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Dialect Proverbs
If a “poor man” falls ill there’s no hope La malattia de lu villanu dura vintiquattr’ore
A lla sira lu dottore, a lla mane lu Signore

[The illness of a peasant lasts for twenty-four hours
In the evening the doctor, in the morning the Lord]
(Salento)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

Another insight into a past that we know only very indirectly: we’ve read something about it, mainly in novels or stories, but they are conditions and lifestyles so different from ours that we see them as if covered in a patina of unreality, or at least of incredulity. Not even our imagination can help us. Of course illnesses still exist, but we have the doctor the health system provides, the nearby chemist and the hospital: and if something goes wrong we protest, we write to the newspapers and we are shocked. But in the past?

Today’s proverb is an instant summing up of what used to happen, particularly in the poorest of categories. You’re sick? You can only call the doctor if it’s a serious illness: there’s no health insurance, and to be able to afford his fees you have to – for example – kill a chicken or a hen, that is, sacrifice an important source of income, if not your lunch and dinner. The doctor comes after a day or two or three (he lives a long way away, the roads are uneven and dangerous, the carriage travels slowly and he has so much to do…), he has very few instruments at his disposal to help him make a diagnosis, and even fewer remedies, often more dangerous than the illness: the poultices, the purges, the blood-letting. His doctrine is based more on the knowledge handed down to him than on any clinical or therapeutic training and his remedies make use of those of folk tradition rather than any scientific, pharmaceutical ones. You can’t be sure that his standards of hygiene are exactly impeccable, either.

In these conditions, without the medicines that we know to be necessary these days, but also without the support of sufficient food (hunger is a very frequent condition, almost the norm), what might happen to the patient? He simply gets worse. And extreme unction is soon ready: in the evening the doctor comes, observes, examines, shakes his head and raises his eyes to heaven; in the morning the priest comes, prays, gives the unction and his blessing, and raises his eyes to heaven. Another human parabola has been completed.

Our proverb cleverly synthesizes a set of conditions that history describes to us with nightmarish stories, and that demography and statistics define with startling numbers. These days in Italy we have a “life expectancy” of about 80 years (to be exact: 79,4 for men and 84,5 for women), but if we go back in time the numbers are very different. And we don’t even have to go very far back: the “life expectancy” fifty years ago was 65 years, eighty years ago it was 55, in 1900 it was only 43. Not to mention the previous century: anyone born in 1880 could be expected to last only 35 years. More or less like in Ancient Rome.

The average, up to a few decades ago, was drastically reduced by wars, famine, epidemics, starvation and illnesses. Famine and epidemics were closely linked because hunger weakened people, rendering them more vulnerable, and epidemics spread easily in populations that were already debilitated and anyway completely unaware of any preventive measures.

The lower social classes were naturally more exposed than others to the risk of falling ill and dying young, because they lived in such extreme conditions. In the 17th century it is estimated that 20% of newborn babies died if born to the middle classes, but almost 40% if born to the proletariat, and that the percentages rose respectively to 38% and to 62% in the first ten years of life. If we think of the rural proletariat, let’s say in the 17th and 18th century (most of our proverbs are believed to have originated then), we must understand that falling seriously ill and dying, at whatever age, was certainly not an exceptional occurrence: it was normal for a peasant to pass swiftly from the hands of the doctor into those of the priest, and from medicine to extreme unction.

If we look carefully then, our proverb represents a human tragedy in two acts, with two rhyming and rhythmical verses that have as protagonists the fundamental themes of the human condition of the time: the precarious nature of life (illness), the inferiority of the social condition (the peasant) the fleeting nature of time (twenty-four hours), the superfluity and transience of earthly life (the doctor) and the inevitability of the Eternal (the Lord).

An instant synthesis. A chapter of history in two lines.

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