Sunday, January 03, 2016
Miguel de Quintana
Weather: Small amounts of snow fell in the nights of Tuesday and Thursday. On Thursday morning, before the last snow, the temperature on my front porch got down to 9.3, the lowest this season. Afternoons temperatures have been in the mid-30s. The snow on the eastern side of the Jémez is still visible. Stars are visible against a dark gray sky.
What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae, other evergreens; leaves on yuccas, grape hyacinth, garlic, vinca, hollyhock, winecup mallow, pink evening primrose, snapdragon, coral beardtongue, anthemis, golden hairy asters, most low or buried; rose stems, June, pampas, and cheat grasses.
What’s blue-green or gray: Leaves on Apache plumes, four-winged saltbushes, pinks.
What’s red or purple: Stems on young peaches, sandbar willows.
What’s yellow or brown: Stems of weeping willows.
What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums.
Animal sightings: Two rabbits.
Weekly update: The cold afternoons came this past week when I was reading about Miguel de Quintana. He was a Santa Cruz poet and dramatist who died in April of 1748 at age 71.
Although the book I was reading didn’t say, I suspect he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. In 1734, one witness said Quintana "rarely goes to mass, giving as an excuse pain in the spleen."
In 1736, a man who visited Quintana said he found him "near death." He also admitted he, himself, hadn’t been active "because of the heavy snowfalls and harsh cold in this region" in the first weeks of April.
The next January, another man said Quintana was "sick in bed from a pain that has been afflicting him for two months. In April, Quintana wrote "both of my bones are somewhat better." By May, he was able to witness a land transfer.
The prevailing medical theory in Nuevo México at the time recommended one keep the four essential humors or chemicals in the body in balance. If the spleen was poor, its black bile sank into the joints causing arthritis and rheumatism.
The terms arthritis and rheumatism were used then, and are now, to describe any pain in the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is a specific condition precipitated by failures in the immune system that cause it to attack the synovial fluid that lubricates joints. This leads to a self-perpetuating chain with damage to bone cells followed by chemical overreactions that lead to more injuries.
The pain may come and go, but always returns. Some arthritis and rheumatism sufferers believe it’s worse with wet or cold weather. Scientists have found independent evidence rheumatoid arthritis pain increases with the low atmospheric pressure that accompanies cloudy weather. They hypothesize it’s a function of the relative weight of dense or thin air pressing on joints. The comments on high humidity and low temperature are too common to be dismissed, but no one has found a similar link yet.
Quintana’s winter illnesses may have come from infections that attacked his weakened system. He was living in a simple adobe house. One can assume it had a dirt floor, a single wood fire, and a poorly sealed entry opening. Once the summer heat retained in the walls was drained, keeping warm must have been difficult. I live in a modern house with central heat that’s reasonably sealed, and my furnace has been running almost continuously as I write this.
While I was reading Quintana’s coloquio, which described his anguish when he thought about painful situations like the Sorrowful Mysteries that relate to Christ’s last days, I began wondering how he treated his arthritic pain, if that’s what he had.
The four humors defined the spleen as a cold and dry organ related to the earth. To bring it back into balance, one used heat and moisture, which were related to air. Rather then bleeding, which was associated with a different humor, David Osborn said conditions of the spleen required increasing circulation.
He added the best herbs were pungent or bitter. Many had "a musky or earthy aroma to them, which resonates with the humor's associated Earth element."
I went through the local herbal collections hoping to discover which had been used in this area. Leonora Curtin collected medicinal plant uses in the 1940s. In 1972, José Ortiz y Pino noted which of her cures had been used in the Galisteo area when he was a child, and added some of his own.
They made their notes 200 years after Quintana lived. I eliminated those that used ingredients introduced to the area since 1750. I also discounted those that came from the mountains. The Utes, Apache, and Comanche were making so many raids in those years that people simply didn’t go beyond settled areas. At least some of the plants had to be available in the winter.
Many of the modern cures involved baths. I eliminated those because I found no evidence people had the necessary utensils. Quintana’s daughter died a year after him. She said she owned an old round-bottomed pot, an old saucepan, three dishes, a new gourd dish, and white mesh for a sieve. Juana Roybal was much wealthier when she died in 1770. Still she only declared a copper kettle, a chocolate pot, some Puebla chinaware, two barrels and a jug in her will.
How ever people were keeping themselves and their clothing clean, it wasn’t with the large tubs or pots we see in artists’ reconstructions. They must have been introduced in trade later.
As I read through the remedies I realized the specific herbs were less important than their applications. People crushed leaves or roots over painful areas, thereby releasing essential chemicals. If that didn’t work, they boiled them in small containers, then dipped cloths in the liquids. They often bound the herbs or soaked fabrics around the affected areas. They also drank the same liquids they used in their compresses.
While they boiled the leaves, roots and stems, no one said if they applied the extracts while they were warm, or if they waited until they cooled. Contemporary medicine recommends applying cold to sore joints to decrease inflamation. It suggests using heat to stimulate the flow of blood.
One plant Curtin and Ortiz y Pino mentioned I know was available was chile. Quintana’s daughter left "seven ristras of chile, two in an old bunch" when she dictated her will in May. Curtin was told a pepper was split, then soaked in warm vinegar for a day. Next, "a cloth is steeped in the liquid and applied to the afflicted part." Ortiz y Pino echoed her comment.
Modern scientists have determined chile, in fact, would have been effective. The important ingredient, capsaicin, binds with the neurotransmitter in the skin that sends pain messages to the brain, and thus reduces its power. An Italian team even found capsaicin, when used in large doses, might also affect the chemicals within the synovial tissue. However, they considered their results preliminary.
Some capsaicin tests have yielded contradictory results. I suspect it’s because the experimenters used different pepper species. Anyone here now knows there are great differences even within Capsicum frutescens.
Christmas, Henrietta Martínez. "Juana Roybal - Will 1770," posted 1 June 2014 on her 1598 New Mexico website.
Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.
Lomelí, Francisco A. and Clark A. Colahan. Defying the Inquisition in Colonial New Mexico, 2006; contains Spanish and English versions of Miguel Quintana’s writings, along with his daughter Lugarda’s will.
Mason, Lorna, R Andrew Moore, Sheena Derry, Jayne E Edwards, and Henry J McQuay. "Systematic Review of Topical Capsaicin for the Treatment of Chronic Pain," British Medical Journal 328:991:2004.
Matucci-Cerinic, M., S. Marabini, S. Jantsch, M. Cagnoni, and G. Partsch. "Effects of Capsaicin on the Metabolism of Rheumatoid Arthritis Synoviocytes in Vitro," Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases 49:598-602:1990.
Ortiz y Pino III, José. The Herbs of Galisteo and Their Powers, 1971.
Osborn, David K. "Pathologies of Black Bile" and "Adjusting and Regulating Black Bile and the Nervous Humor," Greek Medicine website.
Terao, Chikashi, et alia. "Inverse Association between Air Pressure and Rheumatoid Arthritis Synovitis," Plos One, 15 January 2014.
Photographs: Winter sky yesterday, 2 January 2016, around 3:30 pm. The sun is obscured so the temperatures don’t warm and the snow remains in the Jémez. The camera always exaggerates the darkness in the grays.