Hysteria – Po’ di storia
The changing meanings of hysteria have mirrored the preoccupations of the societies that used the term. Ancient Egyptians, and subsequently Greeks, blamed a displaced hystera, or womb, for many women’s afflictions, including choking, mutism, and paralysis, although the term hysteria was not applied until later. Hippocratic writings speak of a dry womb rising towards the throat in search of moisture, thereby impeding breathing. As anatomical knowledge increased, such notions became untenable and Galen instead blamed blocked menstrual flow and sexual abstinence. Galen suggested that retained sperm could contribute to male hysteria, igniting a debate which was to run for centuries over whether men could indeed suffer hysteria.
While Galen’s views persisted among the medical practitioners of Christian post-Roman Britain, another idea simultaneously arose, following Augustine, in which theologians considered hysteria a manifestation of demonic possession. The Renaissance returned hysteria to an affliction of a strangulated womb, the remedy for which was genital stimulation by horse riding, dancing, and, in particular, marriage and sexual intercourse.
Physicians in the 17th and 18th centuries were beginning to site many afflictions in the nervous system, which they considered could be tuned to a high degree of sensitivity by refined living. The high prevalence of hysteria among French and English people thus became a testimony to their civilised lifestyle. Hysteria reached epidemic proportions in the 19th century, partly due to involuntary collusion between physicians such as Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris, who forged careers in the subject, and their young female patients’ dramatic hysterical performances. Hysteria was beginning to acquire some disrepute when Sigmund Freud redefined it, in the 1890s, as a re-experience of past psychological trauma, thereby creating the field of psychoanalysis.
Hysteria increasingly acquired derogatory connotations during the 20th century, and from the 1970s onwards, was removed from medical classifications. Arguably this freed the term for lay use, where it refers unflatteringly to exaggerated aspects of behaviour. Those who argue that hysteria has disappeared from clinical practice, miss the point; observers such as Elaine Showalter have suggested that it has merely changed to reflect the preoccupations of our society, and now manifests in such things as alien abduction and popular mass hysteria.