The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis, and the Problems of Puberty

The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis, and the Problems of Puberty

The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis, and the Problems of Puberty

The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis, and the Problems of Puberty

Synopsis

From an acclaimed author in the field, this is a compelling study of the origins and history of the disease commonly seen as afflicting young unmarried girls.Understanding of the condition turned puberty and virginity into medical conditions, and Helen King stresses the continuity of this disease through history,depsite enormous shifts in medical understanding and technonologies, and drawing parallels with the modern illness of anorexia.Examining its roots in the classical tradition all the way through to its extraordinary survival into the 1920s, this study asks a number of questions about the nature of the disease itself and the relationship between illness, body images and what we should call¿¿~normal¿¿" behaviour.This is a fascinating and clear account which will prove invaluable not just to students of classical studies, but will be of interest to medical professionals also.

Excerpt

When the late Roy Porter and George Rousseau published their history of gout, they began by attempting to disarm potential critics of this enterprise by stating that ‘No apology is needed for writing the history of a malady and its cultural representation’ (Porter and Rousseau 1998:1). Roy enthusiastically supported my project but, unlike him, I feel I do need to apologise. First, because writing a history of ‘a disease’ seems a methodologically dubious pursuit, particularly when it is not clear to what extent this was a diverse collection of acute and chronic conditions which went under a single name—a point picked up in the title of Irvine Loudon’s article of 1984, The diseases called chlorosis’—or, as I am suggesting here, a collection of symptoms which went under several different names but retained its core identity through the turmoil of medical change. Second, I would like to state now that, in following this disease from its Renaissance origins to its twentieth-century decline, I am all too aware that, as a historian of pre-modern medicine, I am entering the territory of those whose right to comment on it is far greater than mine. But sometimes it is worth taking the long view. I have been working on the disease of virgins for many years, and have been struck by the echoes across the centuries, although, as a scholar whose main interest hitherto has been in locating medical texts within very specific social and cultural contexts of production, I am aware that I could have done far more to tease out the subtle shifts beneath apparent continuities.

A preliminary attempt to understand the condition was supported by a British Academy Leave Award in 1995, and appeared as ‘Hippocrates, Galen and the origins of the “disease of virgins”’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 2 (1996): 372-87, reprinted as chapter 10 of Hippocrates’ Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (London: Routledge, 1998). Some of the material from that essay is revisited here in parts of chapters 1 and 2. The scope of this book expanded as a result of holding a University Award from the Wellcome Trust. Early versions of chapters were presented to the University of Birmingham Gender Seminar; the Leeds Historical Association; the London and Oxford Wellcome Units; KNHG

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