This unsettling little book, A briefe discourse of a disease called the Suffocation of the Mother (1603), is the first English work on hysteria. It was written by the physician and chemist Edward Jorden (d. 1632), after his testimony at the trial of Elizabeth Jackson, who was accused of bewitching Mary Glover in 1602. Jorden tried, unsuccessfully, to argue that Jackson was not possessed by any supernatural power but suffering from a natural ‘disease’ that he called Passio Hysterica or the ‘Suffocation of the Mother’ (p. 5r). The word ‘mother’ is used disconcertingly here to mean ‘womb’ or uterus.
Though he defends women like Jackson against accusations of witchcraft, Jorden seems to view them instead as the victims of their own bodies, particularly their wombs: ‘The passive condition of womankind is subject unto more diseases’ (p. 1r). Jorden builds on the theory of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, arguing that virginal ‘maidens’ and ‘widowes’ are most prone to hysteria as they lack ‘the benefit of marriage’ and are deprived of sexual activity. This supposedly creates ‘a congestion of humors’ and corruption around the womb (p. 22v).
Jorden believes that the ‘mother’ (or womb) can move around the body, ‘sometimes drawn upwards or sidewards above his natural seate’ (p. 5v) putting pressure on other organs (p. 1v). It causes ‘monstrous and terrible’ symptoms such as ‘suffocation in the throate, croaking of Frogges, hissing of Snakes … frenzies, convulsions, hickcockes, laughing, singing, weeping, crying’ (p. 2r). But Jorden also argues that these physical symptoms can be caused by ‘perturbations of the minde’. He has ‘infinite examples’ of those who ‘have dyed upon joye, griefe, love, feare, shame’ and he offers case studies of women who have suffered fits, fainting, apoplexy and ‘Madnesse’ (p. 23r, marked as p. 16 in this copy).
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Hysteria and Shakespeare’s women
In his association between the female body and the symptoms of illness or madness, Jorden gives us an insight into contemporary views of Shakespeare’s women. Ophelia’s ‘deep grief’ for her father (4.5.75) or frustrated love for Hamlet transforms her from a ‘chaste’ woman (1.3.31) to a ‘document in madness’ (4.5.178). She ‘beats her heart’ and talks ‘half sense’ (5.1.5-7) before dying by drowning. Lady Macbeth calls on the spirits to ‘unsex’ her and fill her with ‘direst cruelty’ (1.5.41–43), but she is shockingly changed by guilt at the murder of Duncan. She suffers ‘slumb’ry agitation’ (5.1.11), compulsively washes her hands and also dies mysteriously, probably by suicide (5.5.16).