Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2834: WOMBS AND WITCHCRAFT

by Richard Armstrong

Today, wombs and witchcraft. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I'm looking at a medical pamphlet written in 1603, when Shakespeare was about 39 years old. It's written by a doctor named Edward Jorden. The pamphlet describes a disease that was thought to be fairly common at the time; but two things really grab my attention.  First, it's written in English, not Latin, as serious medical works were in those days.  Second, it has a tone of great urgency, because the lives of women are quite literally at stake.

An excerpt from Edward Jorden's Suffocation of the Mother
An excerpt from Edward Jorden's Suffocation of the Mother

Jorden's making the public aware of a condition that afflicts women of all ages, according to the medicine of the time. In English it's called Suffocation of the Mother, or suffocation of the womb. In the 1700s, most of its symptoms would later be regrouped under the term hysteria. A prime symptom of this malady is a choking or suffocating sensation, from which it derives its name. But more importantly, this disease causes unexplainable seizures, mood swings, and deliriums. And here's the point Jorden drives home repeatedly: some people take the seizures and other abnormal behaviors as proof that the patient is bewitched or possessed by the devil.

An announcement of the finding of witches in Lancaster

Suffocation of the womb is an ancient notion. It first appears in the Greek medical writings attributed to Hippocrates. There it's said to be caused by the womb literally shifting around in the body and attaching itself to other organs.  Later ancient medicine would deny that the womb wanders, but still held that the uterus was the cause of fits and seizures on account of its retaining corrupt material. Jorden cites ancient and contemporary sources at length as he tries to inform his reader about the real nature and course of this disease.

This pamphlet moves me, because it's written in the same century that would see the most notorious witch trials, exorcisms, and executions across Europe and even in North America. Jorden offers a point-by-point comparison of alleged signs of demonic possession with symptoms of this disease. These include: insensitivity to pricking or burning, mysterious convulsions and contractions, eating disorders, or seizures triggered in the presence of a particular person. All of these, Jorden argues, are completely natural phenomena explainable by this illness.

He also notes that psychological factors can trigger this disease—anticipating Freud's work on hysteria by nearly three hundred years. Perturbations of the mind can bring us to illness, he says, "for seeing we are not maisters of our owne affections, wee are like battered Citties without walles, or shippes tossed in the Sea, exposed to all maner of assaults and daungers, even to the overthrow of our owne bodies."

An illustration of the Salem Witch Trials

Jorden seems heroic in this effort to combat superstition, but it was already a losing battle when he went to print. The witch trials would go on. We may find the medical theory of uterine suffocation odd today; but such a theory of natural causation could have saved people from the gallows and the stake in 1603.  The sad truth is, too few people in Jorden's day had time for an alternative explanation; they preferred the devil they knew to complex ideas about the embodied mind.

I'm Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work. (Theme music)

Sources:

Jorden, Edward. 1603. A Disease Called The Suffocation of the Mother. London, John Windet. Reprint: Amsterdam, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

There is a dimension of ecclesiastical politics to this work, since Jorden's medical authority helped to buttress a position preferred by the Church of England over those of the Catholics and Puritans.  For the further complexities, see:

MacDonald, Michael, ed. 1991. Witchcraft and Hysteria In Elizabethan London: Edward Jorden and the Mary Glover Case. London, Tavistock/Routledge.

For the ancient theory of uterine suffocation, see:

Dean-Jones, Lesley. 1994. Women's Bodies in Classical Greek Science. Oxford, Clarendon Press.  Pp. 69-77.

King, Helen. 1998. Hippocrates' Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece. London and New York, Routledge. Chapter 11 (pp. 205-246).

This episode was first aired on October 3, 2012



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.