Books Features

Medicine, the age of sensibility, and sociable knowledge

What strikes me most when I read books about subjects that do not relate directly to my field of inquiry is the surprising wealth of cultural common ground that disciplines, nowadays separate, once shared. I am a musicologist with a main interest in aesthetics and eighteenth-century studies, and Sabine Arnaud’s book On Hysteria rings hundreds of familiar bells in my brain. I will briefly focus on two of these.


The word ‘sensibility’ acts as a center of gravity for many thoughts and inquiries of the Siècle des Lumières. In particular, it is ‘nervous sensibility’ (cf. George Rousseau’s Nervous Acts) that provides a powerful link between medicine, sensibility and music. Although music is not one of the targets of Arnaud’s book, someone with my background reading her pages will find many familiar topics. So, for example, when Arnaud talks about the change in the interpretation of the “uterine furors” as the temperaments theory began to leave the pride of place to the new theories about the nerves, she is also tackling a major issue in the history of the relations between music and medicine (cf. the works of Penelope Gouk). As it was recognised that music had an effect on the nerves (often compared to the strings of a musical instrument), by stimulating them through the vibrations of the air, it was also clear that it could act both to heal as well as be a cause of disease (cf. James Kennaway, Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease).

Another very powerful topic highlighted in the book is the attention Arnaud pays not only to what was said about the vapours or hysteria in the eighteenth-century, but also how. Following the birth of a new category which is socially denoted, it is highly interesting to focus on the communicative strategies used by the learned to make their knowledge sociable, which, together with sensibility, is one of the keywords of the time. Thus, in Arnaud’s words “in this study, the category of hysteria emerges as a means to configure knowledge and theorize it, a means arising from the new demands of a historical period” (254). Once again, the issue of a sociable way of communicating knowledge (and therefore of being recognised by le monde, the sociable world) has been shared by many disciplines in the eighteenth century, and music was among them. Exactly as in the case of medicine, before the eighteenth-century the primary mode of transmission for musical knowledge was the writing of treatises: but treatises during the Enlightenment became the symbol of the pedant, the carrier of that form of boring knowledge which no-one wanted in his or her salon. So music, medicine, physics, etc. all took part in the explosion of literary forms which contributed to the shaping of a sociable form of knowledge (think, for example, of Algarotti’s Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explain’d for the Use of the Ladies: In Six Dialogues on Light and Colours).

Female issues and the Self

It is indeed very interesting to follow the path Arnaud displays, which leads from hysteria as a category that assembles some medical phenomena attributed to a specific social class, the aristocracy, to hysteria as a feminine disease. Once again, one has the impression of reading a familiar story, seen from a specific angle. The story is the one traced by many, such as Foucault, Laqueur, Butler and all those who have devoted time and energy to the history of sexuality. Many studies have shown how between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century there was a drive towards the superposition of gender, related to behavioural and cultural attributes, to sex and how the boundaries between the two sexes became even more strictly defined and socially regulated. The fashioning of a notion of the Self in the eighteenth-century, together with a renegotiation of gender roles in the society is a crucial issue which underpins lots of the learned discussions of the time and it is important, as Arnaud has done, not to overlook these facts (an interesting reading in that direction is Dror Wahrman’s The Making of the Modern Self, which witnesses these transformations especially through the lens of theatre plays and performances).

In the end I think that Arnaud manages to find a way to discuss a relevant topic in the history of medicine in a literary style that makes her contribution both clear and pleasurable. The book will provide an interesting read for any eighteenth-century scholar and cultural historian.


Maria Semi is a Fellow at the University of Turin. She is the author of Music as a Science of Mankind in Eighteenth Century Britain (Ashgate, 2012).

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