Hysteria, from the ancient Greek word for uterus, was a nervous illness long associated exclusively with women. Symptoms differed from patient to patient and from one historical period to another, but they always involved both the body and the mind. Some characteristic symptoms included shortness of breath, heaviness in the abdomen, muscular spasms and fainting. Anxiety, irritability and embarrassing or unusual behaviour were also noted.
The philosopher Plato described the uterus as an animal. He said it roamed inside women’s bodies, causing symptoms as it moved. This idea had existed for millennia. An Egyptian papyrus dating from about 1900 BCE includes recipes for medicines to coax a ‘wandering uterus’ back to its proper place in the body. The Galenic physicians who came after Plato, and had gained better knowledge of internal anatomy, rejected the idea the uterus could drift. However, medical explanations for hysterical symptoms remained vague for centuries. Humoural medicine in the Middle Ages attributed hysterical symptoms to retention of ‘sexual fluid’, which was most common in ‘passionate’ young women and in widows.
Hysteria received intense attention during the late 1800s. The French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot proposed hysteria was an inherited nerve disease, similar to multiple sclerosis, and that it was not a ‘sexual problem’ unique to women. Charcot investigated hysteria using hypnosis. In lectures he invoked characteristic symptoms in male and female hysterics by applying pressure to specific spots on the hypnotised patient’s body. Critics argued these performances testified to Charcot’s powerful influence over his patients, not the nature of hysteria.
Sigmund Freud had studied with Charcot. In 1895 Freud proposed hysteria was rooted in unconscious conflicts rather than weak nerves. He believed hysterical symptoms developed when memories too painful or too embarrassing to talk about were converted into bodily symptoms. Freud called this ‘conversion hysteria’. He renounced hypnosis and held extended and intimate discussions with patients. His techniques became known as psychoanalysis.
Like neurasthenia and nervous breakdown, hysteria became grouped under the broad category of neurosis in the early 1900s. The term gradually fell out of medical use, but remained in common usage. Many feminist writers of the 1960s and 1970s used the history of the term to criticise psychoanalysis. They argued that Freud’s focus on ‘sexual conflicts’ merely cloaked old ideas about hysteria behind new words.
J Goldstein, ‘The Hysteria Diagnosis and the Politics of Anticlericalism in Late Nineteenth-Century France,’ Journal of Modern History, 104/2 (1982), pp 209-39
I Veith, Hysteria, The History of a Disease (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965)
R Maines, The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria’, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999)
M Micale, Approaching Hysteria: Disease and its Interpretations (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995)
E Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985)
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