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date: 16 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

In the long view of history, the charlatan is a merchant in unconventional knowledge defined on the basis of his itinerant existence. Traveling from one marketplace to another, dealing in exotic objects and remedies, organizing shows and exhibitions, performing miraculous healings by appealing to the curative power of words and liniments, charlatans have traversed Europe since early modern times.

Charlatans also crossed the boundaries between popular and learned cultures. Both celebrated and opposed by physicians, scientists and philosophers, the rich and the poor, women and men, they circulated and traded knowledge and artifacts, penetrating the most diverse cultural spheres. Far from being confined to certain countries or regions, they were everywhere, repeating almost the same sales strategies, words, and performances. The repetition of fictitious stories down the centuries and on different continents raises the question of assessing the persistence of tradition in such different contexts.

Charlatans were able not only to discover what local people liked but also to speak their “local language,” as well as adopting the most sophisticated technological innovations as part of their performances. They were sharp observers of traditions and habits in the settings they visited, and they reacted quickly to what was new for attracting audiences and customers. One can say that charlatans combined very ancient products with the most innovative media.

Keywords: traveling healers, quackery, empirics, secret remedies, popular museums, marketplace medicine, natural history, regulation of the medical professions

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