O, Wandering Womb! Where Art Thou?

Hysteria. The word conjures up an array of images, none of which probably include a nomadic uterus wandering aimlessly around the female body. Yet up until the 18th century, that is precisely what medical practitioners believed was the cause behind this mysterious disorder.

Today, hysteria is regarded as a ‘physical expression of a mental conflict’ and can happen to anyone regardless of age or gender. [1] In ancient times, however, it was attributed only to women, and believed to be physiological (not psychological) in nature. Plato believed the womb was to blame for this disorder: it was an ‘animal capable of wreaking destruction’. [2] In fact, the very word, ‘hysteria’, comes from the Greek word hystera, meaning ‘womb’.

Plato posited that the womb—especially one which was barren—could become vexed and begin wandering throughout the body, ‘blocking respiratory channels’ and ‘causing bizarre behavior’. [3] So worrisome was the prospect of a wandering womb, that some women wore amulets to protect themselves against it (see right). [4]

Concepts about the womb were slow to evolve. In 1602, Mary Glover accused Elizabeth Jackson of bewitching her. The physician, Edward Jorden, disagreed. Instead, he blamed Mary’s erratic behaviour on noxious vapours in her womb, which he believed were slowly suffocating her. Despite the prevalence of this medical theory during the early modern period, the jury disagreed and Elizabeth was convicted.

William Harvey, famed for his theories on the circulation of the blood around the heart, also perpetuated the belief that women were ‘slaves to their own biology’, describing the uterus as ‘insatiable, ferocious, animal-like’, and drawing parallels between ‘bitches in heat and hysterical women’. [5] Countless others followed suit in their cries against the womb.

So what did one do for hysteria?

19th-century depiction of a vaginal examination

Physicians prescribed all kinds of treatments for a wayward womb. These included sweet-smelling vaginal suppositories and fumigations used to ‘tempt’ the uterus back to its rightful place. Women were also forced to ingest disgusting substances—sometimes containing repulsive ingredients such as human or animal excrement—in order to force the womb away from the lungs and heart. For the single woman suffering from hysteria, the cure was simple: marriage, followed by children.

Today, women’s wombs may have stopped wandering; however, medicine still tends to ‘pathologize the vagaries of the female reproductive system’. [6] Has the ever-elusive hysteria brought on by roving uteri simply been replaced by the equally intangible yet mysterious PMS?

I’ll let you decide…

1. Mark J Adair, ‘Plato’s View of the “Wandering Uterus”’, The Classical Journal 91:2 (1996), p. 153.
2. G. S. Rousseau, ‘“A Strange Pathology”: Hysteria in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800’ in Hysteria Beyond Freud (1993), p 104. Originally qtd in Heather Meek, ‘Of Wandering Wombs and Wrongs of Women: Evolving Concepts of Hysteria in the Age of Reason’, English Studies in Canada 35:2-3 (June/September 2009), p. 109.
3. M. S. Rosenthal, The Gynecological Sourcebook, 4th edn. (2003), p. 7.
4. This particular amulet is discussed in Robert K. Ritner, ‘A Uterine Amulet in the Oriental Institute Collection’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 45:3 (Jul. 1984), pp. 209-221. For more on the fascinating subject of magical amulets, see Tom Blaen, Medical Jewels, Magical Gems: Precious Stones in Early Modern Britain (2012).
5. Rousseau, ‘“A Strange Pathology”’, p. 132. Originally qtd in Meek, ‘Of Wandering Wombs’, p. 109.
6. Mary Lefkowitz, ‘Medical Notes: The Wandering Womb’, The New Yorker (26 February 1996).

12 comments on “O, Wandering Womb! Where Art Thou?

  1. […] Hysteria: Females and their Wandering Wombs […]

  2. David Harley says:

    — “I remember reading that the cure for hysteria in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the vibrator!”

    Not everything written by historians of medicine is true. That includes this one.

  3. David Harley says:

    I think one needs to differentiate between wombs actually wandering and wombs emitting noxious vapours. Very few early modern texts speak of wombs wandering, and I don’t recall any that came from the pens of fully trained physicians or surgeons.

    The Greek origin of the wandering womb required the mind to be located in the phren, the midriff, so that pressure would be exerted on it. [cf. frenzy] Among the authors of the later Hippocratic texts and, following them, Aristotle we can see the mind relocated to the brain. [Before you laugh at the phren, consider the long association of the heart with emotion.]

    It was not supposed that the womb wandered up to the brain. When anatomical dissections were revived in the medieval universities, authorities such as Mondino made it clear that the womb could not wander at all.

    Although one can readily find late 17th-century clinical physicians who continued to associate hysteria with the womb, anatomists such as Thomas Willis relocated it altogether to the brain. As his doctrine of nervous disorders and sensibility became increasingly widespread during the 18th century, only the name continued to associate the affliction with the womb, as far as physicians were concerned.

    Hypochondria, often seen as the male equivalent of hysteria, had precisely the same origins as hysteria — pressure on the midriff becoming transformed first into noxious vapours and then into an affliction of the nerves and brain.

    A query — whereabouts in the works of Harvey are these comments to be found? I don’t recall him saying this.

  4. Kikie says:

    the wandering womb… the newfound endometriosis, perhaps? looks like its still there now.

  5. […] this talk of PMS leading to unrestrained, irrational behavior reminds me of something else. Hysteria. Uteri may have stopped wandering around people’s bodies, but apparently they’re still […]

  6. Ha! How true! And how misogynistic is medicine still today. But we “are” slaves to our biology – esp if a court is prepared to excuse a woman murder on the grounds of PMT!! Did Jack the Ripper think he was curing hysteria perhaps?? In his own twisted way?

  7. Maximus Maximus says:

    I remember reading that the cure for hysteria in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the vibrator!

    Yes you read correctly. “Hysterical” women were prescibed vibrators by actual doctors in America. I’m not sure if this was standard procedure in Europe at the time.

    I could picture a “hysterical” woman not being hysterical anymore after an orgasm.

  8. […] fascinated by the concept of “wandering womb.” The Chirugeron’s Apprentice has a short but interesting post on that topic. On a related note, over at Wonders & Marvels, Helen King (who wrote Hippocrates’ Woman) […]

  9. […] The history of the wandering womb. […]

  10. Violet Hour Muse says:

    I first read about the ‘wandering womb’ in Sandra Coney’s 1988 book, ‘The Unfortunate Experiment’. which was quite an eye-opener in and of itself.

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