Magazine article The Spectator

A Chinese Invention, a Hippocratic Therapy, a French Import and a Sinister Metaphor

Magazine article The Spectator

A Chinese Invention, a Hippocratic Therapy, a French Import and a Sinister Metaphor

Article excerpt

From time to time Nancy, a lady from the Philippines, comes to our house to give my wife a massage. Last Saturday she gave me one, too. She is highly skilled and appears to use great strength. But I suspect much of the power she exerts springs from meticulous exploitation of the force of gravity, for, by correct adjustment of her table, which she brings with her, and her own precise positioning, she makes her weight do the work. All the same, she takes an hour with each client, is relentlessly thorough and hard at it every second. I asked if it tired her. 'No, but it makes me hungry.'

The Chinese and Japanese have always used massage - once, in Tokyo, a Japanese expert massaged my spine muscles, with delicate precision, by using her toes while standing on top of me - and it gradually crept westwards. In the age of Socrates, the great Hippocrates from the island of Cos is said to have invented a method of kneading the flesh and muscles to cure constipation. But then Hippocrates is said to have invented everything to do with medicine, and if you inquire into his writings you find that the books attributed to him offer contradictory advice and that not one of them can confidently be certified as authentic. What interests me is the use of the word 'kneaded', since our modern word originally derives from the Portuguese amassar, a baker's term for what you do with the massa, or dough. The Portuguese in Goa got themselves massaged by sinewy Indian fakirs to alleviate the debilitating effects of the climate. The French colonists picked it up from them, coining the word mater or masser, and it first appears in print in Le Gentil's Voyages dans les mers de Inde, describing froggish expatriates of 1779.

If the French brought massage to modern Europe - bare-knuckle boxers used it in Regency England and Byron adopted it from his trainer, Gentleman John Jackson - that would explain why the terminology of the science is in French. Thus, the three principal forms of hand massage, all of which Nancy uses, are as follows. There is stroking, varying from gentle to extremely hard, to relax the muscles, regularise circulation and increase the flow of blood to the heart. That is effleurage. Then there is petrissage, or pushing, squeezing, kneading and friction, which stretches the muscles and tendons and makes movement easier. Finally, there is tapotement, a form of percussion, in which the masseur uses the sides of the hands to drum rapidly on the skin, again to improve circulation. There are many other tricks of the trade, and doubtless these have French names too.

I reflected, while on the table, that massage is one of those words which have acquired a bad reputation. Actually, being massaged is a harmless and often beneficial activity, self-indulgent to be sure, but not enormously so, and to be associated with the energetic rather than the sybaritically supine. When David Low was satirising the English upper classes in the 1930s, he always drew his Colonel Blimp emerging from the steam bath and being pummelled, apparently as a sign of decadence. But Blimp had fought on the Somme and, anyway, even Stalin had his personal masseur - indeed it is far more common in Russia than it has ever been in England, or Ancient Rome for that matter.

What is clear, however, is that in England and America, once massage became routine in big cities, the word 'massage', with its naughty French tang, had the insidious term 'parlour' appended to it and became synonymous with a brothel. The Anglo-Saxons, unlike the French, did not have the hardihood to make what they termed 'houses of ill fame' lawful, and clothed prostitution in the form of therapy, just as the whores who waited outside the barracks at Aldershot, Catterick etc. …

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