A day to mark Anthony – Frank McNally on middle-aged running, the Mafia, and the enduring cult of an Italian saint

 Saint Anthony: lost and found. Photograph: Getty Images

Saint Anthony: lost and found. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Around about now, if you’re reading this over Saturday brunch, I am probably sweating in a park somewhere, winding up for the finish of a 5k road race and trying desperately to find a higher gear. Passers-by, if there are any, may be wondering at my sanity, because there will be no other visible participants.

It is of course a socially distanced race, with runners choosing their own courses and start-times, subject to certain parameters (including honesty). To add to the unseen pressures, it’s a team event, so even though the teams were chosen at random, I will be anxious not to let the side down. Our team looks intimidating on paper, but that’s mainly because the other two members of it are both called Tony. Whenever you hear of two Tonys (with or without a Frank) doing something together, it’s usually a Mafia hit squad. 

That was a subplot of Martin Scorsese’s most recent movie, The Irishman, in which characters included “Tony Pro” Provenzano, Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, and a Tony Giacolone, among others.

When Al Pacino, playing a beleaguered Jimmy Hoffa, hears from his confidante that “Tony” has been making sinister comments, he replies, exasperated: “Tony? Which Tony? They’re all named Tony. I mean, what’s the matter with Italians that they can only think of one name?”

As if to underline his point, one of the last surviving real-life suspects for the Hoffa murder was Anthony Palazzolo, a Mafia capo who died last year. Mind you, if the film is to be believed, none of the Tonys did it. The guy Hoffa needed to worry about was Frank.

***

That’s not likely to be the case for any of my rivals in the 5k. But grounds for our team’s optimism do include the fact that today is the feast-day of St Anthony (of Padua), one of the most popular holy men in Christian tradition and still – even in these secular times – considered influential.

His traditional super-power, famously, was being able to find things people had lost.  You prayed to him and/or made a donation in his name, then the stuff turned up. And back when I was a child, it always seemed to work. 

In retrospect – again maybe because of watching too many Martin Scorsese films – the whole thing now looks like a racket, in which Tony “the Saint” first made your property disappear before, on payment of a tribute, “miraculously” relocating it.

From St Anthony’s bewildering range of other supposed powers, the one you didn’t hear about in religion class was a cure for male impotence. This was mentioned in a 16th-century treatise on “Popish and magical cures”, at least.

As paraphrased by a more recent writer on things mystical, the book cited the case of a woman who, being dissatisfied with her husband’s performance, “made a wax likeness of his member and placed it on St Anthony’s altar, asking that it be more courageous and of better […] ability”.

But perhaps that all falls under the saint’s primary portfolio of finding things – even libido – that have gone missing. According to an old folk rhyme, he could also be prevailed on by women to find rich husbands (preferably ones that nobody else had lost).

***

Another condition St Anthony was reputed to heal, now mercifully rare, was ergotism. Not to be confused with egotism – which remains widespread and can be fatal, both for the patient and others – ergotism is a disease caused by a fungus in cereals, especially rye. The saint himself is supposed to have died from it on this date in 1231.

Confusingly, one of its other names  – “St Anthony’s Fire” – derives from a different Anthony, the Egyptian one (251–356AD), via an order of monks named after him, who in later centuries built hospitals and became known for treating ergotism in particular.

As well as painful skin rashes, the illness was often associated with mania, including physical convulsions and hallucination. Thus, it is suspected to have been involved the events that led to Salem witch trials. It is also the presumed cause of the notorious “dancing plague” of 1518, during which hundreds of men, women, and children danced themselves to death, involuntarily, in the streets of Strasbourg.

Once rife throughout Europe, ergotism made its last fatal appearance on the continent in the south of France in 1951. Happily, since then, it has been little heard of anywhere. 

Greater care in processing cereals means that even the current first-world craze for sourdough bread is unlikely to revive it. The nearest thing to dance mania in recent times has been the Floss.

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