Dedicated to my son, who too often gets strep throat
Milan, 3 February 2019
updated 14 January 2020
Today is February 3rd!
This exclamation of mine will, I’m sure, leave all of my readers puzzled, so I need to explain: February 3rd is the feast day of Saint Blaise!
I fear, though, that this piece of information will still not help my readers much, so let me plough on.
Saint Blaise is one of those delightfully obscure early Christian martyrs, lost to us in the mists of time and fog of hagiography. His story is quickly told. He lived in the late 2nd, early 3rd Centuries AD. He was the Bishop of Sebastea, now Sivas, deep in the heart of modern Turkey. He was a holy man and a miracle worker. It is one miracle in particular that interests us here. A young mother came rushing to Blaise with her son, who was dying from a fish bone (or possibly a fish scale) stuck in his throat. As someone who, at the age of 12 or 13, got a fish bone stuck in my throat, I can deeply empathize with the poor boy. Luckily, I wasn’t dying but it was an incredibly painful experience. After various home remedies had been tried, I was taken to a doctor who extracted it. It so happens that Blaise had also trained as a doctor, but it seems he favored a faith-based approach to healing (I don’t know whether this was merely a reflection of his strong faith or a commentary on the parlous state of medicine at the time). So he laid his hands on the boy’s throat and uttered the – extremely sensible – words: “either come up or go down”. The fish bone (or scale) duly came up, or went down, and the boy was saved. This is the best painting I have found, by the Neapolitan painter Pacecco de Rosa, commemorating this touching scene.
Blaise was caught up in a final burst of persecution in the Roman Empire against Christians, which was the fruit of a vicious power struggle between the co-Emperors Constantine and Licinius. It is narrated that Blaise was arrested and dragged before the local governor and “invited” to abjure his faith. Here we have the scene commemorated in a stained glass window from Picardie, in northern France.
Of course, Blaise did no such thing. In fact, he used the occasion to lambaste idolatry (no doubt using strong and colourful language to make his point). At which, the governor in a fury ordered his men to torture Blaise. Which they did, with gusto, using combs or brushes with pointed metal teeth to tear his flesh to pieces. This is the best painting, by Filippo Vitale, another Neapolitan painter, which I could find of this painful event. I particularly like the Caravaggesque approach adopted by the painter. I have to say, I also find the pop-eyed torturer fantastic.
I feel moved, however, to also add a picture here of a section of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted Saint Blaise, because he made a great a depiction of the saint holding a wicked-looking pair of combs. Imagine having your skin scraped with those things!
In passing, I have to say that I am always amazed at the wonderfully inventive tortures early Christian hagiographers came up with for their martyrs. The muscular-looking lady in the green dress below Saint Blaise in the Last Judgement is Saint Catherine, holding the spiked wheel which she was meant to be broken on. I have written an earlier post about the flaying of St. Bartholomew. I went to a school whose patron saint was St. Laurence; he was basically grilled like a pork chop over a fire. The list of incredible tortures is endless …
But I digress. For some reason – no doubt because he was a saint – Blaise survived this harrowing of the flesh. He was thrown into jail, presumably to give his jailers time to think up even more hideous ways of torturing him. But they were clearly not up to the task, for the next thing we are told is that the governor ordered Blaise to be drowned in the nearby river. His men duly threw him into the river, where he miraculously floated. In frustration, they hauled him to the shore and cut off his head. And that was the end of Blaise (although I have to ask myself, if he could miraculously float in the river why could he not also miraculously stop the sword from cutting his head off? But, as they say, God moves in mysterious ways).
Blaise might have been dead but his reputation lived on. Over the centuries, he became the patron saint of various things. The one that interests us here is that he is the saint to whom one prays if one has a sore throat. Well, sore throats are a very common ailment for us humans, especially at this time of the year, but they are not life-threatening. So initially I found it somewhat surprising that people in the old days felt the need for a saint to intercede specifically for sore throats. But then it occurred to me that perhaps I was actually just reflecting the modern state of our health. Perhaps in the old days a sore throat was actually often the harbinger of something much more deadly creeping up on us, especially if we were children. For instance, scarlet fever starts with a sore throat. It predominantly strikes children between the ages of 5 and 15. Scarlet fever is now treatable with antibiotics, but in the pre-antibiotic days, i.e., any time before World War II, it could be deadly, as I have just seen in the film Little Women. Strep throat, which is a cousin of some sort to scarlet fever, also comes to mind. This is another disease that predominantly strikes children – it is responsible for as much as a third of their sore throats. It is incredibly painful, as I remember from my one run-in with the disease at the age of 10. To make the point, I throw in here a picture of a nice case of strep throat.
Strep throat is now also treatable with antibiotics, but perhaps in the pre-antibiotic days strep throat was more deadly. Then there is whooping cough, which I would assume has a component of sore throat (luckily, never having had whooping cough, I wouldn’t know). Until quite recently pretty much every child caught whooping cough and a not insignificant number died as a result (and still do in developing countries, because they don’t get vaccinated as we do in the developed world). And perhaps there are other diseases out there where sore throats are a warning signal of death around the corner, especially for children – I welcome further elucidation from any of my readers with a medical background.
In any event, my fancy tells me that early Christians had noticed a sometimes deadly correlation between youth and sore throats, and concluded – based on his miracle with the little boy and the fish bone – that Saint Blaise was the ideal saint to pray to when sore throats reared their ugly heads. Out of all this grew a custom that had the faithful flocking to churches on February 3rd, Saint Blaise’s feast day, to have their throats protected for the rest of the year with a special blessing. Although not so common now (I would say that we generally have greater faith in our doctors being able to cure us), it is a custom that lives on. And it’s not just any old blessing that one receives, no sirree! A pair of lit candles are crossed at one’s throat while the blessing is pronounced.
I have never been blessed in this way, so I don’t quite understand how it is that one’s hair isn’t set alight in the process; I would be extremely nervous about the whole thing. Where the idea of involving candles in the ceremony came from I have no idea, although it must be an old tradition. Here is a painting of Saint Blaise by Hans Memling, where readers can see that the Saint is serenely holding a candle.
All of this brings me to the real reason why I’m writing this post. It has to do with Milan, where I am currently spending the winter. The Milanese, like all other good Christians, firmly believed in Saint Blaise’s powers to cure sore throats. Indeed, there is a saying in Milanese dialect which proclaims: San Bias el benediss la gola e el nas, “Saint Blaise, he blesses the throat and the nose” (it seems that the Milanese sensibly extended the saint’s miraculous powers to the nose, or perhaps they simply wanted to make the rhyme). Nevertheless, the Milanese have added a special twist to this credence. Somewhere along the line, they concluded that eating panettone was just as good at protecting their throats as were two crossed candles and a priest’s benediction. So the ceremony in church was followed by a sit-down at home to eat a slice of panettone.
For those of my readers who are not familiar with this glory of Milanese cuisine, I throw in a picture.
Panettone is a type of sweet bread loaf. It’s been around since at least 1599, date of the first credible mention of it in the written records. What we see today, though, is not what our ancestors would have seen in 1599 or indeed at any time before 1919. In that year, the manufacture of panettone was revolutionized. An enterprising Milanese baker by the name of Motta introduced a new proofing step, where the dough was allowed to rise in not one but in three separate stages over a period of 20 hours. It is that which ensures the panettone’s tall domed shape as well as its wonderful fluffiness. A few years later, he was copied (“the recipe was adapted”) by another enterprising Milanese baker called Alemagna. The Motta and the Alemagna brands of panettone have been battling it out ever since.
I suspect that panettone originally looked more like a fruitcake (or plum cake to the English), which my French grandmother was very fond of and liked to buy for the Christmas festivities.
This too was the original role of panettone. It was a special, sweet bread that the Milanese made for Christmas. Like all these things, I would imagine that the “fruit” that Milan’s housewives and bakers added to their panettoni were closely guarded family secrets. Nowadays, as the Italian Government strives to give the panettone a DOP certification, the additions have been standardized: raisins – dry and not soaked! – as well as the candied zests of orange, lemon, and citron (the last of which I have written about in an earlier post).
I’m sure my alert readers will have noticed a problem. Panettone was originally made only at Christmas while the feast day of Saint Blaise is on February 3rd. Undeterred, the Milanese made it a habit of setting aside part of their Christmas panettone to eat on Saint Blaise’s day after they had braved their annual encounter with the crossed – and lighted! – candles. How exactly they kept their panettone from going stale in the meantime I don’t know. The web is full of suggestions on this topic for fruitcake, my favourite being to wrap it in towels soaked in brandy or wine and then in something like oiled paper. And anyway, as my wife sensibly remarked, if the panettone had become a trifle stale it could always be dunked in milk or tea or coffee.
But nowadays the Milanese don’t need to bother putting aside a piece of their Christmas panettone. No foodstuff is seasonal anymore, and panettone is no exception; you can buy it any time of the year. In fact, in a canny marketing move, sellers of panettone in Milan will offer two panettoni for the price of one on Saint Blaise’s day. Which is really why I’m so excited that it’s 3rd February today. I can buy two wonderfully delicious panettoni for the price of one! The moment I’ve posted, I’m off down the road to buy them, like this gentleman has (although he seems to have scarfed down half a panettone before even leaving the shop).
And maybe on the way back I’ll pop into a church to have my throat blessed. You never know …
Saint Blaise blessing the child: http://necspenecmetu.tumblr.com/post/46439176152/giovanni-francesco-de-rosa-pacecco-de-rosa-the
Saint Blaise before the governor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Blaise
Saint Blaise being harrowed: https://www.flickr.com/photos/91590072@N04/15982366258
Saint Blaise in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/galleries/michelangelo_last_judgment
Strep throat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streptococcal_pharyngitis
Blessing of the throat: https://www.gazzettadiparma.it/scheda/246883/San-Biagio—la-benedizione.html
Saint Blaise holding a candle: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_de_S%C3%A9baste
Two panettoni: http://gateau.catamarcainfo.com/what-to-eat-with-panettone/