Women and Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health

Women and Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health

By Cecilia Tasca, Mariangela. Rapetti, Mauro Giovanni Carta and Bianca Fadda

Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, Vol.8 (2012)

Professor Jean-Martin Charcot teaching at the Salpêtrière in Paris, France: showing his students a woman ("Blanche" (Marie) Wittman) in an trance or shock.

Abstract: Hysteria is undoubtedly the first mental disorder attributable to women, accurately described in the second millennium BC, and until Freud considered an exclusively female disease. Over 4000 years of history, this disease was considered from two perspectives: scientific and demonological. It was cured with herbs, sex or sexual abstinence, punished and purified with fire for its association with sorcery and finally, clinically studied as a disease and treated with innovative therapies. However, even at the end of 19th century, scientific innovation had still not reached some places, where the only known therapies were those proposed by Galen. During the 20th century several studies postulated the decline of hysteria amongst occidental patients (both women and men) and the escalating of this disorder in non-Western countries. The concept of hysterical neurosis is deleted with the 1980 DSM-III. The evolution of these diseases seems to be a factor linked with social “westernization”, and examining under what conditions the symptoms first became common in different societies became a priority for recent studies over risk factor.

Excerpt: The mainstream view of the time is one in which the woman is a physically and theologically inferior being, an idea that has its roots in the Aristotelian concept of male superiority: St. Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274) Summa Theologica Aristotle’s assertions that “the woman is a failed man”. The inferiority of women is considered a consequence of sin, and the solutions offered by St. Thomas’ reflection leave no doubt about what will overturn the relationship between women and Christianity: the concept of “defective creature” is just the beginning. In question 117, article 3, addressing the possibility that the human soul can change the substance, St. Thomas says that “some old women” are evil-minded; they gaze on children in a poisonous and evil way, and demons, with whom the witches enter into agreements, interacting through their eyes. The idea of a woman-witch, which we shall call the “demonological vision”, almost becomes insuperable: preachers disclose the Old Testament’s condemnation of wizards and necromancers and the fear of witches spreads in the collective imagination of the European population. The ecclesiastical authorities try to impose celibacy and chastity on the clergy, and St. Thomas’ theological descriptions regarding woman’s inferiority are, perhaps, the start of a misogynistic crusade in the late Middle Ages.

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