'Fearsome disease' of Middle Ages: love sickness


STANFORD, Calif. -- A Stanford University researcher is studying a disease described in the Middle Ages as 'fearsome, sometimes fatal,' afflicting mostly aristocrats and known then and now as: love sickness.

Mary Wack, assistant professor of English specializing in medieval history, has applied to the National Institutes of Health for a grant to carry out a scholarly analysis of 'this common and serious mental health problem.'


In studying medieval literature, medical writings and notes from medical students, Ms. Wack found that 'in the Middle Ages the medical community gave serious thought to a fearsome, sometimes fatal disease then rampant among the aristocracy: love.

'The medical profession classified this as a physical malady, determined treatments and gave anecdotal evidence of cures.'

Because of the massive data available, she wants to use a computer to compare medieval manuscripts on the subject.

'I want to see how love sickness fits into the culture as a central factor in the Middle Ages. It is a very important part of the history of disease and medicine.'


Her definition of love sickness is 'an obsessive fixation on another person.'

'John Hinckley's obsession with actress Jodie Foster, which led him to shoot President Reagan, would be understandable in medieval terms and would be treated like a disease -- though, of course, trying to kill the ruler would not have been taken lightly,' Ms. Wack said.

In early medieval times, only men suffered from love sickness. The name Eros became corrupted to Hero, as in Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale,' and it became synonymous with masculinity.

Eventually, she said, women learned to suffer from the malady.

'Then it was considered hysteria.'

During this period, love sickness afflicted only the upper classes - 'Those below were too busy surviving to bother.'

By the Renaissance, however, the ailment of the heart could be found in rural areas and among the middle class as well.

'Literature picked up the medical model and used it to structure the experience of young men falling in love. Medicine picked up the literary allusions and incorporated them,' said Ms. Wack.

'The cure for men was to go get married -- or sleep frequently with beautiful women and switch partners as often as possible.'

Women were advised to find distraction in games, food and music - and to take frequent baths.


Another cure was found in the following recipe: 'Mix four herbs: dandelion, wild lettuce, honeysuckel (sic) roots and basil. Boil. Add dodder (a parasite). Boil again as long as you would boil an egg.'

'The physicians believed that the physiological problem was an image of the loved one imprinted too deeply on the brain, which made the person obsessed,' Ms. Wack said.

'A typical description of the symptoms included 'dry mouth and tongue with a bitter taste in the throat, as though having eaten from new, unripe prunes.''

Acknowledging the mental properties of the malady, physicians also offered some psychological counseling, she said.

'We have to do with them as we do with boys whom we teach ABCs,' advised one medieval writer, 'without blows but with all gentleness and to whom we promise nuts, apples and other things.'

Sometimes a change in scenery was in order.

'With the family's approval,' the researcher said, 'one physician had the man charged with homicide. The patient immediately fled the country -- his mind, presumably, sufficiently distracted from his adored one.'

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