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Hysteria. The word conjures up an array of images, none of which probably include a nomadic uterus wandering aimlessly around the female body. Yet up until the 18th century, that is precisely what medical practitioners believed was the cause behind this mysterious disorder.

Today, hysteria is regarded as a ‘physical expression of a mental conflict’ and can happen to anyone regardless of age or gender. [1] In ancient times, however, it was attributed only to women, and believed to be physiological (not psychological) in nature. Plato believed the womb was to blame for this disorder: it was an ‘animal capable of wreaking destruction’. [2] In fact, the very word, ‘hysteria’, comes from the Greek word hystera, meaning ‘womb’.

Plato posited that the womb—especially one which was barren—could become vexed and begin wandering throughout the body, ‘blocking respiratory channels’ and ‘causing bizarre behavior’. [3] So worrisome was the prospect of a wandering womb, that some women wore amulets to protect themselves against it (see right). [4]

Concepts about the womb were slow to evolve. In 1602, Mary Glover accused Elizabeth Jackson of bewitching her. The physician, Edward Jorden, disagreed. Instead, he blamed Mary’s erratic behaviour on noxious vapours in her womb, which he believed were slowly suffocating her. Despite the prevalence of this medical theory during the early modern period, the jury disagreed and Elizabeth was convicted.

William Harvey, famed for his theories on the circulation of the blood around the heart, also perpetuated the belief that women were ‘slaves to their own biology’, describing the uterus as ‘insatiable, ferocious, animal-like’, and drawing parallels between ‘bitches in heat and hysterical women’. [5] Countless others followed suit in their cries against the womb.

So what did one do for hysteria?

19th-century depiction of a vaginal examination

Physicians prescribed all kinds of treatments for a wayward womb. These included sweet-smelling vaginal suppositories and fumigations used to ‘tempt’ the uterus back to its rightful place. Women were also forced to ingest disgusting substances—sometimes containing repulsive ingredients such as human or animal excrement—in order to force the womb away from the lungs and heart. For the single woman suffering from hysteria, the cure was simple: marriage, followed by children.

Today, women’s wombs may have stopped wandering; however, medicine still tends to ‘pathologize the vagaries of the female reproductive system’. [6] Has the ever-elusive hysteria brought on by roving uteri simply been replaced by the equally intangible yet mysterious PMS?

I’ll let you decide…

1. Mark J Adair, ‘Plato’s View of the “Wandering Uterus”’, The Classical Journal 91:2 (1996), p. 153.
2. G. S. Rousseau, ‘“A Strange Pathology”: Hysteria in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800’ in Hysteria Beyond Freud (1993), p 104. Originally qtd in Heather Meek, ‘Of Wandering Wombs and Wrongs of Women: Evolving Concepts of Hysteria in the Age of Reason’, English Studies in Canada 35:2-3 (June/September 2009), p. 109.
3. M. S. Rosenthal, The Gynecological Sourcebook, 4th edn. (2003), p. 7.
4. This particular amulet is discussed in Robert K. Ritner, ‘A Uterine Amulet in the Oriental Institute Collection’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 45:3 (Jul. 1984), pp. 209-221. For more on the fascinating subject of magical amulets, see Tom Blaen, Medical Jewels, Magical Gems: Precious Stones in Early Modern Britain (2012).
5. Rousseau, ‘“A Strange Pathology”’, p. 132. Originally qtd in Meek, ‘Of Wandering Wombs’, p. 109.
6. Mary Lefkowitz, ‘Medical Notes: The Wandering Womb’, The New Yorker (26 February 1996).