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ELH 69.1 (2002) 21-55

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Lady Macbeth and the Daemonologie of Hysteria

Joanna Levin

Being a Phisition, and judging in my conscience that these matters have been mistaken by the common people, I thought good to make knowne the doctrine of this disease . . . to the end that the unlearned and rash conceits of others, might be therby brought to better understanding and moderation; who are apt to make everything into a supernaturall work which they do not understand; . . . who are ready to draw forth their wooden dagger, if they do but see a maid or woman suffering one of these fits of the Mother, conjuring and exorcising them as if they were possessed with evil spirits.

--Edward Jorden

What would you say, by the way, if I told you that all of my brand-new prehistory of hysteria is already known and was published a hundred times over, though several centuries ago? Do you remember that I always said that the medieval theory of possession held by the ecclesiastical courts was identical with our theory of a foreign body and the splitting of consciousness? But why did the devil who took possession of the poor things invariably abuse them sexually and in a loathsome manner? Why are their confessions under torture so like the communications made by my patients in psychic treatment? Sometime soon I must delve into the literature on this subject . . .

--Sigmund Freud

Ever since Freud linked vexation narratives with "the communications made by my patients in psychic treatment," comparisons between the demonically possessed and hysterics have been legion. But the use of "hysteria" as a scientific explanation for possession is not just a twentieth-century phenomenon. 1 As the Mary Glover Case of 1602 reveals, the transformation of a bewitched demoniac into an hysteric first occurred during the era of the witchcraft trials, and even contributed to the decline of witchcraft prosecutions. 2 A trial involving many of the leading religious and political authorities in Renaissance England, the case of an allegedly bewitched young girl named Mary Glover sparked intense debate over the boundaries between [End Page 21] the natural and the supernatural and resulted in the first etiology of hysteria written in English: Edward Jorden's Briefe Discourse of A Disease Called the Suffocation of the Mother (1603). Constructed as a rational alternative to the occult, Jorden's etiology maintained that hysterica passio, or, as it was more popularly known, the "Mother," was a natural disease that could mimic the signs of demonic vexation. The satanic force animating both the bewitched and witches alike could thereafter be relocated within the female body, especially within her sexual and reproductive functions. 3

Historians of hysteria have traditionally praised Jorden's skepticism, hailing the Briefe Discourse as "the first book by an English physician which reclaimed the demonically possessed for medicine." 4 This analysis supports the Whig argument that the "Scientific Revolution" facilitated the end of witchhunting: as reason overthrew superstition, the power of witches was exposed as a fantastic fiction, and women were saved for medical science. 5 Michael MacDonald has recently contextualized Jorden's achievement, however, noting that "modern assessments of Jorden have misunderstood his motives for writing his Briefe Discourse and the considerations that prompted him to reassess the cause and symptoms of hysteria." He argues against the standard view of Jorden as a disinterested rationalist and, tracing the progress of the Mary Glover Case, insists that Jorden's book was "in the first instance a work of religious propaganda" that entered into the controversy between the established Church of England and Puritan dissenters. 6

This suggestive analysis sets the stage for a new inquiry into the relation between demonology, the etiology of hysteria, and concurrent patriarchal ideologies. As the Mary Glover Case demonstrates, the witch, the bewitched, and the hysteric were synchronic categories brought together under the auspices of a complex struggle for religious and political authority at the outset of King James's English reign. This contextualization argues against a view of the hysteric as a reclaimed version of demonic femininity; positioned as antithetical and analogous constructs...


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