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).
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).
- Full title:
- A briefe discourse of a disease called the Suffocation of the Mother, written upon occasion which hath beene of late taken thereby, to suspect possession of an evill spirit, or some such like supernaturall power. Wherin is declared that divers strange actions and passions of the body of man, which ... are imputed to the Divell, have their true naturall causes, and do accompanie this disease
- 1603, London
- Book / Quarto
- Edward Jorden
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Diane Purkiss
- Tragedies, Magic, illusion and the supernatural
Diane Purkiss discusses Renaissance beliefs about witches and shows how, in Macbeth, Shakespeare blurs the line between the witches and Lady Macbeth.
- Article by:
- Will Tosh
- Interpretations of ‘madness’
Will Tosh examines early modern attitudes towards madness, and how these informed Shakespeare's varied depictions of mental illness in Hamlet, King Lear and other plays.
- Article by:
- Michael Billington
- Tragedies, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Renaissance writers, Power, politics and religion
Michael Billington explores the source material for The Duchess of Malfi and the play's reception over the last 200 years, and argues that Webster uses the tragedy to offer a vision of human existence as chaotic and unstable.
Related collection items
Hamlet opens after the death of King Hamlet. His brother has succeeded him to the throne and quickly married the ...