Sunday, November 19, 2006

Book Review: "A Small Moment of Great Illumination"

Leonard Pitt's A Small Moment of Great Illumination: Searching for Valentine Greatrakes, the Master Healer (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006) is the tale of an odyssey - an odyssey whose germinative spark came from a footnote. Back in 1989, Pitt writes in the first chapter, he found a reference to Valentine Greatrakes in an article on the history of medicine. Curiousity led him to pursue the citation and in doing so he discovered much about the life and doings of Greatrakes, an seventeenth-century Anglo-Irishman who suddenly found that he could heal certain ailments just by touching those who suffered from them. His fame spread, he journeyed several times around England and Ireland - including to the court of Charles II.

A Small Moment is the tale of Pitt's research into Greatrakes' life, including travels to the healer's town and to libraries around the US and UK doing research on the man. It also tells of Pitt's longstanding desire to purchase a copy of Greatrakes' book, A Brief Account.... Greatrakes gets a short biography in the telling as well. It's a fairly interesting book - particularly if you've ever had a similar experience, although sometimes it seems rather outmoded today. Since all the action took place in the early part of the 1990s, the Internet played only a minor role in Pitt's research into Greatrakes' life; today it would be much easier to find almost the same information (although without some of the great contextual experiences, to be sure).

For a book which is based on a serendipitous footnote, the absence of them here is cruelly ironic. Better references would have added a great deal to this book - there's a bibliography at the rear but certainly additional notes would be very useful. I will still recommend it, however, to anyone interested in the history of medicine, seventeenth-century England/Ireland, just even just "the thrill of the hunt."