The Eternal Placebo — I Will Please the Lord (Part 1)

I Will Please the Lord (Placebo Domino-Psalm 116)

3. The sorrows of death have encompassed me: and the perils of hell have found me. I met with trouble and sorrow:
4. and I called upon the name of the Lord. O Lord, deliver my soul.
5. The Lord is merciful and just, and our God sheweth mercy.
6. The Lord is the keeper of little ones: I was little and he delivered me.
7. Turn, O my soul, into thy rest: for the Lord hath been bountiful to thee.
8. For he hath delivered my soul from death: my eyes from tears, my feet from falling.

9. I will please the Lord in the land of the living. [placebo Domino in regione vivorum]. [Psalm 116:3-9 (Douay-Rheims)]

From its medieval liturgical use in funerals to its modern use as a scientific term, the word placebo has elicited controversy and abuse for hundreds of years. At first, symbolizing faith in God and meaning an intimate spiritual connection, it now stands for the scientific concept of an inert substance, a simulated medical intervention or a sham.

Early in the fifth century, C.E., the phrase, placebo Domino, “I will please the Lord,” was used by St. Jerome in his Latin translation of the 116th Psalm. The Vulgate Bible, as St. Jerome’s translation was named, became the definitive and officially promulgated Latin version of the Bible in the Roman Catholic Church. [See: Vulgate, Wikipedia].

The Hebrew word [אֶ֭תְהַלֵּךְ “et·hal·lech”] that St. Jerome translated as “placebo,” literally means “I will walk with,” as to be in step with or “in accordance with” God’s will. However, St. Jerome followed the earlier Septuagint rendering and translated the word as “placebo,” “I will please.”

I will be well pleasing before the Lord in the country of the living [Septuagint 114:9].

Office of the Dead

St. Jerome’s translation was later rejected by most translators of the Bible. His rendering is not found in modern English translations. Only the Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and Arabic versions render it as “I will please the Lord.”

However, the emerging Roman Catholic Church used St Jerome’s translation to form much of its early liturgy. By the 8th century, the 116th Psalm had become a part of the prayers recited during Catholic funeral ceremonies. [See: Office of the Dead].

During these funeral ceremonies, prayers would be recited by the clergy, with the congregation periodically uttering a response. The first recitation by the clergy was Psalm 116, verses one through nine, and the congregation’s first response was verse nine of that Psalm: “Placebo Domino in regione vivorum,” I will please the Lord in the land of the living.

Naturally, the most passionate and emotional “placebo” responders were close relatives of the deceased. As the ritual became ingrained in medieval society, however, “professional” mourners began to appear at the funerals of wealthy citizens. Claiming a relationship to the deceased to partake of benefits offered to guests and win favors from the family, these intruders became known as “placebo singers,” a disparaging title denoting a sycophant and synonymous with deception and dissimulation.

Flatterers are the Devil’s enchanters, for they cause a man to think of himself that he is like what he is not like … Flatters are the Devil’s chaplains, that continually sing Placebo. [Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, The Parson’s Tale, p. 505].

The Devil May Care

Holy water, relics and icons contain elements of the placebo effect. Their popularity was greatly reduced by the advent of scientific thought. Enlightenment scholars took pride in defrocking charlatans, exposing hoaxes, and squashing superstitions.

Placebo-like “trick trials” had been used in the 16th century by Catholics and Protestants and their respective ruling monarchs to expose sham exorcists. French kings, Charles IX of France (1550 – 1574) and Henri IV (1553 – 1610) established commissions that presented genuine items as well as shams to trick victims suspected of feigning demonic possession. These trick trials eventually entered the medical profession and were also branded with the name “placebo”

Away from the crowded public exorcisms, in a more private place, this commission proceeded to secretly administer the woman genuine holy water on many consecutive days but with no effect. Later, when given ordinary water poured from a special flask only used for holy water she contorted in pain. When an ordinary piece of iron was taken out of its ornate enclosure and presented to the young woman as a relic of the true cross, she fell to the ground tormented. Priests read to the women a Latin text, misinforming her that it was the Holy Scripture. In actuality, it was Virgil’s Aeneid, and she nonetheless squirmed in agony. [Ted J. Kaptchuk, Catherine E Kerr, and Abby Zanger, “Placebo Controls, Exorcisms and the Devil”].

In 1784, French king, Louis XVI, appointed a commission that included Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier, to investigate the medical practices advocated by Franz Anton Mesmer, a German physician. Mesmer claimed to have discovered “animal magnetism,” a universal fluid that could cure illnesses.

The commission relied on “decisive experiments” similar to those used to debunk sham exorcisms. Using supposedly “mesmerized trees” and “magnetized basins,” and actually blindfolding participants, the commission tested the responses of patients and concluded that the Mesmer’s fluid did not exist and any effects were due to “imagination.”

The commissioners having … demonstrated by decisive experiments, that the imagination without the magnetism produces convulsions, and that the magnetism without the imagination produces nothing; they have concluded … that the existence of the fluid is absolutely destitute of proof, … that the violent symptoms observed in the public process are to be ascribed to the … imagination called into action, and to that propensity to mechanical imitation, which leads us in spite of ourselves to the repetition of what strikes our senses. [Report of Dr. Franklin and Other Commissioners, p. 43].

I Will Please the Patient

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the medical community in England (never averse to Latin words and not particularly respectful of Catholic rituals) began using “placebo” as a word describing questionable and ineffective remedies. It wasn’t long before the word won currency among doctors and scientists.

By the late 18th century, the word “placebo” was included in medical lexicons. The 1795 Motherby’s New Medical Dictionary assumed the readers’ familiarity with the infamous word and merely acknowledged its usage in the profession: “a common placebo method or medicine.” Hooper’s Medical Dictionary (1811) provided a relatively modern definition: “an epithet given to any medicine adopted to please rather than to benefit the patient.” [See: Damien Finnis, Historical Aspects of Placebo Analgesia].

For we say that all portents are contrary to nature; but they are not so. For how is that contrary to nature which happens by the will of God, since the will of so mighty a Creator is certainly the nature of each created thing? A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to what we know as nature. [St. Augustine, City of God, XXI, Ch. 8].

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Further reading:

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2 Responses to The Eternal Placebo — I Will Please the Lord (Part 1)

  1. Robby Butler says:

    Thank you for your thorough treatment of the Placebo Effect. I noticed this one typo: “place” should be “placed” in “based on the subject’s faith in and trust place on an authoritative”.

  2. Brother M says:

    Fixed. Thanks again.

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