Thursday, March 14, 2013

curiouser and curiouser

Well, she looks happy.

For the past few months, either because I just haven't had the time to get a new book, or simply through sheer laziness, I've been reading and re-reading Madame Bovary inside out. It was the book that just happened to be at hand when I was stuck in bed, and it never left. I'd read it several times over in the past, so now I honestly think I must know the thing inside out haha... I cannot help being fascinated by Flaubert's observations of human character and weakness; his study of human relations and domestic life are to me surpassed only by Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

But this is not a post about Madame Bovary -- it is a post about bloodletting. Yes, bloodletting. You see, there's this pivotal part in the novel where Emma meets Rodolphe for the first time; on that occasion, he is bringing his ploughman to Emma's husband to be bled. Well, anyone who's read anything from antiquity till the late 19th century will surely have come across the curious practice; I think we all have some vague notion of what it's about, sometimes even seeing it done in the odd movie or two.

In the English translation, the man insists on being bled because he "felt a tingling all over". I remember reading the original French in school, which said that he "voulait etre saigne parce qu'il eprouvait des fourmis le long du corps" -- something like "he felt ants all along his body". I wasn't quite sure I understood how bloodletting would help; however, considering that all the characters in the novel went ahead with it quite willingly, I think it's obvious that this was a common treatment for general vague things like that.

Well, having read it again and again and again over the past months, I finally decided to look it up. And this was what I discovered: "Bloodletting was based on an ancient system of medicine in which blood and other bodily fluid were regarded as "humors" that had to remain in proper balance to maintain health. It was the most common medical practice performed by physicians...

"It is conceivable that historically, in the absence of other treatments for hypertension, bloodletting could sometimes have had a beneficial effect in temporarily reducing blood pressure by reducing blood volume. However, since hypertension is very often asymptomatic and thus undiagnosable without modern methods, this effect was unintentional. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the historical use of bloodletting was harmful to patients...

"Bloodletting is one of the oldest medical techniques, having been practiced among ancient peoples including the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Mayans, and the Aztecs... "Bleeding" a patient to health was modeled on the process of menstruation. Hippocrates believed that menstruation functioned to "purge women of bad humors"...

"Even after the humoral system fell into disuse, the practice was continued by surgeons and barber-surgeons. Though the bloodletting was often recommended by physicians, it was carried out by barbers... The red-and-white-striped pole of the barbershop, still in use today, is derived from this practice: the red represents the blood being drawn, the white represents the tourniquet used, and the pole itself represents the stick squeezed in the patient's hand to dilate the veins. Bloodletting was used to "treat" a wide range of diseases, becoming a standard treatment for almost every ailment...

"A number of different methods were employed. The most common was phlebotomy, or venesection (often called "breathing a vein"), in which blood was drawn from one or more of the larger external veins, such as those in the forearm or neck... Leeches could also be used. The withdrawal of so much blood as to induce syncope (fainting) was considered beneficial, and many sessions would only end when the patient began to swoon...

"Today it is well established that bloodletting is not effective for most diseases... However, in the case of hemochromatosis, which is now recognized as the most common genetic, or inherited, disorder, frequent bloodletting has become an essential, and life-saving procedure" (sourced from Wikipedia).

I was particularly intrigued by the reference to the barber pole -- who knew?

21 comments:

Sulky Kitten said...

I am incredibly squeamish when it comes to blood, especially my own. They'd never have gotten me to agree to any of this. I practically faint even having to give a blood sample.I wonder what medical treatments we have today will be looked back at in wonder?

The Dainty Dolls House said...

Hmm...interesting! I've read some of this book. I became interested in the blood letting when I would see it done in period dramas. Thank goodness, I wasn't around and that time & needed it, it always makes me cringe when I see them do it. But, it did seem to help people. It's all very interesting. Have a great day xx

Pizziricco said...

certainly the barbers of today don't, not esp. in Asiatic parts of the globe i'm certain of that. also, aren't we all glad we didn't live in those times? hurrghh ...

Claudia Aguilar said...

Oh my!! I am sure glad we live in the 21st Century!!

Chelsea St.Pierre said...

we sure have come a long way!!!!!!!!!and thank goodness for that!!I would like to invite you to my gratitude giveaway on my blog, super simple!!!hop over when you get a chance! tight hugs

Christine Altmiller said...

the barber pole meaning is very interesting. funny, how the pole has stood the test of time even though the practice of blood letting has not. this was a most fascinating and very unexpected read :-) thanks!

Optimistic Existentialist said...

My sister LOVES this book! I have never read it myself. We have certainly come a long way indeed thank goodness lol.

Rowena @ rolala loves said...

I'm so glad for the advances of modern medicine but I do believe there is still validity to some ancient practices.

Rowena @ rolala loves

Birdie said...

I read a lot of non-fiction books on history and it is amazing how common it was. I wonder at what point someone finally realized how dangerous it was? It also makes me wonder what things we do now that will seem absurd 100 years from now?

Dee said...

My husband has hemochromatosisa but only in one gene if it was two genes his prognosis would not be good. They were going to do blood letting which remove's the Iron from the blood. The Iron damages organs. In his case it was beginning to damage his liver. He had to take a really awful medicine because his heart is bad.

Magic Love Crow said...

This is so interesting! Excellent post! I wouldn't want this done to me! LOL! I'm happy things have changed! ;o) I never knew that about the barber pole either! Don't have any nightmares tonight! LOL! Hopefully I won't ;o)

AntiquityTravelers said...

what an interesting post Janice! who knew? so glad they don't do that anymore as I can barely stand to have my blood drawn for a sample. I don't know about leeches! yikes!

aki! said...

I will never look at a barber pole in the same way again.

7% Solution​

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

I'm happy to be living in a period where there are substantial medical advancements. I recently read an article of some of the things they did in the past and it was horrifying!

I'd read about the bloodletting at some point but had forgotten about the barber pole. Yes, who knew....

Kim (A Very Sweet Blog) said...

i read about this practice in school. highly dangerous and cured nothing. i didn't know about the barber pole. very interesting. excellent post.
http://www.averysweetblog.com/

trishie said...

Well, I certainly learnt something new today. Sounds pretty scary to be honest, especially when its barbers that carry out the work. But at least now I know why there's a red and white stripe pole outside the barbershop!

Debbie Nolan said...

Now that was very interesting. Naturally I had head about blood letting but the barber's pole is an amazing part of this information. Who could guess -thanks so much for sharing. Have a great day.

Sabrina said...

I recall reading somewhere (possibly Wikipedia, as I'm frequently on it because I LOVE random trivia and history) that the idea of bloodletting had to do with the "humors" in the body, as you have stated above. It's really interesting to me how medical science develops throughout history as it has an almost overwhelming relationship with the culture and religion at the time. I adored Anna Karenina, so I'll definitely have to check out Madame Bovary! Thanks for the book recommendation!

xo,
Sabrina
http://www.rougespark.com

Birdie said...

This is so weird because just after I read your blog I met someone who has to have blood letting regularly. This person h the disorder you mentioned where his body does not process iron properly and it gets extremely high so he has to go and have his blood drained. So weird.

Almost Precious said...

Very interesting post. I'm quite happy that medicine and science has progressed beyond the stage of blood-letting and that we also accept the fact that the Sun and not the Earth is in the center of our Solar System. :)

I saw a program on TV that mentioned George Washington (the first president of the USA) died basically from the loss of too much blood during blood letting. He was suffering from an infection and his doctor kept prescribing blood letting. Eventually between the loss of blood and the infection Mr. Washington past away. I cannot imagine what it must have been like before the days of antibiotics.

Iveth M. said...

Wow, this is interesting! I had no idea...

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