Augustine’s Toothache

As I agonize my way through Augustine’s Confessions in Latin, a project I should be able to finish by the time I retire, I continue to find that Augustine is one of the strangest people ever to have lived. Take, for instance, this passage:

dolore dentium tunc excruciabas me, et cum in tantum ingravesceret, ut non valerem loqui, ascendit in cor meum admonere omnes meos, qui aderant, ut deprecarentur te pro me, deum salutis omnimodae. et scripsi hoc in cera et dedi, ut eis legeretur. mox ut genus simplici affectu fiximus, fugit dolor ille. sed quis dolor? aut quomodo fugit? expavi, fateor, domine meus et deus meus: nihil enim tale ab ineunte aetate expertus fueram. (IX.4)

I find it difficult to believe that the biggest drama queen in the history of the world needed to write a message on a piece of wax for his friends to know that he had a toothache — especially the worst toothache he had ever had in his life.

But I do like that he was afraid when praying for its healing actually worked, and that his surprise was partly based on its severity. (“Yes, God can of course heal minor toothaches, but this one was serious!”)

3 thoughts on “Augustine’s Toothache

  1. I’m no expert on the issue, but I understand that tooth decay and other diseases associated with teeth and gums were a major cause of death in the ancient world. The severity of this can perhaps best be seen from the recent case of a child in the US. The way the state’s health plan was set up, he could not receive dental care for his abscessed tooth. Eventually, the abscess spread to his brain and he died on the operating table.

  2. Perhaps I am being insensitive to Augustine’s situation.

    This may actually be the first reference to a toothache that I’ve ever read in pre-modern literature, so I wasn’t cognizant of the scope of the problem — though it is clear enough in retrospect.

  3. Gerd Theissen has written an excellent sociological study of medicine and disease and sickness within the context of the so-called Jesus Movement. He relates the rise of Christianity in particular to these phenomena and provides a functionalist explanation for miracles, especially faith healings.

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