Charlatans have been around for centuries. The church became a haven for conmen across Europe – selling claimed authentic fragments of the ‘true cross’ and alleged relics of alleged saints. A credulous population of medieval Christendom were left to trust in bits of bone encased in jewel encrusted boxes at a time when Islamic scholars were discovering the circulatory system of the body and developing understanding of disease.
Charlatanism could generate massive income for cathedrals and abbeys; there was money to be made from pilgrims, some of them not much more than contemporary tourists, others good and sincere people with an earnest desire for an answer to their prayers. Perhaps the relics had an efficacy similar to the placebos used in medical trials; there was hardly a shred of historical fact behind the extraordinary claims of some of the religious foundations. Having grown up close to Glastonbury, the deceit of the medieval monks in their exploitation of pilgrims seems both sad and infuriating.
The Enlightenment, the advent of the Age of Reason, and the emergence of science gradually undermined the charlatans in the ranks of the religious, leading them to appear elsewhere in search of a profit.
Newspapers a hundred years ago would have carried advertisements for ‘medications’ with extensive properties; pseudo-science was adduced in support of the claimed qualities of the products. The development of the mass media relegate the salesmen of elixirs to the fringes. Cher’s 1960s song, ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves’ tells of a man making money with both religion and phoney medicine:
I was born in the wagon of a travellin’ show
My mama used to dance for the money they’d throw
Papa would do whatever he could
Preach a little gospel
Sell a couple bottles of Doctor Good.
The charlatans have found a whole new sphere of activities for making profit. Struggling with a computer that was not working, a Google search offered a multitude of answers, many of which seemed contradictory. Clicking on links that offered solutions to the steadily accumulating problems brought not a cure but numerous chances to download programmes in exchange for parting with credit card details. Making the mistake of parting with ten dollars for a download that offered a solution to the problems, there was a sense of knowing how the purchasers of bottles of Doctor Good and medieval relics must have felt.
The charlatans live on, because there are still those of us who are gullible.