Smoking Mary: herbal fumes and disease prevention

Mare de Déu Fumadora, Mother of God Smoker, is a local name used in Arenys de Mar on Catalonia’s Maresme coast for the day before yesterday’s feast of the Immaculate Conception, la Purísima. According to the much-maligned Jordi Bilbeny, this is the day when children were allowed to smoke by their parents (picture of kiddie smoking):

It was quite a picturesque spectacle to see groups of boys and girls smoking in the street… [S]ome Catalan folklorists, in discussing the feast, illustrated their works with a photo of Arenys with children publicly smoking…

When I was small I smoked Celtas [a popular brand of cigarettes], which I bought for six pesetas in one of those dispensing machines installed on the street by certain shops, but I also smoked liana and a mixture of tobacco and aniseed stamped into a cane pipe. And I know that prior to that people smoked tobacco mixed with cacao bark and with a mixture of aromatic herbs and mesquite [Prosopis juliflora] which the boys took from the Calisay [a building in Arenys].

No one knows the feast’s origins. Father Josep Palomer, in an article in Vida Parroquial (Parish Life) in December 1948, explained that the tradition came from a gathering at the Chapel of Mercy on the eve of the Immaculate Conception. “It was attended by all Arenys-ians, who let their children got together and smoke cigarettes of Old Man’s Beard [Clematis vitalba], crumble fennel and smoke its seeds rolled in papers. Why? No one knows and it is not recorded anywhere.”

Jordi says elsewhere that Joan Amades in his Costumari Català dates a similar tradition to 8 December 1653, when children apparently smoked aromatic herbs (Amades mentions aniseed and fennel in his time and old man’s beard in 1653) up at the Chapel of the Mother of God of Solitude, on the hill now occupied by the cemetery. He also mentions Palamós as an example of other places where for one day in the year children are allowed to smoke, “a practice possibly used in order to bring rain, by analogy with the black clouds formed by the burning herbs.” This ties in which his notion that the tradition is tied into pre-Christian or Amerindian rites and that it’s a way of talking to the ancestors, and Amades too talked of it as a possible throwback to magic practices. I think Amerindian rites are a red herring, and that there’s a simpler, European explanation.

I believe that Hippocrates somewhere recommends the medicinal smoking of herbs. This notion reappears in Europe in the Middle Ages and I think that the crucial mention for our purposes is De viribus herbarum. Here‘s a brief blurb:

Macer’s De Viribus Herbarum [“On the powers of herbs”] is one of the earliest surviving natural history texts from the Middle Ages. Nothing certain is known of “Macer Floridus” but the name is believed to be a pseudonym of a 12th century French physician, Odo of Meung. The De Viribus is a hexameter poem of over 2,200 lines, delineating the medicinal virtues of common plants and herbs. It illustrates the knowledge of both botany and therapeutics current in the medieval period. The De Viribus was a standard text in some of Europe’s earliest medical schools, such as Montpellier and Salerno.

And here‘s another, slightly different one:

The text titled De Viribus Herbarum (On properties of plants) has been traditionally attributed to Odo de Meung (Odo Magdunensis), who is believed to have lived during the first half of the 11th century and was from Meung on the Loire. Recent research has shown, however, that the De Viribus Herbarum was probably written in an earlier version, perhaps during the tenth century in Germany. The text was further expanded, including new data from the translation of Arabic texts into Latin in Salerno from the end of the 11th century onward. If this is the case, this text is good evidence of the continuity of scientific activity in the Middle Ages: its most ancient parts come from a period when there was a revival of interest in botany and a recovery of the classical tradition, while the most recent additions integrate the contribution of the Arabic world.

The main point is that De viribus was widely translated and disseminated following its composition and that in lines 1421-2 it claims that “the smoke of Aristochia dispels demons and exhilarates infants” (Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic & Experimental Science (1923)). Now, various species of Aristolochiaare present in Catalonia, but they are easily confused in terms of their physical appearance and effects with a number of other plants, including species of Clematis (one species of the former is called Aristolochia clematitis). What I would suggest is that in popular medicine generic acidic (Bobby J Ward, A Contemplation Upon Flowers says that beggars used the plant’s acrid leaves to inflict sores on their bodies to obtain compassion, and that it was called Beggar’s herb in English, hierba de los mendigos in Spanish) vinous material became seen as good for kiddies, and that, as with other medicinal herbs, a Marian tag was added to make the scientific pill more acceptable. It would be helpful to this hypothesis if I could think of Castilian or Provençal-Catalan vernacular names that designate generic acidic vinous material. Unfortunately I can’t…)

If this was the basis of the tradition, why would the tradition survive so long? One possibility is that, like other customs such as sardana dancing, it was rediscovered and reinvented in the nineteenth century. Another is that it mutually fertilised with a belief in the curative and sterilising powers of tobacco smoke. Brits may be familiar with Thomas Hearne’s account of compulsory smoking at Eton during the 1721 plague (Faber Book of Smoking):

I have been told, that in the last great plague at London none that kept tobaconist’s shops had the plague. It is certain, that smoaking it was looked upon as a most excellent preservative. In so much, that even children were obliged to smoak. And I remember, that I heard formerly Tom Rogers, who was yeoman beadle, say, that when he was that year, when the plague raged, a school-boy at Eton, al the boys of that school were obliged to smoak in the school every morning and that he was never whipped so much in his life as he was one morning for not smoaking.

Support for smoking was general and respectable, and it remained so, even among those sensible Germans. Iain Gately in Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization writes that:

Smoking on the streets of Berlin was allowed during a cholera outbreak in 1831 “‘so as not to deprive anyone of any possible protection against infection’. Berliners had to wait another six years for the next outbreak of cholera when the ban was again relaxed.”

In 1836, M Maurice Ruef, of Strasbourg, published a paper on the health of the workmen in the Royal Manufactories, in which he asserted that:

Pulmonary consumption is rare among the workmen, who are engaged from their youth in the manipulation of tobacco; moreover, this disease makes much less rapid progress than in does usually in those who may happen to have the germ of it already developed when they enter the workshop

And in a letter to the journal Notes and queries, published 21 July 1855, William Bates of Birmingham writes that in the 1840s the French government, which had a monopoly of tobacco manufacture, concluded that the 5000 men employed for this purpose:

were found, as a body, to enjoy a remarkable exemption from prevailing epidemics. This was especially the case at Lyons, where those so employed escaped to a man the typhoid fever of 1842; and at Toulouse, when the influenza attacked per cent of the inhabitants, while of those employed in the manufacture of tobacco only two out of 286 were affected. With regard to phthisis [tuberculosis], this exemption is still more remarkable. It is true that the workmen are subject to catarrhs, which are however slight, and easily removed. Phthisis is also of rare occurrence among the workmen at Bordeaux, at Havre, where this disease makes fearful ravages, the tobacco manufacturers are exempt; and at Strasbourg, Morlaix, and Lille, it is less frequent among this class than those engaged in other occupations. These facts are attributed by M Simeon [French minister of Public Works] to the narcotic properties of the tobacco…

Getting closer to Barcelona, the NY Times in an article The Trip to Marseilles (published 10/8/1884 and cited in Frank M Snowden, Naples in the Time of Cholera 1884-1911), claims that French doctors smoked cigars continually on wards during the 1884 cholera epidemic to create an infection-proof screen between themselves and patients, and that:

The great cities [of Provence] were rapidly depopulated while within them belated sanitary measures were adopted that spread gloom and a sense of crisis. The streets were sprinkled with carbolic acid in an attempt to ‘drown’ the choleraic germs; tar and sulphur bonfires were lit at every corner to purify the air; public gatherings of every kind were forbidden; railroad passengers and their baggage were fumigated; and the sewers were flushed.

Ian Tyrrell in Deadly Enemies: Tobacco and Its Opponents in Australia writes that smoking was used medically during the Spanish flu epidemic, and I think that’s probably its last appearance: just late enough to remain firmly impacted on popular consciousness, but just long enough ago to be beyond the reach of modern folklorists. The continued Marian association is simple: plaques and chapels all over Catalonia express thanks to the Virgin for rescuing the population from epidemics (and drought) well into the last century.

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Published
Last updated 10/12/2005

This post pre-dates my organ-grinding days, and may be imported from elsewhere.

Arabic language (43):

Barcelona (1401):

Bordeaux (1): Bordeaux; Gascon Occitan: Bordèu [buɾˈðɛw]) is a port city on the Garonne in the Gironde department in Southwestern France. The municipality of Bordeaux proper has a population of 246,586.

Catalonia (1157):

Ethnology (13):

Joan Amades (15): Joan Amades i Gelats, was an eminent Catalan ethnologist and folklorist.

Kaleboel (4325):

Lille (1): Lille; Dutch: Rijsel [ˈrɛisəl]; West Flemish: Rysel) is a city at the northern tip of France, in French Flanders.

Lyon (1): Lyon; Arpitan: Liyon [ʎjɔ̃]) is the third-largest city and second-largest urban area of France.

Marseille (6): Marseille, locally [mɑχˈsɛjə]; English alternative spelling: Marseilles; Provençal: Marselha [maʀˈsejɔ, -ˈsijɔ]) is the second-largest city of France.

Montpellier (3): Montpellier; Occitan: Montpelhièr [mumpeˈʎɛ]) is a city near the south coast of France on the Mediterranean Sea.

Morlaix (1): Morlaix is a commune in the Finistère department of Brittany in northwestern France.

Naples (12):

Natural history (512): Natural history is the research and study of organisms including animals, fungi and plants in their environment, leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study.

Paris (138):

Popular culture (12):

Provence (3): Provence is a geographical region and historical province of southeastern France, which extends from the left bank of the lower Rhône River to the west to the Italian border to the east, and is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the south.

Salerno (2): Salerno is a city and comune in Campania and is the capital of the province of the same name.

Spain (1882):

Strasbourg (5):

Translation (788):

Tree (284):


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