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Popular medecine in the mountains

The hardships of life in the mountains made suffering a familiar thing. People who are  used to pain don’t always realise the seriousness of their illness. Country folk had little time to waste on aches and pains which would lead us to quickly consult a specialist. The indispensable nature of daily labour, distance and poverty tended to render all illnesses minor.

Ex-Voto, ND de Laghet, 1890

In the face of adversity and when self sufficiency is a key word , the solution to all ills must be at hand. And when the ressources of the the family pharmacopeia are exhausted there is no hesitation in contacting a healer.Only in the most severe cases would farmers consider the country doctor as an efficient recourse to remedy .

The sanitary conditions of the rural world change as from 1862 with the introduction of a service of free medical assitance. Little by little habits of automedication tend to disappear. With the advent of the Social Security  (1945) they are limited to minor complaints and nowadays our elders are the only ones to have memories of so called «grandmother’s recipes».

Gathering herbs

Hypericum perforatum L.The gathering of herbs  in order to be efficient must respect the natural life cycle of the plant. It is important to respect the seasons, the time of day, the part of the plant  to be picked.

In this way juniper-berries must be picked  before they are  ripe and more particularly between Assumption and the Nativity. L’erba de la Saint Jean, St. John’s wort, must be gathered on St. John’s day between dawn and sunrise.

In general plants are picked when it is dry or when the morning dew has evaporated to avoid burning and to help drying. Roots and tubers must be pulled up at night-time when the active principals have left the upper parts of the plant to regenerate the roots.

Only plants which are perfectly healthy may be picked. Systematic picking which endangers the plant or weakens its  natural enviroment  must be avoided.

My grandmother’s herbal teas

Herbal teas were a whole world to my grandmother, her refuge, her sustainance : she never missed an opportunity ;  the slightest emotion, the tiniest satisfaction, the smallest  nuisance, a pause in her work or the arrival of a visitor…Were the postman to bring her a letter, she would put it on the table, sit down near the hearth where her  rounded pots reigned, lift the lid of one of them and with a ladle –always hanging on the bowl of the fire – dog – and serve a half cup, a whole cup or on very important occasions a half bowl (but never more than this) of the beneficial liquid...A sip swallowed slowly ... only then would she begin to read.

In fact she never offered these enchanted brews to  visitors, as they always took exception to them after a first tasting , but  always set forth their benefits while slowly nodding her head and pointing an authorative index finger to the sky.
It was impossible for her to go to bed without having her decoction- she would rather have forgotten to say her prayers ! and I am almost certain that she had a cup or two in the morning as soon as she got up.

So many plants were used to elaborate her herbal teas ! her usual ones were lime –blossom, cammomile, verbena, sage, cherry stalks, couch-grass- which she prepared  by pots of five litres. On certain occasions she resorted to : walnut  or bramble leaves ...and sometimes thyme  and centaury... The preparation of these teas  followed a never changing ritual ; my grandmother needed all her attention and we were asked not to disturb her. The dog and the cats who claimed the right to  laze around the hearth were asked  to clear out !

When she judged the water hot enough, she put on her glasses, sat down and took from a bag ,one ,two or three handfuls of the plants which she placed in the pots, immersed with a bamboo stick and stirred slowly for a long moment.

My grandmother never mixed plants : the «Moniteur des Agriculteurs» didn’t reccomend it and she would never have dared to take such a risk !


Tante fine, healerThe relationship between healers and their co-citizens have always been ambivalent. The mystery that enfolds their practises engenders distrust. Their humility, their devotion, their disinterestedness inspire confidence.

Let’s not be mistaken, healers are ordinary people, farmers, farmers’ wives. Nothing distinguishes them apart from word of mouth. Loved by all, they have an «aura» which reflects their competences.

Every village may have an « old one « who ressembles Tante Fine of Puget Rostang who can heal a «coup de soleil (sunstroke) or a « coup d’air » (a draught which gives runny eyes and stiff necks)

Mystery remains a key element of healing. The charisma of the healer, his gestures, his secret formula comfort the patient . If his remedies based on herbal medecine are not without effect, let’s not forget the placebo effect which remains in many cases  the guarantee of  recovery in a country where the « paying » science of the doctor does not always inspire confidence.


Saints and healing

Popular devotion has attributed healing powers to certain saints. They are said to have the power to intercede in illnesses connected with :
The martyr they suffered,
Saint Agatha whose breasts were cut off, combats the obstination of nursing babies who refuse to suck.
The illnesses they have suffered from,
Saint Roch, heals  the plague and infectious diseases.
Saint Anthony the hermit  effects the  healing of abcesses, scabies and rabies transmitted by dogs.
Saint Nicholas of Tolentino ; the Virgin Mary appeared to him when he was ill and gave him bread. Since then the clergy in Puget Theniers  bless and distribute bread  rolls marked with the sign of the cross (10th September )
In order to obtain healing  for the sick.

The miracles they accomplished,
Saint Barnaby relieves patients with gout in the valleys of the Esteron,, the Haut Var. Saint Blaise is the  recognised healer of the trachea and the goitre in Levens and St.Martin On this occasion » al coulana de san Blai », a necklace with two blessed and lighted  candles placed in a cross is  prescribed. .Saint Arnoux is reputed for healing sore throats at La Croix.

The analogy with their name,
Saint Claire heals opthalmia. In Villars and Massoins believers implore her when washing their eyes at a spring near its chapel.

The doctor of the soul : The rector

At the beginning of the XIXth century the church normally takes care of the sick. The hospitals of  Guillaumes,  Entrevaux and Puget Théniers (1722) are under the control of the parish rectors.

The need for a priest at the deathbed is incontestable. It is justified by the concern for saving souls.The priest is also summoned to relieve physical pain. The relievng of pain is considered to be a particularly rewarding excercise of charity. As for the patients, they await the priest who will draw divine favour to them notably that of the healing saints.

Recovery is due to the inciting of the divine will for those who are worthy of the grace of God. Illness and death are considered as God’s chastisement .  Which gives rise to the expression « What have I done to God  (to deserve this)

The doctor appears as the subordinate of the priest, the care taken of the soul  being more important than the very chancy treatment of the body. Finally, the priest is quite often the only possible recourse in the absence of the doctor.
Healing waters

The invention of healing springs is essentially a rural phenomena. These springs are often situated on the limits of communal boundaries. In St. Auban a spring which healed many illnesses , notably  scabies and leprosy was reported in the XVIIth century.

The spring water from « Pitar » ( a hamlet of la Beaumette) was well-known to the old péoniens, they remember to this day that a state -school teacher used to go there to treat his pulmonary convulsions.

Some springs are at the origin of  a more ancient  form of worship, as for example St-Jean-du-Désert at Entrevaux who came to heal fever , scrofula and scabies.

In memory of  the baptism by the saint during the night of St. Jean, the population of Guillaumes used to wash their eyes with the water from the Tuébi, in order to purge their ills. .It is also at the end of the Saint Jean  that the women-folk from the village would wash their faces with morning dew which would heal skin diseases.

Sometimes a saintly character is at the origin of the miraculous virtues of a spring. The hermitage of St. Arnoux on the banks of the river Loup near Tourettes was reputed to heal skin diseases. The faithful would immerse themselves in the water rubbing their backs against the,rock where the hermit dwelt. In Roquebillière and the surrounding area, children’s cuts were washed with the holy water of St. Julien the patron saint of the commune.

Finally, to cure all ills, nothing prevented keeping a bottle of holy  water or water originating from a place of pilgrimage at home. Many would bring back from Lourdes a metallic water bottle or more recently a plastic phial representing the Virgin Mary.

Alcohol  relieves the sick !

«Douoi gruns de sucre dintre un véire de vi lèvou cin sous a sou medessi»
«Two cubes of sugar with a good glass of wine means five pence less for the doctor»

As opposed to alcohol our ancestors very rarely accorded water a medical function, in cases of shock or violent emotion. What’s more they only drank water if they couldn’t replace it by wine or add  wine to it and then only from springs reknowned for their lack of pollution.

Wine is considered to be a tonic. It is also attributed  a purifying function : «It kills germs». In view of this hot wine is prepared in cases of colds and flu.

In the absence of pharmaceutical alcohol, cuts and the new-born baby’s umbilical are cleaned with eau-de-vie (spirits). The consumption of a small glass of marc (white brandy) after coffee or mixed with it in cold weather is considered warming. Hot toddies with eau-de–vie or rum have the same utility .Alcohol is also used in combatting ther childhood complaint of «worms» ; as a linament for rubbing , to calm rheumatic pains ; on compresses to reabsorb bruising, boils, whitlow or snake bites.

Some liquors (juniper, orange flower, myrtle) have a purely medical use. Gentian (Suze) is good for the liver and stimulates the appetite. Others are consumed on social occasions. The expression «have just a little drop it will do you no harm» or «it will do you good» demonstrates the junction between social and medicinal functions underlying the alcohol so prettily named eau-de-vie («literally the water of life »)

The litterature of the door-to–door salesman.

Around 1900 in France, books on  popular herbal medecine abound. At the time of Bon marché and Manufrance, crafty doctors create companies for the sale of remedies by catalogue which are as long-lived as they are lucrative.

The principle depended on the distribution and sale, often from door-to-door or on markets ,of handbooks on health -  recipe books. They act as permanent representatives  in the home, of powders, pills, syrups, and other elixirs made by the editor.

The best-seller was « Illustrated herbal medecine » by doctor A.Narodetzki and « The poor man’s medecine by Doctor Beauvillard. Medical and charlatanesque advertising also gains the popular country press like « Le Réveil Agricole » and « Le Chasseur Français ».