It would be nice, wouldn't it, a sort of comfort in a morally confusing world, to find some sweeping generalisation we could all agree to, regardless of history, culture or class? Only a brave and doubtless partially informed person would claim definitively to have found anything which all humanity has in common beyond microbiology. Try a life without love being meaningless, the need for the individual to have control of the means of production, or the ubiquitous appeal of the smell of frying onions, and there will always be someone ready to show that these truths are not universal. It's just possible, however, that William Miller has cracked the problem with his simple but glorious statement: 'One simply did not drink pus, even back then.' If we want to find a common response on which all people at all times and all places can agree, then the pus-drinking activity of St Catherine of Siena, c. 1370, is surely where to look. The usual mêlée of cultural and emotional variation falls away in the face of it. Relativism withers at its mention. Not even those whose pus St Catherine drank managed any degree of equanimity. As her hagiographer, Raymundus de Vineis, tells it, only Catherine was prepared to attend one of her fellow nuns whose suppurating breast cancer smelt so bad that no one else could abide being in the same room. So far, so decent. When, however, Catherine came to dress the wound, the stench caused her to vomit. In order to punish her wilful body, and get a saint-like hold on herself, Catherine decanted the pus into a cup and drank it. The patient was less than grateful; she came to loathe Catherine, taking the rather modern view that whenever the 'holy maid was anywhere out of her sight ... she was about some foul act of fleshly pleasure.' She was not so far wrong. Christ appeared to Catherine in a dream, and as a reward for subduing her nature, drew her mouth to the wound in his side and let her drink to her heart's content. We may or may not, down the generations and across belief systems, consider this behaviour holy, but would anyone deny that it is disgusting? Mind you, relativism dies hard: there are South American peoples who regularly feast on manioc root softened with the saliva of the women of the tribe, and groups who make soup out of the ashes of their dead, so let us say that in a variable world it is impossible for us in this time and place to imagine anyone not finding pus-drinking disgusting.
LRB 8 May 1997 | PDF Download