Secret gift of village healers

To outsiders, the French can seem obsessed with illness, if not borderline hypochondriac.

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They accumulate an extensive knowledge of diseases and at the first sight of a rash, sprain or runny nose, they rush off to see their GP.

Held in great esteem for their superior intellect, doctors will generally tell their patients what they already know. That they’re ill. Then they will prescribe a large number of tablets, creams or suppositories to alleviate la maladie.

You can’t take much paid time off work for illness in France without a medical certificate.

Pulling a quick sickie is therefore not on the cards. You’ll have to traipse to the toubib, as doctors are familiarly known, and you will be handed a long list of drugs to get from la pharmacie, where you wait an eternity and leave with a carrier bag full of pills.

In some rural areas, doctors are scarce – a growing problem in France, particularly with an ageing population.

But here there is one kind of practitioner you won’t find on any register, or in the Pages Jaunes. The rebouteux – the village healer – offers alternative treatments that are more mystical than medical.

The (usually elderly) rebouteux receive steady streams of patients to their clandestine surgeries all over France.

What happens during a séance – consultation is shrouded in mystery. There may be a laying-on of hands or manipulation of articulations accompanied by silent or murmured recital of texts, to extract the problem from the patient.

The “gift” seems to be secret prayers, often evoking or soliciting saints or spirits, transmitted through the generations.

Traditionally, healers are indivisible with a deep religious belief, although this appears to be more through appropriation rather than canonical scripture.

In any case, there must be something in it because there are no shortage of patients through la bouche à oreille – word of mouth. The rebouteux see it as their duty and responsibility to help people with the “gift” by not charging for their services, although it is normal to leave a donation.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as mumbo jumbo. Medical experts inevitably cite the placebo effect to explain any positive outcome, but the taking of medicine has long been known to possess a significant placebo value itself.

There have been instances of doctors referring patients to healers, even in hospitals. If we have to have faith in something, pourquoi pas le rebouteux ? It’s just a kind of magic.