The weaker the body, the stronger the protest

  Papadopoulou, Chryssanthi. “The weaker the body, the stronger the protest.” CHS Research Bulletin 10 (2022).

Fellow in Comparative Cultural Studies 2021–22


This research examines maidens’ somatised emotional responses to womanhood in antiquity, as this is described in the Hippocratic texts, vis-a-vis hysteria in fin de siècle Europe. It examines the sociocultural contexts that gave rise to these female maladies, as well as to their medical diagnoses and proposed treatments. It demonstrates the doctors’ limited understanding of the causes of these somatoform disorders and the desiderata of their patients. It then shows how women sufferers managed to cure themselves in the past. The aim of this research is to propose an alternative approach to women suffering from anorexia nervosa and hysteria today.

Women’s afflictions in Ancient Greece

According to the Hippocratic texts (ΠΕΡΙ ΓΥΝΑΙΚΕΙΩΝ A, B, ΠΕΡΙ ΓΥΝΑΙΚΕΙΗΣ ΦΥΣΙΟΣ, ΠΕΡΙ ΕΠΙΚΥΗΣΕΩΣ, ΕΠΙΔΗΜΙΑΙ), wombs in ancient Greece wandered around female bodies causing all shorts of symptoms and occasionally death. This syndrome known as the ‘wandering womb’ afflicted both young and older women, unwedded ones, wives and widows. Moreover, there was another womb-related disease that afflicted virgins, should they have remained without a husband for too long, which resulted from excess blood collecting in the uterus and led to maidens developing inter alia murderous or suicidal tendencies (ΠΕΡΙ ΠΑΡΘΕΝΙΩΝ). Had the sufferers of these disorders been young and unwed or young enough and widowed, the doctors sometimes recommended a quick marriage and procreation. Had they been older, the doctors would again recommend a pregnancy if that was possible, or resort to uterine fumigations combined with foul-smelling inhalants and occasionally fasting. Finally, from case studies presented, there appears to have been a category of women suffering from menstruation-related problems, which were nevertheless not diagnosed as the wandering womb syndrome and whose treatment is not always mentioned in the texts (ΕΠΙΔΗΜΙΑΙ, ΠΡΟΡΡΗΤΙΚΟΝ).

In antiquity there was no division between physiological and psychological afflictions. In the case of the virgin-afflicting womb-disease it seems unlikely from the text that the patients suffered from a nowadays-recognised medical condition (ΠΕΡΙ ΠΑΡΘΕΝΙΩΝ). Instead, this treatise reads as the pathologisation of some maiden’s unbridled emotional responses. In the cases of the menstruation problems and the wandering womb, there are instances, some of which resulted in the death of the patient, that it becomes amply clear that the afflicted individual was suffering from a severe medical condition. There are cases, however, that turbulent emotional states were somatised by the patients and subsequently pathologised by the doctors. Based on the presentations of these illnesses in the Hippocratic corpus, as well as the brief case studies of patients offered, there appear to have been several categories of women-sufferers: young girls before menarche, marriageable maidens, widows, childless women, one woman whose husband was exiled, and two women who were seized by sorrow. The maidens who suffered from the virgin-afflicting womb-disease, based on their greatly varying emotional responses, seem to have belonged to at least three subgroups: those disinclined to childbearing and/or sexual maturity, those who might not have wanted to be married off (yet), and those who would have looked too eagerly forward to marriage and sexual maturity. The latter category would have found the doctors’ recommendation of cohabitation with a man agreeable. The first two categories, though, would seek solace elsewhere. According to the treatise describing this affliction, maidens would go to Artemis’ sanctuaries and dedicate offerings to the goddess.

Sparta excluded, women’s lives in ancient Greece could become challenging. I disagree that life for them was as difficult as it is often portrayed, but I recognise that for the majority of them it would not have been privileged. The time of transition from maidenhood to married life and childbearing was an especially precarious period that could induce extreme somatic responses. Artemis was the maiden goddess safeguarding transitions, and a reliable protector of the young and maidens. Faith in Artemis, as well as ritual performances in her sanctuaries provided most (young) women with the embodied reassurance required so that they could cope with what was socioculturally expected of them. Contemporary doctors’ treatments and recommendations are important to the history of medicine and the history of the pathologisation of emotions, but were of little value to women suffering from fear, uncertainty, anger, disappointment and/or sorrow. 

Hysteria in fin de siècle Vienna 

Fin de siècle Vienna was a curious place of conflicts and wonders. On the one hand, liberals, socialists, nationalists, Zionists and anti-Semites were fighting each other, hunger revolts were breaking out in the suburbs, numerous intellectuals – including Crown Prince Rudolf – were committing suicide, and on the other hand, the Ringstrasse with its architectural masterpieces was transforming city-life, epoch-making music was being composed, Gustav Klimt was deifying women and femininity in his paintings, and the social institution that was the Viennese café was taking root in Viennese political, artistic and psychoanalytical circles. In this climate of antitheses and turbulence, hysteria became a common enough affliction to catch Sigmund Freud’s attention and pave the way for the development of a new discipline, namely psychoanalysis. 

Hysteria, which drew its name from the ancient Greek word for womb, unlike the wandering womb syndrome, did not target women specifically. Freud and Breuer, though, based their book Studies on Hysteria on case studies of female patients, even though they made brief mention of male patients in the beginning of the book. The symptoms of hysteria included “neuralgias and anaesthesias of very various kinds…contractures and par­alyses, hysterical attacks and epileptoid convulsions…petit mal and disorders in the nature of tic, chronic vomiting and anorexia…various forms of dis­turbance of vision, constantly recurrent visual hallucinations, etc.” (Breuer and Freud 1955 [1925], 4). The primary treatment for hysteria by Freud and Breuer was the ‘talking-cure’, whether this involved hypnosis or not, and depending on the symptoms, occasionally hydrotherapy and massage. Out of the women treated, few appear to have been cured, since some had relapses after the completion of their treatment and others abandoned treatment prior to its completion. 

Based on the case studies presented in this book as well as in Freud’s letters to Wilhelm Fliess, the patients treated by Freud and Breuer, belonged to various socioeconomic classes, and were young and older maidens, married women with or without children, and widows with children. Several categories of women sufferers can be identified: culturally oppressed young and mature women, socially oppressed ones, women who were traumatised from experiencing sexual harassment or advances at a young age, sexually curious ones, lovesick ones, lonely ones and bored ones. Needless to state that some patients belonged to more than one category. All of these women were in essence somatising intense emotions and/or traumatic experiences: there were those who did not want to cross the threshold of married life and childbearing, those you had regretted motherhood and wished they could become maidens again, and those with conflicting emotions towards sexuality. 

In fin de siècle Vienna, bourgeois and noble women led privileged but restricted lives. Even though they enjoyed rich cultural lives, indulged in finery, and attended social events, they were nevertheless prevented from receiving a higher education, getting involved in politics and pursuing a career. Middle-class women had jobs and some of them made their own living, but were still excluded from politics and the rich Viennese cultural life due to their inadequate social standing and finances. Women laborers had some form of political power, since they protested alongside men against their poor living conditions and participated in hunger revolts. They could nevertheless not afford Freud’s treatment should they have become hysterics. Even if they could, though, like the women of other socioeconomic classes who evidently did, it is unlikely that they would be cured by Freud. During the same time, in Paris, at the infamous Salpêtrière hospital for the poor, Jean-Martin Charcot using hypnosis along with ovarian compression, and occasionally electrotherapy and hydrotherapy, was treating hundreds of labour-class women diagnosed with hysteria with as little success as Freud. 

Despite the doctors’ limited abilities to cure hysteria, numerous afflicted women recovered due to their own – and not the doctors’ – efforts. The recoverees include few women who dealt with the negative emotions they were somatising, such as Bertha Pappenheim, who refused to conform to becoming a wife and mother, and instead became an activist and founded the Jüdischer Frauenbund, and Fanny Moser, who broke off relations with her daughters, and lived the childless life she thought she craved for. The largest number of attested recoverees, though, does not include women who had the luxury of dealing with their somatised negative emotions. Instead these women, in the manner of ancient Greek maidens dedicating votives to Artemis, entrusted their hopes for a restoration to health to the divine and were indeed miraculously cured. Notre-Dame de Lourdes became a sanctuary for thousands of sick people including hysterics, who could not afford private clinics or drastic life changes. The so called ‘faith-healing’ had such a high success rate that in 1897 Jean-Martin Charcot published a long essay recognising its potency for hysterics, who he admitted that could be cured by auto-suggestion. In essence, these pilgrims, who were most likely unaware of the emotions they were somatising, by visiting Lourdes, praying, and believing, would acquire the embodied reassurance that a higher power was looking out for them and that their future was not necessarily ominous. This was enough for their symptoms to be alleviated and for them to continue their lives, even if these were not to their liking.

Implications for anorexia nervosa and hysteria patients nowadays

Intense emotional responses to sexual maturation, sexual abuse, sexuality, marriage and motherhood can result in the development of psychosomatic conditions. One such condition that women suffer from nowadays is anorexia nervosa. The categories of women sufferers are as varied as they have always been and include young and mature women of all socioeconomic classes. There is also a considerable number of women that choose to become anorexic having full knowledge of the consequences of this choice, in order to comply with contemporary beauty standards as these are promoted by present-day visual culture and perceived by these women. The latter category is excluded from this research. Returning to somatoform disorder patients, despite the decline in contemporary hysteria studies, numerous women continue to suffer from hysteria today, albeit exhibiting different symptoms to those of Freud’s and Breuer’s day. Despite the high number of sufferers from the aforementioned conditions (especially anorexia nervosa), the cure rate of these patients is low. In the opinion of the author this is an indication of an incomplete understanding of the desiderata of these patients. In the end publication of this research an alternative method will be proposed for the treatment of modern-day patients with anorexia nervosa and hysteria based on the knowledge gained from past failures and successes. Finally, it needs to be noted that men suffer from psychosomatic conditions including anorexia nervosa too, and the implications of this research are relevant to patients of all sexes and genders. 

The CHS Fellowship

The part of this research focusing on the life of women in antiquity as well as their relation to and ritual performances in honour of Artemis was conducted in the past. During the CHS Fellowship I focused on hysteria and fin de siècle Vienna. I thus placed hysteria patients within their political, socioeconomic and aesthetic context. I also focused on the Hippocratic texts and the authors’ understanding and presentation of female somatoform disorders. Finally, I conducted research on the greatly varying causes of anorexia nervosa. I am most grateful for the access to Harvard’s online resources without which it would have been very difficult to gather the necessary, extensive, multidisciplinary bibliography. 

Select Bibliography

Appignanesi, Lisa and Forrester, John (1992): Freud’s Women. Basic Books. New York.

Ashby, Charlotte; Gronberg, Tag and Shaw-Miller, Simon (eds) (2013): The Viennese Café and Fin-de-siècle Culture. Berghahn. New York.

Boero, Natalie and Pascoe, C.J. (2012): Pro-anorexia communities and online interaction: bringing the pro-ana body online. Body & Society 18(2): 27-57.

Breuer, Josef and Freud, Sigmund (1955) [1925]: Studies on Hysteria. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. II. The Hogarth Press. London.

Charcot, Jean-Martin (1897): La Foi qui Guérit. Éditions Félix Alcan. Paris.

Demand, Nancy (1994): Birth, Death and Motherhood in Classical Greece. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore.

Garrigou-Kempton, Emilie (2018): Writing Lourdes. Faith, Miracles, and the Elaboration of an Official Story. Diegesis 7.2: 1-18.

Janet, Pierre (1901): The Mental State of Hystericals: A Study of Mental Stigmata and Mental Accidents. G.P. Putnam. New York.

Johnston, William M. (1983) The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History 1848-1938. University of California Press. Berkeley.

King, Helen (1998): Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body on Ancient Greece. Routledge. London.

King, Helen (2004): The Disease of Virgins; Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty. Routledge. London.

Malson, Helen (1998): The Thin Woman: Feminism, Post-structuralism and the Social Psychology of Anorexia Nervosa. Routledge. London.

Masson, Jeffrey Mousaieff (1985): The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Harvard University Press. Cambridge.

Micale, Mark S. (1995): Approaching Hysteria: Disease and its Interpretations. Princeton University Press. Princeton.

Micale, Mark S. (ed.) (2014): Beyond the Unconscious: Essays of Henri F. Ellenberger in the History of Psychiatry. Princeton University Press. Princeton.

Papadopoulou, Chryssanthi (2015): ‘A brief, phenomenological reading of the Arkteia’, in Theodoropoulou Polychroniadou, Zetta and Evely, Don (eds.) AEGIS; essays in Mediterranean archaeology presented to Matti Egon. Archaeopress. Oxford: 147-153.

Schorske, Carl E. (1981): Fin-de-siècle Vienna Politics and Culture. Alfred A. Knopf. New York.

Van Haute, Philippe and Geyskens, Tomas (2012): A non-Oedipal Psychoanalysis? A Clinical Anthropology of Hysteria in the Works of Freud and Lacan. Leuven University Press. Leuven.