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On Hysteria

The Invention of a Medical Category between 1670 and 1820

These days, hysteria is known as a discredited diagnosis that was used to group and pathologize a wide range of conditions and behaviors in women. But for a long time, it was seen as a legitimate category of medical problem—and one that, originally, was applied to men as often as to women.

In On Hysteria, Sabine Arnaud traces the creation and rise of hysteria, from its invention in the eighteenth century through nineteenth-century therapeutic practice. Hysteria took shape, she shows, as a predominantly aristocratic malady, only beginning to cross class boundaries (and be limited to women) during the French Revolution. Unlike most studies of the role and status of medicine and its categories in this period, On Hysteria focuses not on institutions but on narrative strategies and writing—the ways that texts in a wide range of genres helped to build knowledge through misinterpretation and recontextualized citation.

Powerfully interdisciplinary, and offering access to rare historical material for the first time in English, On Hysteria will speak to scholars in a wide range of fields, including the history of science, French studies, and comparative literature.


"Tracing the transformation of the category of hysteria over the course of a century and half, Arnaud analyzes the role medical, literary, philosophical, and political writing played in shaping medical knowledge. In keeping with the varied and widespread writing on hysteria during this period, Arnaud explores a wide range of issues, including sexual difference, mental illness, and sexuality.  In using a rhetorical methodology to study the history of hysteria, the author adds a new and necessary dimension to the existing literature, which has focused largely on medical institutions, disciplines, and devices associated with hysteria.
Highly recommended."


"Arnaud's new book explores a history of discursive practices that played a role in the construction of hysteria as pathology. On Hysteriaconsiders a wide range of issues that are both specific to the particular history of hysteria, and more broadly applicable to the history medicine. Arnaud pays special attention to the role played by language in the definition of any medical category, basing her analysis on a masterful analysis of a spectrum of written medical genres (including dialogue, autobiography, correspondence, narrative, and polemic) that have largely been forgotten by the history of medicine. In a series of fascinating chapters, the book interweaves the history of hysteria with studies of gender, class, literature, metaphor, narrative, and and religion. It’s an expertly-researched and compellingly-written account that will amply reward readers interested in the histories of medicine and gender."

New Books Network

"On Hysteria focuses on the socio-medical category before its better-known (and more heavily studied) late nineteenth century instantiations, not to trace the prehistory of hysteria from the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries,but in order to demonstrate how hysteria takesunexpected form during these earlier epochs."


"This is an elegant, convincing, and beautifully constructed book, an important and fresh contribution to the history of medicine. We are left, as will be the case with any book as original and intriguing as this one, wanting to know more....Arnaud has given us a rich, multilayered understanding of how a category becomes a category. She shows how medicine can suck in the forms of knowledge, modes of thought, and commonplace morality of the people who form a society, and represent it all, magically metamorphosed into knowledge that belongs exclusively to the medical profession. When we write medical history, we know that deep cultural layers underpin the words, and gazes, of medical people—Arnaud’s On Hysteria is an exquisite archaeology, working with verve and insight in the subterranean deep."


“Arnaud’s book stands in clear contrast to the usual treatment of the history of hysteria by historians of medicine; it focuses neither on institutions nor on personalities, but on rhetorical and discursive strategies…. [On Hysteria] is original and interdisciplinary, exploring a relatively obscure period in the history of hysteria. The focus on language and its power, while not novel, has not been applied to the concept of a pathology in this way (nor to this particularly rich and fascinating pathology). This is a well-researched and well-developed work, which will be of interest to a varied audience.”

British Journal for the History of Science

"In this profoundly original and interdisciplinary work, Arnaud provides us with a major study on the dynamics on science, medicine, and culture in the eighteenth century. Her analysis complements the recent pioneering works by Anne Vila, Elizabeth A. Williams, and Jan Goldstein, among others, while all along offering the most extensive treatment of the early hysteria phenomena since the classic work by Ilza Veith. Her study is essential reading for anyone interested in this quintessential but enigmatic malady—one that so defines long-standing perceptions of gender, bourgeois culture, and modernity itself."

Sean Quinlan, author of The Great Nation in Decline

"Arnaud has given us a rich slice of eighteenth-century cultural history and a bold methodological intervention into the history of science and medicine. Against the now-familiar background of late nineteenth-century and early Freudian hysteria as a mode of covert feminine protest, she presents for the era of the Enlightenment an unstable discursive field where medical writing overlaps with other literary genres and the hysteric is as often a man as a woman and is usually an aristocrat. An original and fascinating piece of scholarship."

Jan Goldstein, author of Hysteria Complicated by Ecstasy

"In recent years our historical understanding of the processes of construction has been enriched by the integration of literary hermeneutics into the history of medicine. Perhaps the most ambitious and impressive example to date is Sabine Arnaud’s On Hysteria, which we now have, fortunately, in a translation by the author...On Hysteria is a landmark book"

Journal of Modern History

The book makes important contributions to the history of women, science, rhetoric, and literature. Arnaud is particularly successful when she takes readers into the archives of the Société Royale de Médicine and notes how physicians became story-tellers, blurring the frontiers between medical narrative and fiction along the way. The bibliography and footnotes constitute an impressive resource, and the text incorporates engaging quotes that are meticulously analyzed."

Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal

Table of Contents


1 Names and Uses of a Diagnosis
The Establishment of Hysteria as a Medical Category
An Intermingling of Terms
First Occurrences of the Term “Hysteria”
Vaporous Affection and Social Class
Encounters between Medical and Religious Spheres

2 In Search of Metaphors: Figuring What Cannot Be Defined
A Catalog of Images: Proteus, the Chameleon, and the Hydra
Repeated Quotations, Divergent Readings

3 The Writing of a Pathology and Practices of Dissemination
Fictional Correspondence
The Epistolary Consultation

4 Code, Truth, or Ruse? The Vapors in the Republic of Letters
Well-Timed Fits
The Practice of Vapors
The Force of the Imagination

5 Relating Fits and Creating Enigmas: The Role of Narrative
Bodies Awaiting Exegesis
The Rise of Medical Narrative
In the Shadow of a Gothic Tale
Traps and Countertraps
The Construction of Secrets

6 Adopting Roles and Redefining Medicine
To Mystify or to Demystify? Establishing the Role of the Therapist
Magnetism, Parodies, and Mystification: The Art of Framing a Therapeutic Practice
Strategies of Legitimation and Definitions of the Patient to Come
Investing in Women



History of Science Society: Margaret W. Rossiter History of Women in Science Prize
Short Listed

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