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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Vintage Voice: The Clyster Fad

I have always been unabashedly curious and eager to learn new and fascinating things, although my choice of what I find fascinating and interesting is admittedly debateable. (See older posts about napkin-folding.)

A book that I have found endlessly entertaining, compiled and written by Charles Panati, includes a section titled, "Vanished Vogues". The title itself must certainly be self-explanatory. One such 'vanished vogue' that was so astonishing and disturbing it almost boggles the mind, was the clyster fad of 17th- century France.  For those who are not familiar, a "clyster" was another word for an enema (from the Greek klyster, to 'wash out'.) It's difficult for modern folks to appreciate and understand the heights the enema fad reached, unless you consider the dieting and physical fitness obsession of contemporary society.

Louis XIV, the "Sun King", ruled France for 73 years, the longest reign in European history. Under his guidance, the ways of the French became the height of culture and refinement; in dress, food,drink, manners and even enemas. The clysters, sometimes administered 4 times a day, were often performed by pharmacists, who were known as limonadiers des posterieurs, which literally means "lemonaders of the rear end". They worked out of fashionable chemist's boutiques and possessed an array of aromatic mixtures and syringe tips of different shapes, sizes and lengths.  As some people today may have a personal fitness trainer, the fashionable 17th-century noble had a personal limonadier in his employ.

The limonadier determined the syringe configuration that aligned best with the patient's bowels and depending on the mood and state of health, the clyster mixture might contain extract of orange blossom, angelica, thyme, rosemary or damask rose. Some syringes were made of elaborate materials like gold, mother-of-pearl, or tortoiseshell.  Administering  a clyster was considered a high art and trained limonadiers practiced and advertised their skills; a limonadier was supposed to be a "skilled tactician" and  "gentle and discreet". Much of the literature of the day featured prose and poetry about clysters and described the preferred techniques in heavy, almost erotic details.

The clyster was like a daily vitamin pill, facial and high-fiber breakfast all in one. It was touted to cleanse and rejuvenate and restore health. During the reign of the Sun King, a day without a clyster was a day without care for health and basic hygiene! Nobility and royalty typically took 4 clysters a day, while commoners often administered their own. Even in French jails, prisoners were not deprived of their right to have a daily clyster. Advertisements and word of mouth encouraged the popularity of clysters and their reputation for increasing sexual potency and even curing impotency heightened their appeal.  The "sexual clysters" were concoted by apothecaries from secret ingredients and  cost more than regular enemas. The sexual enemas were known as restaurants, the present participle of the French word restaurer (meaning "to restore").

After receiving a restaurant, elderly women were said to turn skittish and men of all ages, to be "fiery". This "clyster high" was attributed to the fact that the most popular of rejuvenating enemas was the tobacco clyster. Physicians claimed it purified the system and alleviated cramps of the stomach and bowels, not suspecting that the nicotine in the tobacco was absorbed directly into the bowel, which produced not only a nicotine rush, but probably addiction as well, which might explain in part clyster abuse.

To the 17th-century physician, the clyster was an indispensable tool; constipation was considered a lethal condition. To the medical world, which believed fully in the "humors" of the body, vapors emitted from accumulating wastes in the body was poison and produced "black bile"; the dreaded melancholic humor. Disease was thought for many centuries to be caused by an excess of "ill juices" ( the theory of the four humors) and many healthy women, men and children were purged, either by bloodletting or clysters to keep them fit.

Excessive purging weakens and ruptures the bowels and thousands of people died from peritonitis, but the theory of the four humors and the practice of purging continued on, unabated, until well into the 19th century.

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