By Alanna Skuse
In my previous post, I introduced the diaries of Reverend John Ward, the seventeenth-century vicar of Stratford-on-Avon and sometime medical practitioner. Among Ward’s vast collection of notes on medical and scientific topics were many on sexual behaviour and biology. In this post, I will show how Ward applied his curiosity to the problem of hysteria, aka ‘fits of the mother’ or ‘suffocation of the matrix’.
This topic loomed large in the notebooks, both because Ward sought to better treat the condition in his parishioners, and because he was intellectually interested in the causes of the disease.
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was commonly believed that hysteria was caused by the womb ‘wandering’ within the body, impinging on the liver, diaphragm, and other organs. This movement indicated that the womb was quasi-independent of the body; as Jean Riolan put it, ‘a furious Live-wight in a Live-wight’.(1)
Proponents of this theory also believed that the womb could be manipulated back into the proper place using sweet or foul smells. At points, Ward must also have credited this idea, since he recorded (vol. 12, f.107r/v) in the late 1660s that
There is nothing better for a married woman in case of suffocation of the matrix t[ha]n for her husband to anoint the topp of his yard with a litle oil of Cloves-gylliflours and Sweet Almonds together and so ly with her, for this will assuredly bring down the Matrix againe.
Interestingly, however, Ward’s understanding of hysteria and the properties of the womb was not static. Only a few years earlier, he had been impressed by arguments which declared that hysteria arose not from any intrinsic property of the womb but rather from air entering that organ:
I have heard one yt denied utterly yt in hysterical fits ye womb rise at all, only attributed all to wind (vol. 8, f.136r).
In his 1663-5 notebook, he advanced the idea again, this time speculating that wind was one of a number of possible causes of hysteria–which also included ‘ye suffering of ye matrix, either by emptying of a great Burden as after child bearing, or by doing it wrong in wounding itt in bringing forth ye child’ (ibid).
Ward chopped and changed between theories, and his ideas do not show a clear evolution. Interestingly, however, in both the 1664-6 and 1666-9 diaries, Ward wrote with interest about a neurocentric theory of hysteria, which located the cause of the disease in the brain rather than the womb. ‘Dr. Elyot’, wrote Ward, ‘hath this Conception that hysterical fits have their rise from the Brains; and hee illustrates itt thus, pull a Cord, you shall discerne the first straining and breaking at the other end’ (vol. 12, f.95v).
Crucially, this theory implied that hysteria was largely psychological in origin. Indeed, given the right pressures, hysteria could even occur in men (vol. 7, f. 26v):
Some Drs especialy in Oxford now are of opinion that histerical fits are caused by the disposition of the Braine most in Oxford as Mr. Francis said are of this opinion: and that men have the same thing, which some women have, and that Dr Elyot had a patient that had it: and was cured by antihisterical things though hee was a man.
The impact of the neurocentric model on treatments for hysteria is striking. Where the wandering womb was to be lured into place, and the windy womb cured with pills and potions, neurocentric hysteria called for different methods. Ward recalled how one patient patient had her lower legs tied ‘hard with her Garter’ before being made to sneeze (vol. 7, f.47r).
In another case (vol. 9, f. 3v),
Dr Trig cured a woman yt was troubled with hysterical fits thus: hee laid her uppon ye ground with her face downwards yn took up her Coats and gave her 3 or 4 good Claps on ye Arse and thus cured her but I was informed yt hee did this before much Companie wch I scarcly believe.
Did the neurocentric model help women with hysteria, or harm them? On one hand, this approach made hysteria a potentially unisex complaint rather than a symptom of women’s defective bodies. On the other, the treatments inspired by neurocentric theories show a distinct lack of sympathy for, and even humiliation of, the hysteric, who was now treated as psychologically rather than physically ill.
Ward’s diaries provide frustratingly little detail about how Dr. Trig’s patient may have felt about her unorthodox treatment. They do show, however, how an apparently more ‘enlightened’ understanding of hysteria might be made to work against vulnerable patients.
(1) Jean Riolan, trans. Nicholas Culpeper, A sure guide, or, The best and nearest way to physick and chirurgery (1657), p. 85.