charlatans emerged with business ideas that created the myths of sorcery and magic. The texts by the dervishes from this era clearly suggest that they never claimed to be supernatural beings and gods, but they preached a healthy lifestyle. Nevertheless, people saw the remedies of the fakirs as miraculous cures.

Europe was perplexed between faiths, science, and local heritages. Therefore, we can call it the obscure age. It was the golden age in the Islamic empire, scholarly works in England, France, and Germany showed a conspicuous continuation, and thanks to the development of the written documents, we actually know what was going on in the middle ages. Perhaps it was not the Dark-Age as it is often referred to but a time of muddy obscurity and confusion.

Ibn Sina; Latin name Avicenna, born in Uzbekistan, was the first to establish the difference between sleep and the trans-like state and how the mind commands the body in Kitab Al Shifa, Latin name Sufficientiae 1014-1020 AD. Image source: The Welcome Trust UK; Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0

Based on the ancient Persian, Sumerian, and Vedic studies, Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna in Europe, a physician and a philosopher from central Asia (980-1037), wrote about the existence of the mind in “The Book of Healing”. He told us that the mind controls the body in two levels: on the first level, the body does whatever the mind wishes. The wills and the emotions of the mind-controlling the body are the second level, which means that, as the mind pictures a future event, our bodies respond accordingly. I.e., if the mind pictures for the body to fall off a bridge, the body will respond to this mental picture, and the body will most probably tremble and shake and fall over the bridge. Ibn Sina said negative emotions affect the external existence, and negativity can even be fatal. He discussed hypnosis (al-washm al-amil) can create a condition when practiced on someone, and one can see these conditions as reality. Avicenna talked about the links between feeling the physical illness and the psychological state, and he talked about depression, mood disorder, and phobias. Avicenna would accept cases of melancholia, often in royalties, and used psychological methods on the clients. His explanation of the existence of the mind and how hypnotism can help us was a groundbreaking study of the time and was highly regarded in Europe, and it is still studied. He also wrote about different types of pain and how hypnosis can help clients endure it. More details can be found in his books: The Canon of Medicine and The Book of Healing.

Acrobats had shocked people by walking on thin ropes placed high above the ground; the visualizing technique convinces the performer that walking on the rope is possible. The sanyasis stunned the viewers by walking on burning coals, a state of letting the mind commanding the body about not suffering any burning pain from the heat. These are training of the mind on a higher level, and Avicenna was the first person to gather them with a set of explanations and techniques.

Kabbalah, guided imagery techniques from Asia Minor, was practiced in the medieval era amongst the Hebrew community in Spain and Southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries and was reinterpreted in the 16th century in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire. This was adopted by the Hasidic Jewish community of Ukraine, which would take academic transformation and become the Kabbalah as we know it today. 

Therefore, the pre-renaissance period was not totally stale in studies and researches. However, we misconstrue hypnosis with paranormal activities because of confusing representations of medieval cultural practices in the popular media. Mind science was progressing and had different routes of studies, but with the rise and fall of different civilizations, frequent integration of cultures, globetrotting, and the exchanges of information, there was much confusion. The idea of science still was not clearly established, and the gap between the pundits and the ordinary people was immense. It was a time between the ancient and the modern world; it was the time human civilization was reforming. Therefore, the study of medicine and psychology was still in continuation but with a bewildering mixture of the ancient temple practices, the newly emerged works of literature, denominations of religions, the deceitful ventures, and the beliefs in the paranormal activities in different cultures.

The sick generally were treated in the religious sanctuaries, and the physicians would be called to treat the seekers. Few Hospitals were established from the 13th century due to the crusades. However, the monks continued to service the general public. The scientists, as we call them today, were called natural philosophers, and hypnosis was an occult practice in medieval Europe.

The ocean expeditions brought Europeans closer to new lands and wealth and enthusiasm in research, study, and development by the 14th century; hence historians called it the Renaissance period, the age of awakening. The European occupation in Asia and Africa withheld the progress in medical and mental health science in those ancient cultures. On the other hand, new theories and practices started to emerge in Europe.

A theory emerged by the 15th century that Magnetism is affluence that radiates from all things in the universe, either in a greater or in a lesser degree, and that objects can influence each other through the force of magnetism. From this doctrine, a system of treatment called “Sympathetic” was evolved. Paracelsus (1493-1591), a Swiss Philosopher, is known to be the originator of the “Sympathetic” system, and he believed it has the power to heal the sick. It has been claimed that Paracelsus had healed epilepsy patients after passing magnets over their bodies. Magnetism was developed by the philosopher J. B Van Helmont by the end of the 16th century and would be further studied on the verge of the Modern era.

Jan Baptist Van Helmont wanted to incorporate science and mysticism and make scientific progress in mental health and physical healing. He was jailed from 1634-1637 AD and was under trial until 1644 AD. Image source: The Welcome Trust, UK; Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0

J. B Van Helmont (1577 0r 80-1644 AD), a Belgian Physician and Chemist, followed Paracelsus’s work. However, his work has been much credited, and he made further use of Sympathetic remedy. He wrote the therapeutic remedies of Animal Magnetism, and his publication on the “Magnetic Curing of wounds” suggested that the saints’ curative effects may have been through the magnetic influence that made the church suspicious; although a practicing catholic, he was imprisoned under the Spanish inquisition, and his works were confiscated. The mistrust between the church and the researchers leads to severe penalties for the scientists, and women may encounter even severe consequences; hence we hear the burnings of witches’ stories. This also led to the separation of the church and scientific researches. This was the beginning of the removal of the high priests/priestesses that offered remedies in the temples and placed themselves in the surgeries as doctors, scientists, and researchers.

Helmont studied Kabbalah, Avicenna, Christian mysticism, and the ancient mind science; he wanted to establish genuine scientific research on mysticism. He was condemned by the theology faculty of the Louvain School in Brussels.

Perverting nature by ascribing to it all magic and diabolic art, and for having spread more than Cimmerian darkness all over the world by his chemical philosophy (pyrotechnice philosophando)

Helmont worked on chemical science and medicine. However, he wanted to incorporate science and spirituality and offered a scientific explanation of the Christian teachings on the making of the universe and its elements, and he wanted to progress mysticism with logical explanations or scientific researches.  Depending on the point of view, he was either seen as a scientist or as an oculist. (Cited on J.R, Partington; 2006; Taylor & Francis and and tech). This explains further the reason for us being wary about faith-based meditation and mental health support. This also explains the misconception about hypnotherapy amongst the few and separating it from mind science.

An Irish man was known to be the “Touch Doctor” (1628-1682AD), Valentine Greatrakes, became well-known for curing people after passing the magnet over their bodies. Magnetism was a huge interest in this era, and it is still practiced as a healing therapy. Nevertheless, magnetism therapy uses mesmerism, which is not the same as hypnotism. According to the Australian Academy of Hypnosis:

At the outset, hypnosis relies on sound and words to induce a state of trance, whilst Mesmerism uses very few words and can automatically promote a state of trance. The Mesmeric trance state is different from the trance state that results from verbally induced hypnosis.

Franz Mesmer produced the modern notion that a large percentage of the ailment can be treated with a strategic approach and attitude towards the client. Image source: The Welcome Trust, UK; Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0

Verbal hypnosis is effective when working on habit and behavioral changes, and modern hypnosis uses spoken suggestions.

Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), an Austrian physician, became a renowned mesmerist, and it is said that the term mesmerize derives from his name. He thought that magnet could heal the patient by interrupting the sick person’s magnetic field, and he called it “Animal Magnetism”. There were advances in astronomy around this time, and Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity in 1752; hence his theory seemed to be connected to the newfound knowledge and was acceptable. Mesmer believed to have cured hysteria, and his theories were closely examined by the French Academy in 1784, and Benjamin Franklin traveled from the US to France to understand his techniques. He was later treated as an eccentric, and in 1784, the French government pronounced he was a fraud. However, he embedded the modern belief that a large percentage of ailments can be dealt with with certain approaches and attitudes.

Abbe Faria, a Goan monk, often forgotten, is known to be the father of modern hypnosis. Image source: Author: VighneshShriGurkar; Wikimedia

Abbe Faria, an Indian Portuguese monk (1756-1819), understood that hypnotism purely worked by the power of suggestion and brought hypnotism out of the middle ages and gave it a modern form. He broke free from the theory of the magnetic field and demonstrated the existence of autosuggestion. Feria changed the terminology of mesmerism, and his theory is known as Farrism. Faria arrived in France in 1787, established that the mind of the subject was responsible for any effects and not the hypnotist. The Nancy School of psychotherapy in France did not believe in mesmerism and mysticism. Faria based his approach on this school of thought, and his perspective changed things and created the modern formation of hypnotherapy.  The head of the Nancy School program was Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault (1823-1904), who helped develop modern hypnotic practices along with Hippolyte Bernheim (1840-1919). These three men continued to develop and spread the modern understanding of hypnosis across the world. Therefore, the science of hypnosis was born.

We have now seen how the high priests/priestesses researched mental health therapy in temples in different civilizations in the ancient world. Strategies traveled through the empires and traders, integrated with the local theories, and created new ways of healing people. They continued to practice in the religious sanctuaries in the middle ages with a higher concentration on mysticism. The natural philosophers in the renaissance period wanted to find scientific explanations of mental health healings, and it caused fury and fear between the temple and the researchers. Consequently, many were prosecuted, and a few lives were being sacrificed. It is through this terrible ordeal and misapprehensions that the temple practices formed into clinics and practitioners. The theories of the middle ages may not always seem completely logical today, but the theorists are to be admired as they were the pioneers of free-thinking, and it is through their struggles, trials, and errors that we have arrived at the modern mental health support system and found the term hypnosis that recognizes the difference between mental health assistance from mythical beliefs. 

Next, we shall look at the development of Hypnosis in the Modern era and what hypnosis means today.

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Shanta Sultana
I have worked for social services encouraging clients to receive training and educational qualifications towards personal development. I studied at Southampton City College and received the “Best Student Achievement Award”. I studied Journalism at the University of East London and did part of my final year with the University of Greenwich. I received the award for “Outstanding Achieving” for writing the best theory for creating a fair society. I focused on social and political issues as a Journalist and wrote about the topics that are affecting the communities in England for three years, especially in health and social care and worked with the politicians. I have worked with the Lambeth community and collected the users’ experience in health care and mental health services for an umbrella organisation of Age UK. I then completed a PGCE/PCET, Teachers training with ESOL, Invisible disabilities, mental health, and the refugee reintegration from the University of Sunderland. My working route was on generating continuous educational opportunities, journals, and media programmes to overcome social and cultural prejudice and division and improve productivity by celebrating differences. I have worked in the mental health department and I work with special needs children and adults. I have published articles and stories in UK and USA and promoted organisations and personalities in Arts and trades in the UK and in South Asian countries.