Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Francis Xavier’s Giant Seaweed


Fit for a saint? Kelp off the Californian coast.
Photo by richard ling.

I’ve just returned from a two-week holiday in Portugal, spent mostly in Sagres, a small town on the extreme south-western tip of Europe, a windswept area of wild heathland and dramatic sea views. One of the most intriguing documents I saw on holiday was a menu left out on the kitchen worktop of our villa, listing the treatments available at the resort’s Finisterra spa. Spa menus often contain a lot of Asian treatments and references – I’m never sure how far these massages etc. genuinely originate in Thailand or India, and how much spas simply are adding an orientalising flavour to draw people in.

The Finisterra brochure rather took me aback, because its core ‘rituals’ (2 hour treatments, costing 160 Euros) are inspired not by ancient Siamese healing practices, but by fifteenth and early sixteenth century Portuguese history. There is a Henry the Navigator ritual, a ‘relaxing and calming treatment’ which involves a lavender body scrub, a seaweed wrap and a compress of chamomile. There are rituals inspired by Gil Eanes, the Portuguese mariner who first rounded the western bulge of Africa, Cape Bojador, and a Vasco da Gama ritual, which uses aromatic oils, heated jasper and semi-precious stones in reference to his discovery of a sea passage to India. When I saw this, I laughed (of course), but I wasn’t really quite sure what to make of the fact that the great modern scholarship on the Age of Discovery which I read with my General VII (15C European history) students has here been reduced to a very expensive set of massages.

On the one hand, it’s rather encouraging that a spa in the western Algarve, catering almost exclusively to British tourists, is keen to share its national and local history, and takes pride in it – Henry the Navigator’s fort in Sagres is a (heated) stone’s throw from Finisterra. In a way, as a late medievalist I find it flattering that 15C history is seen as relevant, exotic and marketable enough to use in this way. Then again, the rituals do seem to trivialise Iberia’s dramatic late medieval history just a little bit. It wasn’t all brave men in caravels – what about the attempted invasions of North Africa, or Portuguese explorers’ role in the West African slave trade? And some of the rituals might simply be in bad taste. The ‘Japan Francisco Xavier’ ritual, for example (a body wrap in a giant seaweed) is inspired by the priests who travelled across the sea to spread Catholicism  –  but a lot of Xavier’s fellow missionaries to Japan, and their local converts (such as the Martyrs of Nagasaki), came to horribly grisly ends. A giant seaweed wrap doesn’t quite seem an appropriate response to that. I’m unlikely ever again to be offered spa rituals based on topics I teach in tutorial, but I didn’t try them. If someone lends me 160 Euros, maybe next time…

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