STANFORD — A major mental health problem among the European elite in the Middle Ages was lovesickness, says a Stanford University expert who thinks more research on the subject would be helpful.
"I want to see how lovesickness fits into the culture as a central factor in the Middle Ages," says Mary Wack, assistant professor of English specializing in medieval history. "It is a very important part of the history of disease and medicine."
She 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."
Wack found in studying medieval literature, medical writings and notes from medical students that "in the Middle Ages the medical community gave serious thought to a fearsome, sometimes fatal disease then rampant among the aristocracy: love."
Physical Malady "The medical profession classified this as a physical malady, determined treatments and gave anecdotal evidence of cures."
In sorting out the massive data available, she wants to use a computer to compare medieval manuscripts on the subject of lovesickness, which she defines as "an obsessive fixation on another person."
Wack said in an interview that in early medieval times, only men suffered from lovesickness. The name Eros became corrupted to Hero and it became synonymous with masculinity. Eventually, she said, women learned to suffer from the malady.
"Then it was considered hysteria."
For a time, lovesickness afflicted only the upper classes. "Those below were too busy surviving to bother."
However, by the Renaissance, 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," Wack said.
"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," 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.' "