by Elizabeth Goldsmith (Regular Contributor)
The word ‘homesick’ entered the English language sometime in the eighteenth century. In French the phrase is ‘mal du pays,’ and before the nineteenth century, the phrase to indicate homesickness was ‘maladie du pays’, indicating something closer to physical sickness. In fact, until the twentieth century, homesickness was thought to be a potentially fatal ailment. The medical term for the disease was simply ‘nostalgia’.
In America, not surprisingly, the immigrant population was particularly susceptible to this disease, caused by yearning for the old country. Newpapers reported on individual cases and minor epidemics. An article in the San Francisco Evening Examiner (August 12, 1887) described the demise of one Father J. M. McHale under the headline “Victim of Nostalgia: A Priest Dies Craving for a Sight of His Motherland.”
People who felt sick for home were often advised to avoid experiences likely to trigger nostalgia. Music could be especially dangerous. In his Dictionary of Music, Jean-Jacques Rousseau tells us that at the palace of Versailles in the eighteenth century, it was forbidden to sing or play a tune called “Le Ranz des vaches.” This was because soldiers in the Swiss Guard were deserting their posts after hearing it. The melody was traditionally played on the horn by Swiss herdsmen as they drove their cattle to or from the pasture. When the soldiers heard the familiar mournful tune, some of them were overcome with sadness and longed to return to Switzerland. Others became physically ill with the dreaded ‘maladie du pays’, while still others simply abandoned their posts and went home. Perhaps, looking out over the perfectly tended gardens of Versailles, they yearned for a more natural landscape.
Here is a link to “Le Ranz des vaches” on youtube. Judging from some of the comments, it still has the power to provoke homesickness. If you are Swiss and living abroad, be forewarned!