Last year I experienced the excruciating agony of a kidney stone. Fortunately, I was in Jerusalem at the time and had access to capable Israeli medical professionals (as well as generous Canadian medical insurance), and by the time the first round of painkillers wore off, the stone was gone.
If the stone had stricken me in thirteenth-century Europe, I might have sought a different form of treatment: namely, the application of a “lion medallion,” This procedure took the form of a specially prepared metal disk (crafted during a particular phase of the moon) engraved with the zodiac sign of Leo the lion. This medallion was strapped over the offending kidney in order to relieve the pain. The device was supposed to help by beaming down therapeutic forces from the stars.
This procedure was widely recommended by physicians in the Languedoc region of what is now southern France. There were many distinguished Jewish rationalists and scientists in that age who believed in the efficacy of “astral magic”—the theory that the celestial bodies radiate energies whose effects can be calculated mathematically and astronomically. Advocates of the theory included respected scholars of the stature of Abraham Ibn Ezra. On the other hand, Moses Maimonides had famously discredited the pseudoscience, branding all astrology as intrinsically idolatrous--and the Languedocian Jews were stalwart in their adulation of Maimonides.
Nonetheless, the Provençal physician Isaac de Lattes was accustomed to preparing these medallions at the requests of his patients, though he personally was not a believer in astrology. Dr. de Lattes regretted employing this questionable treatment and he feared that it might be forbidden on religious grounds—even if somehow it were medically beneficial. He therefore addressed an inquiry to Rabbi Solomon ben Adret of Barcelona—the Rashba— perhaps the most respected halakhic authority of that generation, and the Rashba ruled that the treatment was permissible.
This arcane question concerning the medical use of the Leo medallions would soon became a contentious issue in a major ideological dispute between the rabbis of Languedoc and Catalonia over the spiritual directions of their Jewish communities.
The controversy erupted when preachers in Montpellier, a community that was deeply devoted to Maimonides’ rationalist vision of Judaism, began to base their sermons on allegorical interpretations of the Bible that might be construed as denying the literal truth of scripture. Though no one was questioning the importance of philosophical and scientific study in the quest for theological truth, some of the community’s leaders were worried that rationalist ideas would be misunderstood by younger folk who did not yet have adequate background in the traditional Jewish religious curriculum. Therefore, conservative elements sought to issue a communal ordinance forbidding the preaching of allegorical sermons to the general public, and limiting the study of metaphysics to those above the age of thirty.
With those objectives in mind, Rabbi Abba Mari ben Joseph Yarḥi turned to Rabbi Ibn Adret asking him to throw his considerable prestige behind such an ordinance. Rashba was known to be rather unsympathetic to Maimonides’ Aristotelian rationalism—he was in fact an exponent of the emerging mystical doctrine of Kabbalah.
In his initial letter of invitation to the Barcelonan sage, Abba Mari inserted what appears to be a completely irrelevant reference to the Leo medallions. Although the letter’s overriding tone was one of obsequious humility in which the writer was begging for a favour from his intellectual and spiritual superior, Abba Mari included a provocative question about how Rashba could ever have permitted the use of astrological medallions.
The Provençal rabbi subsequently tried to explain that the two issues were indeed unrelated, but they happened to come to his attention around the same time. Historians, however, have generally preferred to see it as part of a deliberate strategy. Knowing that many loyal Languedocian Jews resented his turning to an outside authority to challenge the proud local culture, Abba Mari took advantage of this opportunity to demonstrate that he was not submitting meekly to the Rashba’s authority; where warranted, he was prepared to voice his opposition on an issue that was dear to the hearts of his community.
Abba Mari boldly took Rashba to task for his permissive ruling on the medical medallions. He argued that this was an unmistakable transgression of a severe prohibition in the Torah: "Do not practice divination or seek omens,” which the Talmud interpreted as forbidding astrological computations.
Rashba was able to hold his own in the debate, in both his rabbinic erudition and his competence in scientific theory. He cited a passage from the Talmud that allowed the placing of engraved coins on foot calluses on the Sabbath, indicating that our sages did not object to the medical use of such engraved images. He also argued that there is nothing theologically unacceptable about the premise that the Almighty might have structured the cosmos in such a way that certain material objects possess healing properties (even though science cannot necessarily explain them). As long as one’s intentions when using the medallion are directed to its medical efficacy and not to any superstitious or idolatrous powers that are mistakenly ascribed to it, then there should be nothing objectionable in resorting to such treatment. As it happens, similar debates were going on at the same time among their Christian neighbours. For example, Paris’s Bishop William of Auvergne was careful to differentiate between cures that were founded on superstitious or demonic beliefs in the images, as distinct from therapies that had a real “scientific” basis.
In discussing the sources for the Leo medallions, Rabbi Abba Mari mentioned the existence of a “Book of Forms” in Hebrew that contained diagrams and instructions for fashioning medallions of the zodiac signs. Scholars have expended considerable efforts in tracking down this volume.
In those days Montpellier was the focus of intense inter-religious cooperation and collaboration in medical science, and prominent Christian scholars were translating treatises from the Hebrew (many of which had in turn been translated by Jewish doctors from Arabic originals). Prominent in these circles was the prolific physician, translator and religious reformer Arnald of Villanova. Arnald was the probable author of a work known as “De Sigillis,” a detailed guide to the fashioning of medical medallions based on the twelve signs of the zodiac. The treatise specified the appropriate timing, materials, inscriptions and accompanying blessings; as well as which physical ailments could be treated by each sign. In July 1301 Arnald used a lion medallion to alleviate the pain of a kidney stone for no less a celebrity than Pope Boniface VIII, an episode that raised some eyebrows among the cardinals. Another Latin treatise about the medical uses of zodiac medallions was authored by the Montpellier physician Bernard de Gordon.
Both those texts stipulated that the medallion—preferably one fashioned out of gold on a sunny day and fumigated with mastic—should be applied to the left kidney, that the lion should have no tongue and that a veiled lady wielding a rod or bridle should be riding on it.
These manuals were likely derived in turn from an Arabic original, the influential eleventh century compendium of magic and astrology “Ghayat al-Ḥakim” known in its European translations as “the Picatrix.”
I assume that most of us would not give much credence to any snake-oil peddler who tried to prescribe zodiac medallions as the remedy for what ails us.
But if the pain becomes unbearably acute, even some of us skeptics might become more receptive to such unconventional treatments.
After all—like a dose of good chicken soup—it can’t hurt...