The Medieval Practice of Fire Cutting Is Finding Its Way Into French Hospitals

Angeline Lou is exhausted. She’s in her 50s, but her aching body makes her feel 90. It’s December 2021 and the woman, who lives in the pink-stoned city of Toulouse in southwestern France, is battling breast cancer. Halfway through a tough round of radiotherapy, she’s struggling to cope with the hair loss, the mood swings and the fatigue her treatment is causing. On most days, she can barely get out of bed.

Still, she is surviving. Coming home from the oncology clinic every day, she takes a photo of the right side of her body, sends it to a contact in her phone and waits to be called.

A few hours later, her phone rings. “Hi Angeline, how are you feeling today?” Henri’s face pops up on her screen.

“Not too great,” she replies. She is lying down, moving slowly to avoid upsetting her sensitive skin. A bright-red rash has appeared under her breast, a common side effect of radiation therapy. Henri can see that she is having a hard time. He knows her well by now; they’ve spoken to each other after each of her cancer treatment sessions since July. When she’s feeling strong enough, they meet in person, but today is not one of those days.

“Thank you for the photo,” he tells her. Then, not wasting a minute, he sets his phone to the side, opens the picture in his messaging app and starts mumbling to himself.

Lou never really understood what Henri, a healer who practices a medieval form of alternative medicine called fire cutting, said during these calls. “He would recite a sort of prayer that I didn’t understand and wave his hands over the photo I’d sent him,” she remembers. “And when we met in person, he would touch the part of my skin that was red and scarred.”

Though these meetings never lasted more than five minutes, Lou says they soothed her after long bouts of radiotherapy irritated her skin. Sitting outside of her office in the sun-kissed center of Toulouse two years later, in remission, she is adamant that by some form of magic, Henri managed to completely “evacuate the fire” from under her red-hot skin. “It didn’t save me,” she says, thinking back. “But fire cutting was definitely a crucial part of my cancer care.” Now, when she is asked for tips on dealing with radiotherapy’s side effects, Henri’s number is the first thing she gives.

In France, when someone is burned on a stove or accidentally falls asleep tanning in the blazing sun, it is not uncommon for fire cutters to be called. “Coupeurs de feu” or “barreurs de feu” in French, these healers are probably one of the country’s oldest of old wives’ tales, used for everything from mundane burns to more severe damage to the skin. A relic of medieval folk traditions, fire cutting is a less glamorous version of other energy-based therapies, like Gwyneth Paltrow-approved Reiki.

By reciting a prayer or using a secret method taught by another fire cutter, these healers claim to have a gift to relieve burns, supposedly using energy fields between themselves and the person they are helping. A session usually takes no more than five minutes, with healers working over the phone or in person. Fire cutters are believed to stop fiery sensations from spreading through someone’s body and treat other ills like itches or shingles. The practice is common, but the community of healers tends to be discrete: Because most fire cutters perform their services for free, they also work normal day jobs and only practice their “magic” in their spare time.

As a toddler, Nicolas, now a 20-year-old student based in Paris, burned his hands on a chimney. “I was too young to remember,” he says, reporting what his parents have told him about the incident. His dad, seeing that his baby boy wouldn’t stop crying, found a fire cutter’s number online. “Less than 10 minutes later, I went completely quiet.” Nicolas’ skin was still red, but if his silence was something to go by, it no longer hurt.

Stories like Nicolas’ about the wonders of fire cutting are often shared as proof of these healers’ magic abilities. At least 6,000 fire cutters work across France, according to some estimates. An accurate headcount is hard to come by, though, since the first rule of fire cutting is to never talk about it. Regardless, a majority of French families will have heard of, if not used, fire cutters. The first time I saw one in action was when I was about 17. My sister, an architecture student at the time, had burned herself quite badly while welding a metal model. She walked back from school that evening clutching her hand, a big blister on her thumb. My mother — who had always been a bit skeptical about alternative medicine — called someone to help, claiming it “couldn’t hurt to try.”

The man my sister called asked her a few questions — Where was she from? Where did it hurt? What was her name? — and then stopped talking. Standing in the kitchen, one hand holding the phone and the other bobbing in an ice bowl, she waited. Awkward silence filled the air. After about 60 seconds, the man spoke again. “I’m done. You should feel better in five minutes.” He hung up.

We all sat there, arguing about whether it was going to work, until — exactly six minutes later (my brother had set a timer) — my sister looked at us in disbelief. “Oh wow,” she told us. “It’s completely gone! I can’t feel the burn anymore.” Was it magic, or a placebo effect? The debate still rages at home.

These days, that same debate is also being had in the medical community in France, particularly among those who treat cancer patients. As alternative and complementary therapies — including yoga, acupuncture and fascia flossing — are increasingly incorporated into patients’ care plans, the question of whether fire cutting could be acknowledged as useful and recommended to patients grows. Because there is little scientific evidence to back its efficacy, French medical authorities do not officially recognize fire cutting as an alternative medical treatment. Despite that, some doctors are open to its benefits, even if the mechanisms are unknown. But many remain skeptical.

Dr. Maurice Mimoun, a burn specialist, does not believe in the miraculous power of fire cutters, telling weekly news magazine Paris Match that “impressive damages to the skin can heal on their own.” His unit at the Saint-Louis hospital in Paris does not work with fire cutters because, he insists, patients can do all the healing themselves.

This skepticism toward fire cutting isn’t new; the distrust of such alternative therapies dates back to the 18th century. Energy healing — “le magnetisme” in French — was studied scientifically for the first time in 1784, shortly after Franz Anton Mesmer, a doctor from Vienna (and a good friend of Mozart), introduced his “animal magnetism” theory to the Parisian medical crowd. Mesmer believed in the existence of natural energy transfers between animate and inanimate objects in the form of a mysterious, invisible fluid. With magnets, he thought, the fluid could be controlled for medical purposes.

Because animal magnetism was gaining popularity among the pre-French Revolution elite, King Louis XVI had the theory officially tested. A commission, which included the American ambassador, Benjamin Franklin, was put together to assess the scientific credibility of the Austrian doctor’s claims.

But the series of experiments completely discredited Mesmer, concluding that no evidence supported his theory of a fluid between inanimate and animate objects. “From that point on, healers were referred to as charlatans,” explains Fanny Charrasse, a sociologist who has written about the history of fire cutters. In 1892, a law made it illegal to claim to use energy for healing purposes, and fire cutters went into hiding.

During the first half of the 20th century, healers were systematically pursued in courts, accused of practicing illegal medical activities and preying on peoples’ gullibility. “This was a time when the medical profession, to gain legitimacy, purposely distanced itself from traditional healing practices,” explains Charrasse. “People still went to see fire cutters, but it was taboo to talk about, especially with doctors.”

In 1951, however, a secret organization of fire cutters called the Gorma was formed, hoping to reshape the public image of their art and keep practitioners from being targeted by law enforcement. From that point, fire cutters would work for free, they would never claim to replace doctors, and they would distance themselves from any religion in which their practice may have been rooted. Slowly, things began to turn around. Trials against fire cutters started falling off before completely stopping in the 1980s.

That’s about the time when Marie-Claude, a fire cutter, learned her trade from a woman she met at her village’s hairdresser. The principles established by the Gorma seemed to influence her approach to healing. “Yes, I say a prayer,” she explains, “but I’m definitely an atheist.” She insists that instead of faith, it’s “love” and “empathy” that are “key ingredients” to a good fire cut. The secret sentence she repeats when she is treating someone is only a means to an end.

When Marie-Claude started out, over 30 years ago, she helped up to five people a week. Now, she only picks up calls from close friends, claiming she’s “getting too old” and that energy work is too draining. She would have liked to work with people who required longer-term care, like cancer patients, though she never had the chance. “It wasn’t so common in hospitals in my area when I was starting out.”

But times have changed, and for many going through chemotherapy or radiotherapy today, fire cutters are a matter of necessity. Often, in hushed tones, lists of practitioners are shared among patients in waiting rooms. In the past decade, the practice has progressively gained legitimacy, to the point where some clinics and hospital units have incorporated it into their holistic care treatments.

The radiotherapy facility at the Timone hospital in Marseille is one of them. They have been referring patients to fire cutters since 2005. “The biggest pushback is from some of our colleagues who think that it’s all nonsense,” Eric Dutoit, a doctor at the psycho-oncology clinic says. “But we keep doing it because it helps patients feel supported, rather than them using fire cutters anyway and not telling us.” He has one stipulation for the fire cutters to whom they refer patients: “They have to work for free.”

In the medical field and beyond, gratuity is a mark of trustworthiness, a way to sort out the good fire cutters from the charlatans. “Taking money feels wrong, like it’s soiling the goodness of the act, in some way,” explains Marie-Claude. Chocolates or cookies are the only acceptable currencies to thank her for her work.

To find community after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Sophie Halle-Spiers joined Rose Up, a support group for cancer survivors, in 2022. There, she heard about fire cutters for cancer care for the first time. “Everyone talked about them,” she remembers, “and I knew they existed, but I thought they were for sunburns … not for more serious things as well.” Intrigued by all the positive feedback about fire cutting for chemo’s side effects, Halle-Spiers decided to try it for herself.

She only called her fire cutter, Jean-Francois, once. That was the first time they met, a few weeks before the start of her chemotherapy treatment. After that, they communicated via text message. Based in Arles, a southern town 375 miles away from Halle-Spiers’ Parisian flat, the man would never take longer than a day to reply when she sent him updates and questions. “Hi JF,” she wrote at 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 24, 2022, “feeling strong burns this morning waking up. Radiotherapy is five times a week.” At 7:45 p.m. on the same day, Jean-Francois answered: “The cut is done. Wishing you a good evening.”

Halle-Spiers’ cancer treatment was tough on her body. A few weeks into it, she contracted radiation dermatitis — a condition that damaged her skin because of the radiation — and would ask Jean-Francois for help with that. “People didn’t believe me when they saw my big blisters, and I told them it didn’t hurt at all.” According to her, if it weren’t for her fire cutter, she wouldn’t have been able to lie down.

Halle-Spiers mentioned she was seeing a fire cutter to her doctor. “She wasn’t surprised. She was actually quite supportive about it,” Halle-Spiers remembers, “telling me I should try anything I thought might make me feel better, as long as it didn’t interfere with the chemo.” Far from the witch hunts of the 18th century, this laissez-faire attitude is common among France’s health care professionals nowadays.

“Believing in something can be enough to trigger a physical reaction,” explains Eve-Emmanuelle Schmitt, a psychologist who has studied the behavioral mechanisms at work in fire cutting sessions. “We can’t underestimate the power of imagination.” Placebo effects — when receiving a treatment, even with no therapeutic value, is enough to improve someone’s condition — play a role in explaining the “magic” behind a fire cutting session. But, Schmitt insists, “that isn’t all.” Like Jean-Francois for Halle-Spiers, fire cutters can be contacted easily and treat people over long periods. “That kind of availability is really special, and it also determines the success of sessions,” says the psychologist, adding that “expressing a pain out loud, especially to someone we think is legitimate to help, can do wonders as well.”

Asked to speculate on whether magic is involved, she shrugs: “Not everything can be rationalized. I’ve heard about people who didn’t know they were being treated feeling better as soon as a fire cutter worked on them. A lot of it remains a mystery.”

In the nine months Halle-Spiers spent going through chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she exchanged hundreds of messages with Jean-Francois. “I’m feeling guilty, making you work so much,” she wrote one day, after sending him a photo of her new treatment program. “Never. It feels good to do good,” he replied.

“I imagine an ice cube melting on the burnt skin. Once it dissolves, I add another one, and a few more after that. Then, I imagine that I’m removing the damaged skin, creating a new layer,” Sophie Sophia, who practices the art, tells New Lines. She explains how she puts out her patients’ “fires”: Working entirely through visualization, she does not recite a prayer and never works through physical touch. Trained as a fire cutter three years ago, she is undoubtedly part of the new generation of fire cutters who are more outspoken about the practice and who believe healing is a skill that can be taught, rather than a gift that must be passed down. Starting out by treating her friends’ sunburns, she worked her way up to longer-term care. Now, she says, she helps up to five patients a day in hospitals around Annecy, in the French Alps, as well as across the border in Switzerland.

With easier communication on social media and a general move toward holistic health in French hospitals, fire cutting is gaining traction. Most of Sophie Sophia’s calls come from people who found her on a fire cutting Facebook group with over 22,000 members, linking practitioners with people looking for help.

In the age of the internet, this is where most of the magic happens. “I’d say there are 10, 20 requests per day,” says Jean-Francois Bourbon, one of the group’s three administrators. Now retired, he says he spends “two to three hours each morning” sorting through posts, making sure scammers and “fake fire cutters” aren’t allowed to join the online community. Pushing to make fire cutting more accessible, the group keeps a list of all the members who are “reliable” healers. Bourbon — a fire cutter himself, has trained a few dozen of the 200 people on the list. “I don’t like the notion that fire cutting is only for the gifted,” he says. “It’s like with music, some people will be naturally talented, but it’s also about working hard and getting comfortable playing all the notes.”

Dr. Pelagia Tsoutsou sits at her desk in the Geneva University Hospital’s radio-oncology wing. Though many patients talk about fire cutters, she “prefers to remain neutral about the practice.” The unit does not have a list of registered healers, nor do they discourage their use, only advising patients to “find someone that works for free.” Other alternative treatments are offered to patients within the hospital’s walls, with yoga being the most recent addition. One day, Tsoutsou ponders, if the efficiency of fire cutting is ever proved scientifically, “we could incorporate that too.” She smiles. It’s probably not on the books for the immediate future.

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