What is it about?

In seventeenth-century English medical literature the sleepwalker was depicted as an eerie figure that possessed almost superhuman abilities. Sleepwalkers, called "nightwalkers" or noctambuli, showed no fear as they clambered over high rooftops, and were able to perform complicated tasks, such as dressing themselves and unlocking doors or chests. This article explores the origins of this concept of the noctambuli in stories gathered in wonder books and the medieval witchcraft treatise "Malleus Maleficarum". While some medical texts sought to demystify these wonders, others saw them as evidence of mystical powers contained within the body.

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Why is it important?

This is the first study of the relationship between sleepwalking and the supernatural in early modern England. It demonstrates that sleepwalking played a role in debates over the powers of demons, and the nature of dreams. It raises doubts about whether medicine at this time always supported sceptical arguments against the existence of supernatural forces in the natural world.

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This page is a summary of: The Noctambuli: tales of sleepwalkers and secrets of the body in seventeenth-century England, The Seventeenth Century, December 2020, Taylor & Francis, DOI: 10.1080/0268117x.2020.1855235.
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