Preferred Citation: Gilman, Sander L., Helen King, Roy Porter, G. S. Rousseau, and Elaine Showalter Hysteria Beyond Freud. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.

Two— "A Strange Pathology": Hysteria in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800


By the mid-eighteenth century, nerves seem to have run wild; the resulting hysteria was chronic among all those living in the fast lane and endemic, for different reasons, among the nation at large. Some women knew they had it, others did not: the inconsistency was less a defect of medical theory than the extreme fluidity of the diagnosis. For hysteria was not poured into a rigid mold by either the doctors or their patients. The diagnosis was usually made to fit the sufferer: a nonreductive expression of disorder. Linguistically speaking, hysteria profited from a new and very malleable vocabulary of the nerves as flexible and adjustable to the particular situation as the patient's symptoms themselves. In formal writing, by mid-century this vocabulary had been expressed


in new nervous discourses: of poets, novelists, critics, didactic writers, in narratives of all sorts. An aesthetic of "nervous style" began to emerge, endorsed by male writers, found suspect by female, which was unabashed in calling itself, after its patriarchal affinities, masculine, strong, taut—anything but feminine or epicene. And if style was then genderized to this degree, why should medicine not have been, especially the maladia summa hysteria—the genderized condition par excellence? Cheyne, above all, exploited this protean nervous idiom and procrustean vocabulary in his best-seller The English Malady , the real reason for its instant success. So too did his followers and disciples.

One of these, representative of these disciples in several ways, was Dr. James Makittrick Adair. Like Cheyne and William Cullen, Adair was also a Scot who had been deeply influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment. But Adair was also a Cheyne follower who saw what benefits could accrue to his career by worshiping, so to speak, within the "Temple of the English Malady." Adair had been taught in Edinburgh by Robert Whytt, the "philosophic doctor" who related "nervous sensibility" to every aspect of modern life, and he never forgot the great medical precept of his teacher, which resounded in the lecture theaters Adair attended: "The shapes of Proteus , or the colours of the chameleon , are not more numerous and inconstant, than the variations of the hypochondriac and hysteric diseases."

But it was Cheyne's thought that lay in the deepest regions of Adair's imagination throughout his professional medical career.[273] Always acknowledging his teacher's famous essay of 1764-65 on nervous diseases (Whytt's Observations on the nature, causes, and cure of those disorders which have been commonly called nervous, hypochondriac, or hysteric, to which are prefixed some remarks on the sympathy of the nerves ), Adair served up explanations his readers wanted to hear about hysteria. He also provided them with a natural history of nerves in the linguistic and cultural domain:

Upwards of thirty years ago, a treatise on nervous diseases was published by my quondam learned and ingenious preceptor DR. WHYTT, professor of physick, at Edinburgh. Before the publication of this book, people of fashion had not the least idea that they had nerves; but a fashionable apothecary of my acquaintance, having cast his eye over the book, and having been often puzzled by the enquiries of his patients concerning the nature and causes of their complaints, derived from thence a hint, by which he readily cut the gordian knot—"Madam, you are nervous"; the solution was quite satisfactory, the term [nervous] became quite fashionable, and spleen, vapours, and hyp, were forgotten.[274]


It is an extraordinary explanation, showing the continuity of eighteenth-century nervous self-fashioning. It not only casts light on the aftermath of Cheyne's career following his death in 1743 and on Whytt's much-discussed treatise of 1764 but resonates with class filiation. Adair saw how shrewd his medical brethren had been to classify as "nervous" those behavioral disorders free of determinate organic lesions: that is, vapors, spleen, hysteria, hypochondria, melancholy, and the dozens of subcategories spawned from these. Adair also recognized that naming and labeling played a large role in the hysteric's conceptualization. The Gordian knot was unraveled when words were deciphered. Likewise, in the previous generation, when Dr. Nicholas Robinson published a "Newtonian dissertation on hysteria" and wrote that every maiden had become so nervous that coining new words to describe its minute grades was necessary, he knew whereof he spoke. He himself compiled a whole vocabulary of remarkable neologisms that had been coined in his time: hypp, hyppos, hyppocons, markambles, moonpalls, strong fiacs, hockogrogles—all jocularly describing hysteria's grades of severity. Still, it was the great male poet, the dwarf of Twickenham, who used the vernacular of nerves to describe the living consequences of male hysteria. As he lay dying at fifty-five, Alexander Pope claimed to those gathered around him that he "had never been hyppish in his life." There was no need to gloss the phrase. Presumably all knew what he meant.

The very sturdy and nonhysterical Lady Mary, already mentioned, may have considered the "little poet of Twickenham" to be, like his fierce enemy Lord Hervey, a member of the "third sex." But even Lady Mary would have had to admit that Pope was essentially "male." How came it to pass that Pope, whose "long Disease, my Life" had paved the way for him to become more intimate with medical literature than he would otherwise have been, assumed male hysteria to be in the normal course of affairs?[275] One can demonstrate, as I have tried, that as far back as the Elizabethan era, and probably earlier, males were assumed to be natural targets for "the mother," this despite their obviously not having the requisite anatomical apparatus. The progress of medical theory in the aftermath of Sydenham and outside the Cheyne-Adair circle also needs to be consulted if we are to understand how male hysteria shaped up in the eighteenth century.

For the fact is that virtually every serious medical author who wrote about hysteria after Sydenham's death in 1689, even the skeptics among the medical fraternity, included men among their lists of those naturally afflicted: in England, for example, these authors included some of the


best-known doctors of the age, including Nathaniel Highmore, Richard Blackmore, Bernard Mandeville (the physician-satirist), John Purcell, and Nicholas Robinson; in Scotland, Thomas Cupples, Lawrence Fraser, William Turner, and nearly the whole of the Edinburgh medical school; in Holland, the "Eurocentric" Boerhaave and his far-flung students, including Jan Esgers, C. van de Haghen, Lucas van Stevenick, as can be gleaned from dozens of medical dissertations written on hysteria at Leiden and Utrecht; in Denmark, Johannes Tode; in Switzerland and Bohemia, a certain number; in France, Jean Astruc, Nicholas Dellehe, J. C. Dupont, Pierre Pomme, and even the so-called father of psychiatry and transformer of therapies for the suffering insane, the great Philippe Pinel;[276] in Germany, Gustavus Becker, C. G. Burghart, Georg Clasius, C. G. Gross, J. F. Isenflamm, Johann Christoph Stock; in Italy, A. Fracassini, P. Virard, G. V. Zeviani. These names suggest little if anything now, but in their time these figures constituted something of an international gallery of medical stars.[277]

The treatment of males among the hysterically afflicted, and especially males of the upper classes, was a veritable industry in the eighteenth century. Whether the doctors were persuaded that males were clinically afflicted in the same way as women (sans "the mother" and the rest of the female reproductive apparatus) we may never know, and Mark Micale's biographical researches do not extend far enough back to offer a clue.[278] Yet the medical literature from Sydenham forward speaks for itself and is unequivocal on the matter. Moreover, there seems to have been no major opponent to Sydenham's view about male hysteria to challenge his theory in the long course of the eighteenth century, neither in England nor elsewhere. Once the notion of male hysteria took root as a clinically observed phenomenon, which it had not done a hundred years earlier, its existence appears to have been guaranteed. The huge annals of eighteenth-century medical literature corroborate this position, and examples citing Sydenham as their fount are replete in the record. It is more difficult, however, to discover examples roughly contemporary with Sydenham, perhaps suggesting to what degree the notion of male hysteria had been absorbed into the medical imagination.[279]

For example, consider the curious but still far from clear relationship between Thomas Guidott and John Maplet. Both were English physicians practicing in the Restoration and early eighteenth century in and around Bath. Guidott owed his entire Bath practice to Maplet, who helped him acquire it. After Guidott lost his practice in Bath through imprudence, libel, and squandering, he moved to London, remained loyal to his former patron, and continued to diagnose and treat his


(Maplet's) ailments until the end of his life.[280] This would seem to be a case of professional patronage larded over with friendship, but it also had its profound medical side useful in these explorations of male hysteria. What survives are Guidott's accounts (not Maplet's), and considering Guidott's colorful character, his record may not be entirely reliable or complete. But it does provide enough information to comprehend what it was about Maplet's "male hysteria" that so attracted and excited Guidott, who wrote many years after Maplet's death:

[He] was of a tender, brittle Constitution, inclining to Feminine, clear Skin'd, and of a very fair Complexion, and though very temperate. . . yet inclinable to Hysterical Distempers, chiefly Gouts and Catarrhs, which would oftentimes confuse his Body, but not his Mind [mind and body construed as separate entities], which was then more at Liberty to expatiate, and give some Invitation to his Poetick Genius . . . to descant on the Tormentor, and transmit his Sorrow into a Scene of Mirth.[281]

Multiple aspects of this analysis give us pause: Guidott's strange linking of hysteria to gout and catarrh and in other writings his subclassification of "hysterical gout"; his post-Cartesian version of the mind/body split; the assumption that creativity and hysteria ("Poetick Genius" and "the Tormentor") are cousins; above all, the presumption that in educated and intelligent males like Maplet "hysterical mania" is merely the outward sign (again a semiotics of the malady) of an almost "Feminine" nervous "Constitution." Here, in nervous anatomy and "Tender Constitution," lies the origin of temperamental sensitivity in men. Later, Guidott discusses Maplet's delicate nerves, metaphorically isolating them as "suspects" in this quasi-criminal hysterical disorder.[282] "Suspects" in both the positive and pejorative dimension: positive in that they virtually breed sensitivity and creativity; negative in their pathological predisposing toward the condition. All this is what we would expect after unraveling and decoding the complex medical theory of the time.

Much less expected is Guidott's leap to friendship. He claims to be "attracted" to the nervous, brittle, delicate, tender, frail, white-skinned Maplet—not attracted sexually, certainly, nor primarily as a consequence of Maplet's professional generosity, although one would presumably be interested in the arm and leg of patronage, but attracted intellectually and humanly. Guidott's life is not sufficiently understood to hazard any guesses about his sexuality, but his case history of Maplet suggests the existence by approximately 1700 of a new Sydenhamian paradigm about male hysteria that yokes anatomy, physiology, and psychology to culture, gender formation, and society.[283]


What better evidence could there be of gender basis in this account? Maplet is the "tender, nervous, brittle" male who has become afflicted and requires diagnosing and treating by Guidott; he is also the soft, creative, nervous male predisposed to hysteria and friendship. Guidott's language does not yet reveal the developed jungle of nerves and fibers that will flourish in Cheyne and Richardson, and later even more metaphorically and densely in the fictions of Sterne and the Scottish doctors. But it remains one of the earliest and most interesting accounts of male hysteria in English, certainly a prototype of sorts. Guidott himself was somewhat "poetically inspired," though he is not known to have been "hysterical." He had composed poetry at Oxford and wrote poetic satire when he quarreled with the London physicians.[284] And he had matured in a world overrun with male enthusiasts of all sorts—the broad spectrum that permeates the great satires of the age, such as Swift's Tale of a Tub . Guidott's London, like that of Sydenham, his contemporary, displayed ranting enthusiasts on every corner, often said by the "doctors" to be male hysterics let loose on the Town. Though their numbers increased and decreased according to the luck of the time, decade by decade, their presence was commonly explained, as Swift had suggested in the Tale , in the language of the vapors and spleen, nerves and fibers, all their raving and madness attributable to "hysterical affections."

This was a motif—the connection between religious inspiration and male hysteria—that would extend throughout the course of the eighteenth century. As newly inspired sects became more visible, so too the varieties of their male hysterics, and in almost every case where documentation survives there lingers the implication of a "hysterical affection" of one or another variety. If epilepsies and convulsions were the signs of secular distraction, they also afflicted men crazed in groups by their religious enthusiasm; Philippe Hecquet, a French physician of the ancien régime, claimed in Le naturalisme des convulsions dans les maladies de l'épidémie convulsionnaire (1733) that convulsions among the mob were anatomically experienced no differently than among individuals.[285] Charles Revillon, another French physician, supported this view in Recherches sur la cause des affections hypochrondriaques (Paris: Hérissant, 1786), explaining that sudden and unexpected catastrophic events trigger hysteria in the "mob's body" exactly as they do in the individual body. Historically there were—to browse through the century cursorily—the strolling French prophets, or Camizards, in the first two decades; the new alchemists and preachers of the mid-century; the melancholic visionary poets (the Grays, Smarts, Collinses, Cowpers), all of whom suffered some type of religious melancholy and were either incarcerated


in their colleges, like Gray, or in madhouses); to say nothing of the non-religious sects and the spate ranging from Hogarth's comic varieties to Dame Edith Sitwell's gallery of rogues.[286] Male hysteria coursed down through the century. Whole books could be written about it, deriving much of their information from the pages of popular reviews like the Gentleman's Magazine , one of the most widely circulated outlets of the Enlightenment, British or non-British. For example, the November issue of 1734 recounts a story embellished by the twist of cross dressing. Both the husband and wife have been "hysterically affected," she more acutely than he. More familiar than she with the medical profession, the husband persuades a friend to impersonate a physician, who treats his hysterical wife by prescribing "the simple life." The wife is duped, follows her therapy, and recovers. More common cases reveal afflicted males, prescribed to by bona fide doctors, who do not recover quickly.

By 1775, Hugh Farmer, the dissenting minister who was the friend of Dr. Philip Doddridge and enemy of Joseph Priestley, persuaded his publishers that there was sufficient interest in contemporary male hysteria to resuscitate it in the oldest extant texts. Farmer did so himself in An Essay on the [male] Demoniacs of the New Testament , a work aimed to show how ancient the lineage of inspiration was.[287] Farmer, like Christopher Smart and William Cowper, had himself been afflicted with a variety of religious melancholies that left him as debilitated as many chronic male hysterics. As a dissenting minister with a parish to look after and duties to attend to, Farmer was utterly uninterested in male license and liberty and, like Smart and Cowper, had maintained a queasy fear of women, especially older, sisterly women who forever rescued him and looked after him. The mindsets of all these figures lie far from the medical theory I discussed earlier, but not so far as to escape its effects. As I continue to suggest here, culture is a large mosaic whose individual pieces do fit together if the historian can only relate them. The English lyric poets, those of the ilk of William Collins and Smart, who were diagnosed male hysterics and melancholics, glimpsed the solipsism of their condition. All they discovered was an omniscient God whose powers of insight they could worship and emulate through their own visionary capabilities.[288] More broadly though, the greater the resistance to hysteria among men (in that century there was a surfeit of resistance), the more it revealed about their male sexuality in an era growing increasingly patriarchal and fastidious about its sexual mores. All these conditions and individual cases, far-flung and disparate as they are, some more anecdotal than others, presaged the scenario for male hysterics in the nineteenth century.


Still, the preeminent matter of gender in cases more or less hysterical hardly vanished in the second half of the eighteenth century. Granting that both sexes could become afflicted, perhaps in equal degree, profound questions about hysteria's anatomical prefigurements lingered. This is not surprising after centuries in which the feminine gender base had been strengthened by men exorcising hysterical women in need of help. No one to my knowledge has ever attempted to compile a list of eighteenth-century cases by gender.[289] If it were tried, even on a limited basis, it would be evident that women were said to have become afflicted in far greater numbers. The trend is even reflected in the lamp of imaginative literature. One and only one clearly delineated hysterical figure, for example, appears in Fielding's mock-epic novel Tom Jones : the young Nancy Miller, steeped in love sickness. Given the care with which Fielding is known to have constructed his symmetrical work of heroic proportions, the fact is not insignificant and can be demonstrated with similar results for other writers of the epoch. In Tobias Smollett there are many more: even the male hysteric Launcelot Greaves, a modern British version of Don Quixote, whose "nerves" become damaged from his circulation in a crime-ridden, dangerous environment. Smollett was morbidly fascinated with crime in an almost sociological way. He eventually concluded that it had perpetrated the most heinous attack against the society of his day and formed the bedrock on which chronic diseases like hysteria flourished.[290]

Provided that medical and nonmedical discourses are gazed at in tandem, and without undue concern for validity in evidence, it becomes apparent that for most of the eighteenth century the nerves, not gender, were the burning issue for hysteria; that is, the nerves in their variegated anatomical, physiological, vivisectional, linguistic, ideologic, and even political senses. In the first published treatise on nymphomania, M. D. T. Bienville's curious work of 1775, there is no distinction whatever in regard to gender, no sense that the irritation or excitation of the genital area specifically is the cause of his new nymphomania.[291] "Nymphomania," Bienville wrote, arises from "diseased imagination" taking root on the nervous stock, and it could afflict men as readily as women. Perhaps this occurred, in Bienville's view, because both genders had the potential for a "diseased imagination." It is an odd position to maintain, considering that his mind was formed in a world in which the close connection between sex and hysteria was taken for granted. Cases of "erotomania," a fierce and heightened form of erotic melancholy caused by love sickness, were regularly chronicled in the newspapers of the day. Erasmus Darwin, the poet and scientist, had mentioned one severe case


(James Hackman's shooting of Martha Ray), but others were also written up. In all of them, the nervous system had flared out of control as the result of passion. The nerves were the zone Bienville was trying to penetrate in his discourse; the healthy or unhealthy state of the nerves, as well as the anatomic condition of the genital area (morbid, tonic, flaccid, put to use or not, aroused), the determinants. Bienville, a French mechanist about whom surprisingly little is known, ultimately wanted little truck with an underlying mental malady.

Turn the page, so to speak, to more literary annals, and hysteria blends in with other conditions from which its commentators barely differentiate it. Hysteria, hypochondria, melancholy—all are nervous maladies of one grade or another. Sterne's eternally melancholic Tristram may have been, in just this sense, the greatest and most self-reflective male hypochondriac of all the fictional characters of the century. He calls his confessional book "a treatise writ against the spleen," and knows, as his opening paragraph makes plain, that his animal spirits and nervous fibers have been irrevocably mutilated, rendering him a type of male hysteric. This is why he (like so many male patients in the next century) must be "taken out of himself" as it were, through his own hobbies and the hobbyhorses of others. The nervous "tracks" on which "his little gentlemen" traveled during conception have been damaged. But a visit from Tristram to the great "nerve doctors"—the Cheynes, Cullens, and Adairs—would have proved futile: he might as well have sent his manuscript, which is as good a case history of a "male hysteric" as has ever been compiled. Yet Tristram himself might have been shocked to have been tendered this diagnosis. What Sydenham and his medical followers opined about male hysteria and gender at the end of the seventeenth century took decades to filter down to the ordinary person in any sophisticated way. Popular culture was indeed permeated with notions of hysteria, as I have been suggesting throughout this chapter, but Sydenham's views required decades to filter through to other doctors, let alone the lay public. A generation after Laurence Sterne's death in 1768, Edward Jenner, the Gloucestershire doctor and medical researcher into smallpox, was astonished to find himself a member of this filtered class. "In a female," Jenner wrote, "I should call it Hysterical—but in myself I know not what to call it, but by the old sweeping term nervous."[292] The difference was extraordinarily significant for him.

One of hysteria's other paradoxes was that it was alleged both to afflict males and to safeguard them against it. This was a curious double take seemingly reserved for hysteria, although traces of the incongruity are also found in the theory of gout and consumption at the time. The dou-


ble bind rendered men safe and vulnerable at the same time. How are these theoretical "doubles" explained? Under what framing? If run through the gamut of possibilities, it is seen that gender and patriarchy, power and marginalization alone can explain the double status of hysteria. The nerves have merely been the convenient pawns of a grander landlord. For the professional medical world of the eighteenth century was still preponderantly—as it would be in the nineteenth century and much of our own—a male-centered universe.[293] William Hogarth's male doctors, "consulting" as they often do in his prints, could not see to what degree they were monolithically set against the few females who appeared in them and were an indirect cause of the very hysterical suffering they claimed they sought to relieve. It is hardly surprising then that the theory of male hysteria between Sydenham and the Victorians revealed what it genuinely was by describing its Other, its Counter, its Double: female hysteria.

Hordes of male doctors, exclusively generating medical theory, now—for the first time—institutionalized female hysteria by claiming that men could be afflicted by it but in actuality rarely were. Whether in Scotland or the West Country, in France or Germany, the results of these gender debates were more or less identical, often derived from one another.[294] The task then was to demonstrate precisely why women were more prone. But as the uterine debility hypothesis had been overthrown, the most persuasive mode was to argue from so-called incontrovertible universals: women's innate propensity to nervousness; their domestic situation in a private world conducive to hysterical excess; their insatiable sexual voracity granted from time immemorial—these as God-given, inevitable, unchangeable conditions. But all the while it was acknowledged that men were also prone, and proving theoretical consistency by occasionally diagnosing male hysterias and documenting them in the published literature.

Today, we understand the complexity of Enlightenment hysteria only if we are willing to view its paradoxes, its double binds, within large social and cultural contexts, and only if we are capable of conceding that medical theory then was consistent and internally logical so long as doctors were not asked to be held accountable for the cultural conditions in which hysteria flourished. The state of laboratory verifiability and clinical observation of patients in a condition such as hysteria was still small compared to other maladies. A hundred years later, in Freud's Vienna, there would still be debate about the objectivity of the clinician's gaze. What counted for more than objective gaze in the world of Whytt, Cullen, and Jenner was a view of "woman" that naturally—almost preternaturally—seemed to lend itself to the hysteria diagnosis.


Two— "A Strange Pathology": Hysteria in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800

Preferred Citation: Gilman, Sander L., Helen King, Roy Porter, G. S. Rousseau, and Elaine Showalter Hysteria Beyond Freud. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.