What was our Ancestors’ Cause of Death ? – Fraisen (infantile convulsions)

„Da krieg’ i ja die Pockerlfras!”

This is an old Austrian saying used when someone is very agitated and starts trembling because of fury.

The word “Pockerlfras” includes the cause of death of many infants in previous centuries: Fraisen (also known as Fraißen, Fraser or Freisen) which were infantile convulsions.

Origin of the term

The word Fraisen derives from the Middle High German term “vreise”, meaning anxiety, fury or horror. (1)

(“Pockerl” is an old Viennese term for turkey, by the way.)

Fraisen was used as for all infant diseases involving convulsions. (2)

Disease Pattern and Cause

In the Austrian Magazine for Midwives from the year 1910, there is the following description of the disease pattern:

Hebammenzeitung 1.July 1910, page 286, via ANNO of the Austrian National Library

(Translation: “Fraisen:  One of the most terrifying diseases of infants are Fraisen. An infant with Fraisen shows similarities to an adult with epileptic seizures. The seizure starts with the eyes rolling and with an eerie gaze which indicates a dwindling of consciousness. There are twists of the facial muscles, often only on one side with a twist of the corner of the mouth, leading to a convulsive closing of the jaws. Older infants start to grind their teeth.
The muscles, arms and legs are numb which is interrupted by convulsions comparable to electric shocks.

The main reason for Fraisen was the very short time between pregnancies of women. The result of it was a shortage of vitamin D and calcium which lead to convulsions of the infants at the age of about 3 weeks. (1)

The chance for a survival was higher for the first two children, as the mother still had natural reserves. If there were at least two years in between pregnancies, the infant also had much higher chances to survive, as the reserves of the mother could recover (mostly by milk).

Our ancestors did not know the reason for the convulsions. To their mind, the illness was caused by anxiety or horror of the mother in the pregnancy or in the time of nursing. (3) Some families however seem to intuitively have done the right thing, as their children were born with longer time periods between the births.

If the cause of death Fraisen is stated for grown-up persons in registers, this is often an indication for epilepsy.

Efforts to Cure the Disease

In order to distinguish Fraisen from other diseases, cold water was poured over the child’s head. If the child did not calm down, it was suffering from another disease. (3)

Another idea was to fight shock with shock through a slap in the face. (3)

Magic offered additional possibilities. I did find various possible cures for Fraisen. Here are some of them:

  • “Fraisen Bonnets” were exquistely decorated hoods made out of linen or silk.  Religious symbols were painted on the bonnets as for example the Virgin Mother or Saint Valentin, patron of the epileptic. Pregnant women had to wear the bonnets during the child-birth and later on, the infant also wore them, in order to avoid the seizures. On the Homepage of “Wiener Zeitung” Newspaper there is a photo . (4), (5)
  • “Fraisbriefe” – were larger pieces of paper filled with blessings (Blessing of Saint Benedikt, Saint Agatha,  Saint Zachary) and prayers. They were folded nine times and put on the babys’ chests for protection. (1), (5)
    On the webpage  www.sagen.at, an example is shown.
  • “Fraisensteine” pieces of clay from a place of pilgrimage  with a picture of the Saint of the place. People used to put small pieces of the clay into drinks as a form of medicine.  (1), (5)
  • “Fraisenketten” were necklaces with charms on them (mostly an odd number).
    On the  Homepage of SRF in an example of such a necklace. The used charms were manifold:  pennies of Saint Francis, parts of deer antlers, wolf teeth, medaillons of Saint Mary, mumified heads of mice, tongues of capercaillies, burnt feathers of peacocks, swallows’ nests or pieces of dried umbilical cords.  (1), (5)

Wellcome Library, London, Fraiskette. Collection: Wellcome Images Copyrighted under CC BY 4.0

My Ancestors

The oldest entry for Fraisen as cause of death in my family tree is from the year 1789. In earlier times, the cause of death was often not recorded in the church books). The latest death caused by Fraisen in my family tree occured in 1914.

Here is one example for the tragic death of a new born caused by Fraisen:  Barbara Stich, daughter of  Paul Stich, farmer and his wife Barbara, died on 17th August 1805 aged 9 months. She was the youngest of the couples’ nine children.

Sources (in German)

(1) „Mit Magie gegen die Bockerlfraß“, Wolfgang Regal/Michael Nanut, Ärzte Woche 22/2007, © 2007 Springer-Verlag GmbH, http://www.springermedizin.at/artikel/8758-mit-magie-gegen-die-bockerlfrass-narrenturm-101

(2) Meyers Kleines Konversations-Lexikon, Siebente, gänzlich neubearbeitete und vermehrte Auflage in sechs Bänden, Leipzig und Wien 1908, zweiter Band, Schlagwort „Fraisen“

(3) Heilwissen in alter Zeit: Bäuerliche Heiltraditionen, Inge Friedl
Leseprobe bei google books

(4) Homepage der Wiener Zeitung, Artikel „Wiener Museumsstücke, Therapien mit Hauben und Hühnern“ vom 29.11.2005, Autor Johann Werfring

(5) Wikipedia, Eintrag „Fraisenkette“

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