On Monday, 9 May 1446, at 8 o’clock in the morning, Jehan Badren is bitten on the hand by a rabid dog. He immediately goes to pray in his village church at Wissous, not far from Longjumeau, in today’s Departement de Seine-et-Oise. This region is rich, and close to Paris, where there are more doctors than anywhere else in France. Jehan and his family are comfortably off, and can afford medical care.
In the church, he moans to a woman near him: “I am dead!” The dog had innoculated him with rabies. He is absolutely convinced of it. Like everyone else at this time, he knows the symptoms, the evolution and the end of this illness. As far back as recorded History goes, men have always known that rabies is mortal. Jehan knows that he will first suffer some uncontrolled movements, then lose control completely. He knows that there is nothing to be done, that no doctor from his own parish, or elsewhere, has the power to cure him.
In spite of this, Jehan Badren, his brother Regnault, his wife and his children, will all try to do what they can to save him. Immediately after the bite, they dressed his wound by covering it with the famous theriac, already known in the time of Galien, which is made of viper flesh mixed with a quantity of plants, nettles, garlic, plantain, or with urine, and is used in the case of stings or bites from a venimous animal.
Today, we recognize the vasoconstrictive properties of nettles, the antiseptic properties of garlic and the healing properties of urine, already known in the Middle Ages, but we also know that there is nothing in this strange composition that can efficiently fight rabies. The incubation period of the disease is three weeks to three months, and the bite will heal like any other, without any sign of illness being visible at first. Therefore, a little time remains for prayer and divine intercession.
There is a tiny chance that the attacking animal had not entered the critical stage of the illness. On the advice of a few people, Jehan Badren enlists the company of Jehan Morillon, and decides to go to the miraculous sanctuary of Saint-Hubert d’Ardenne, a voyage that will last at least two weeks. Passing through Paris, Jehan is given a tin of balm by a surgeon. Passing through Saint-Denis, he prays at the tomb of Saint-Louis in the basilica of the kings of France.
Once at Saint-Hubert d’Ardenne, he contacts the vicar of the church which shelters the remains of the patron saint of hunters. Because legend has it that Hubert had brought back from Rome a miraculous stole, which had the power to cure rabies, he receives a tiny piece of cloth with healing virtues, like any other sick person asking for help. Having ordered a novena, then several abstinences and devotions indicated by the vicar, Jehan returns to Wissous.
A few days after his arrival, he begins to feel tingling and pain in the region of the now healed bite. The barber from Juvisy who is called to bleed him, refuses to operate because of his restless state. Jehan’s comportment slowly changes as his nervous centres become hypersensitive, provoking depression or excitation, one after the other.
He repeats to his brother: “I am dead… you no longer have a brother”, and declares to his family and to the priest that he wants to make a Will. Then, as the sun sets, he asks his friends to tie his hands and feet for the night, because he fears to be unable to control himself. Everything has become impossible for him to stand. Any sensorial stimulation, a draught of air or the sight of a face approaching his bed, provokes violent contractures which attack his whole body and twist his arms and legs.
He has such difficulty breathing that his upper body curves, the contracture of his pharynx and oesophagus stops him from drinking, in spite of his raging thirst. The barber is called back. He is wearing vermilion sleeves, whose bright colour so frightens Jehan, that he loses his senses and his memory. The barber gets angry. He says that they are very nasty people to leave this man in such suffering. There is a way to put an end to it…
The attacks re-occur like this, in intervals of a few days. There are moments of rest, during which the patient even thinks that he is cured. He exclaims: “Let the bells be rung! I am cured! It is a miracle!” At no moment is the sick man abandoned. However, those who watch over him day and night, start to be afraid when they see him frothing at the mouth all the time, and exhaust himself trying to control his convulsive movements. Regnault orders them to watch his brother even more closely. He wants to prevent him from denying the Creator in the middle of an attack, which would be irremediable at the Final Judgement.
On the last night, because he is suffering too much, and because his wife and children, completely desperate, have agreed with everyone else’s opinion, his four robust guardians suffocate Jehan under a quilt. The priest is not present this night. His function would have constrained him to intervene against the euthanasia.
The appalling story of Jehan Braden is edifying for more than one reason but, in particular, for its end. In the “letter of remission” that the King of France wrote to Regnault afterwards, the trace of which remains in the archives, he excuses him “for having killed a brother who was going to die in atrocious suffering”. Rabies, whose violence depasses all other illnesses, is the only one, at this time, for which euthanasia is allowed, with comprehension and compassion from the authorities, and a royal pardon.