All in the mind? Competing models of hysteria in John Ward’s Diaries

By Alanna Skuse

French female figure modelled in wax, parts removed to show heart and uterus, c. 1760. By Anara Morandi Mazzolini of Bologna. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.
French female figure modelled in wax, parts removed to show heart and uterus, c. 1760. By Anara Morandi Mazzolini of Bologna. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.

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).

A representation of the nervous system from Carolus Stephanus, De dissectione partium corporis humani (Paris, 1545), p.59. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.
A representation of the nervous system from Carolus Stephanus, De dissectione partium corporis humani (Paris, 1545), p.59. Image Credit: Wellcome Trust Images Collection.

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.

Lustful looks: Signs of Venery in John Ward’s Diaries

By Alanna Skuse

Engraving by Martin de Vos showing the ‘Sanguine’ temperament as a man woos a woman in a garden. 16th century. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
Engraving by Martin de Vos showing the ‘Sanguine’ temperament as a man woos a woman in a garden. 16th century. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

John Ward, of Stratford-on-Avon, was a vicar, not a doctor. His notebooks, housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, were acquired by that institution largely on account of three references to Shakespeare and his plays therein (12 of the volumes are reproduced here). However, the Reverend’s writings are also a rich and largely untapped resource for early modern medical historians. In 17 volumes, they span the years 1646 to 1668 , though not in strict chronological order (Robert G. Frank’s 1974 article details the periods covered by each volume).

While Ward ultimately chose an ecclesiastical life, his interest in medicine and science was intense, and omnivorous. As a student, he attended Oxford and rubbed shoulders with Thomas Willis, Robert Hooke, and Richard Lower. During his later residences in London, Oxford and Stratford, he remained fascinated by physic and surgery. He practised physic on his parishioners – though to what extent is unclear – corresponded with other doctors, conducted experiments, and read widely from the latest medical texts. His notebooks are stuffed with snippets of information from all these sources, as well as history, geography, and gossip. One of Ward’s favourite topics, upon which he collected hundreds of snippets of information, was sex. He wrote widely on sexual dysfunction and diseases, generation and childbirth. He also took careful note of the ways in which a tendency to excess venery could be predicted in either sex.

Sexual appetite was believed to be directly influenced by the humours. It therefore made sense that a hot complexion, with larger amounts of choler and blood, would produce a lusty individual. These people could be identified by the other tokens of their complexion. Ward recorded that

Albertus Magnus gives ye Characters of such women as are potent venerie: as such as have Loud shrile voices: 2ly : such as have blacke or red hair: (vol. 7, f.26v)

Red hair was clearly linked to the heat of the humors, and a ‘loud shrile’ voice indicated both a (literally) hot temper and an unwillingness to conform to the subservient female ideal. Other signs of lustfulness were less straightforward. Though paleness and thinness were often associated with a melancholic complexion, Ward thought them likely to indicate too many ‘goatish (i.e., lascivious) late nights:

A blew Circle about ye eyes of some lean persons is a peculiar signe of a goatish extenuation or signifies yt leanes to proceed from too much venerie:’ (vol. 11, f.49r)

In fact, just about any physical trait could be indexed to sexual appetite by a determined writer, since ‘hot’ symptoms indicated a complexion fit for lustfulness, and ‘cold’ ones could be read as the subject having used up their vital heat in lustful acts. Even chapped lips ‘in women is a sign of their prones to venerie, because itt discovers ye heat of ye Matrix:’ (v7, 13r). These readings were clearly motivated by a desire to regulate female sexuality as well as by scientific curiosity. However, signs of lustfulness could also be detected in men. In a lengthy section on male sexuality, Ward observed:

The left veine in ye preparing vessels hath this prapentia to draw from ye emulgent ye more serous and less pure blood to ye intent yt ye serous humour might stirre up venery by its soft substance and therfore itt is observed yt such as have ye left stone bigger are most full of seed and most prone to vennerie :/ (vol. 7, f.15v)

What did Ward want with this information? The Reverend’s notebooks show a fairly laid-back attitude toward sexual morality. Hearing of a Scottish bachelor who had 22 sons, he coolly observed that ‘itt seems hee was none of the chastest.’ (vol. 16/ 1179). On another occasion, he recollected –with a certain degree of admiration – that ‘My Lady Wick was in a Seraglio at Constantinople and then shee thought to have seen all but was found out by search by the Eunuch being unshaven for itt seems the custome of the Turkish women in the Seraglio is to be all shaven on their Genitals’ (vol. 12, f.53r). The notebooks also contain many cases of and cures for sexually transmitted diseases, so Ward might have used these signs to help him judge whether a disease was likely to be related to venery. It seems most likely, however, that he collected these snippets of information as part and parcel of his overwhelming lust for knowledge. As my second post on this topic will explore, Ward studied his fellow men with a curiosity that was part medical, part anthropological, and partly motivated by the straightforward love of gossip.

Alanna Skuse is a Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Reading, where she works on early modern surgery and disability. Her first book, ‘Constructions of Cancer in Early Modern England: Ravenous Natures’ is available open access via Palgrave Macmillan.