When humor is used artfully, it also serves to alleviate illness | The stone ax | Science | The USA Print

The writer Rafael Chirbes in his studio in Beniarbeig (Alicante).Jesus Ciscar

The history of humanity is the history of epidemics and also of their transmission. This is what Rafael Chirbes comes to tell us in one of the entries in his diaries (Anagram, 2021), to later direct the acidity of his criticism to the Europe of the Christian baroque, whose thought was conditioned by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) where the Catholic faith would remain fixed until our days.

From this moment on, the human body will be officially treated as a depositary of diseases, direct contact being the means for these diseases to be transmitted. “The bodies are sacks of dirt, virus emissions,” says Chirbes, who did not skimp on rubbing and bodily dabbling as he himself details, without any shame, in the pages of his day to day. “Regardless of what the priests say” body-to-body contact was a serious matter for Chirbes.

Regardless of what the priests say, body-to-body contact was a serious matter for Chirbes

There is a moment when Chirbes, far from the tremendousism inherited from the Council of Trent, quotes François Rabelais (1494-1553), the doctor who wrote a series of books inspired by popular tradition where he uses mockery and excess to explain and criticize the world. Pantagruel and Gargantua are two giants invented by Rabelais to entertain the sick, as he made clear in his dedication, where the fictions that Rabelais wrote are offered to comfort the “Buveurs three illustrious et précieux véroles” (from French: very illustrious and precious drunkards), patients bitten by the so-called French disease or syphilis.

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The Giant Gargantua, engraving by Gustave Doré (1854)
The Giant Gargantua, engraving by Gustave Doré (1854)

When syphilis appeared on the European continent, and to differentiate it from smallpox, it was called “grosse vérole”, being smallpox “petite vérole”. This is going to be just the beginning, the entrance to a world where the medicine of the time appears in every corner of history with quotes from medical figures such as Hippocrates or Galen along with allusions to diseases where religion dominates the scientific field. Without going any further, in Rabelais’ stories there are references to the disease known in times as Saint Anthony’s fire, today called ergotism.

It is an intoxication produced by the ingestion of ergot, a parasitic fungus that contains an alkaloid called ergotamine, which is also where lysergic acid is synthesized, the hallucinogenic drug that Bosch’s organism must have synthesized (1450). -1516), painter who crossed the doors of perception. In one of his works, the triptych titled The temptations of San Antonio, we find a cripple, victim of gangrenous ergotism whose effect is burning in the extremities; hands, legs and arms that wrinkle and blacken, and whose only cure is amputation.

Rabelais talks about the San Antonio fire disease, today known as ergotism: intoxication produced by a parasitic fungus that synthesizes lysergic acid

The fire name of San Antonio comes from the heat of the disease and because the monks of the order of San Antonio are in charge of caring for the sick suffering from said disease. The recipe to heal them —when ergotism has not yet reached the extremities— consisted of French toast made with wheat bread and soaked in wine.

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At the end of the first book of Gargantua and Pantagruel, one of the characters urinates on the wall of a convent dedicated to healing patients suffering from ergotism. In another of his books, the fire of San Antonio is used to curse: “May the fire of San Antonio burn you if you don’t clean all your holes before leaving!” And in this plan, the hooligan Rabelais created an immortal work where the science of the time and sarcasm come together to entertain the sick whose minds are pleased to laugh at the world they have lived in. Hundreds of years later, Rafael Chirbes would come to remember him in his diaries.

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