“Her Sex Points to Hysteria”: Diagnostic Narratives in a Student Notebook

– by Lindsey Grubbs, Wood Institute travel grantee*


Hysteria posed a unique challenge to the medical profession in the late nineteenth century. As clinicians increasingly relied upon advances in instrumentation and laboratory science to diagnose organic disease, hysteria remained an enigma, mimicking organic disorder without discernable cause. S. Weir Mitchell, notorious for his work with the disorder, understood that what he once called “mysteria” was a condition with “hazy boundaries” that could not responsibly be drawn.[1] But despite this acknowledgement (or perhaps because of it), he spent much of his career attempting to delineate between organic and hysterical disorders.

Earlier this year, I spent two weeks in the Historical Medical Library researching for my dissertation the role of literature in the creation of new psychiatric diagnoses. Seeking evidence of how Mitchell employed narrative techniques as he disseminated his vision of hysteria, I spent most of my time, of course, with the Mitchell collection. His correspondence with other physicians, patients, and literary figures, his case notes, and his lecture notes demonstrated how deeply his diagnostic and literary interests supported one another. While taking a brief Mitchell-hiatus, however, I found a less glamorous set of materials that provided unexpected insight into the solidification of hysterical diagnoses in this period: the clinical notebooks of Charles P. Mercer, a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. These writings are a fascinating window into just how the diagnostic gaze was trained in Mitchell’s Philadelphia.

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A script in sanitatis

Over the past few months, we’ve looked at various parts of medieval manuscripts – catchwords, ink (here and here), illuminations (here, here, and here), etc., etc.  Today we are going to look at the script of 10a 210 (Arnald of Villanova’s Regimen sanitatis ad regem Aragonum).

Paleography is the study of historical handwriting.  The script is the style of handwriting, while hand refers to an individual scribe’s style of writing.  The script of a medieval manuscript can help in dating its creation.  Rather than list all the terms associated with paleography, and try to summarize the history of western scripts, I’m adding an extended sources/further reading section at the end of this post.


Folio 9v. Arnald of Villanova’s Regimen sanitatis ad regem Aragonum. 14th century (Spain or southern France). Call no. 10a 210.

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“A moth ate words”

Look closely at the first folio of 10a 210, Arnald of Villanova’s Regimen sanitatis ad regem Aragonum.  In the left and bottom margins you’ll see holes.  These holes are not the result of parchment tearing or existing holes in the skin (as discussed in this earlier post), but bookworms.  Bookworms are “Any of various insects that damage books; spec. a maggot that is said to burrow through the paper and boards,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary.


Bookworm holes. Folio 1r. Arnald of Villanova’s Regimen sanitatis ad regem Aragonum. 14th century (Spain or southern France). Call no. 10a 210.

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Cold temperatures are best for conception

Two weeks ago, we read Giles of Rome’s advice on moderation in the diet, and this week we are examining the best time to conceive children – male and female.  In the Book II, Part I, chapter 17, Giles explains what Aristotle says in Textus poleticorum and De metheoris regarding conception.


Book II, part I, chapter 17, ff110v-111r. De regimine regem et principum, Italy, 14th century. Call no. 10a 212.


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