From the Desk of Judy Kem: Fatal Lovesickness in Early Modern France

judykemJudy Kem is a professor of French at Wake Forest University. She is editor or author of three books in French studies, including Pathologies of Love: Medicine and the Woman Question in Early Modern France (Nebraska, 2019).

Fatal Lovesickness in Early Modern France

In Doing Harm: The Truth about How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (2018), Maya Dusenberry claims that gender bias in medicine remains a deep-rooted problem. She points out that doctors too often ignore women’s symptoms as “all in their heads” and that women have been underrepresented or even omitted in medical studies and pharmaceutical trials. Dusenberry adds that by omitting women, medical researchers excuse their “one-size-fits-all approach” that ignores gender differences by stating that men and women are essentially the same, with the exception of their reproductive organs. Thus, any research conducted on men, she writes, could simply be extrapolated to women.

In Pathologies of Love, I examine a similar medical view of women in early modern France in the context of a literary debate on women called the Querelle des femmes. Even as late as the mid sixteenth century, as dissections of human cadavers were becoming more common in European universities, physicians still followed Aristotle and Galen’s “one-sex theory” that men’s and women’s sexual organs were essentially the same; men’s lay outside their bodies while women’s remained inside. In humoral medicine, the male body was considered perfect in that it was hotter and drier than the female’s imperfectly cooler and moister one. Women’s medicine at the time concentrated almost exclusively on their reproductive function.

Christine de Pizan (1364-c. 1430) set in motion the debate on women by attacking Jean de Meun’s misogynistic continuation of the Romance of the Rose. His defenders responded in Latin. In her Book of the City of Ladies, she lamented that not only was woman considered inferior biologically, but men considered women morally and intellectually weaker as well.  A woman’s lack of education, a societal norm, reinforced the stereotype. Christine, a physician’s daughter, also questioned why pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s Secrets of Women, that spread misinformation about women in Latin, warned men to keep these “secrets” out of the hands of women. Written in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, the work claimed that not only were women toxic due to their unhealthy humors and greater susceptibility to disease but also sexually insatiable. At the time, celibacy was the ideal while sexual contact with women was fraught with danger, both spiritual and physical.


In Pathologies of Love, I examine lovesickness in works by Christine de Pizan, Jean Molinet, Symphorien Champier, Jean Lemaire de Belges, and Marguerite de Navarre. Considered a potentially fatal malady by some, others, like Christine and Marguerite saw it more as a feigned illness and dangerous game of seduction. Men too often used the threat of dying from unrequited love to seduce a woman; both men and women risked physical and spiritual harm from the game. Champier, a Lyonnais physician, described another condition, excessive sexual contact, the opposite of unrequited love or involuntary celibacy. While sexual contact  benefited women, he claimed that it  harmed men. Unbridled sexual activity in men could cause infertility, blindness, premature old age, and even death. Another sixteenth-century author, Jean Lemaire de Belges described yet another form of fatal lovesickness, excessive grief at the loss of a loved one that could lead to despair and suicide and mainly affected women. In his tribute to his patron Margaret of Austria at the death of her husband, he offered therapeutic remedies drawn from various lapidaries to relieve her pain. Lemaire also wrote a poem about the Great Pox, later known as syphilis, another form of lovesickness, which was known to spread through sexual contact very early in the sixteenth century. Women’s moist humors were thought to aid the spread of the pathogen. At the end of the work, he offers only resignation and hope that the “waters” will eventually run clean.

Studying different pathologies of love, love as a sickness, in the early modern debate on women sheds light not only on the role that biology played in the debate but also on the changing times and men’s anxiety about women’s greater access to the printed word and the rise of the vernacular. In early modern France, thanks to the recent invention of the printing press and the rise of the vernacular, women who may only have known “kitchen Latin” could now read literary and medical works in the vernacular and criticize works about women written by men. Male authors responded that, like children, women needed to be taught how to read properly and protected from salacious sexual content and even medical knowledge about their own bodies. At the same time, university-trained doctors were struggling to differentiate their “superior” discipline from such untrained interlopers as barber-surgeons, apothecaries, herbalists, and midwives. In these intellectually turbulent times, the debate for and against women often concentrated more on women’s biological nature and their role in male/female love relationships than on equality of the sexes or women’s roles in society. Men (and even women) who participated in this early modern debate were reluctant to claim women’s complete equality with men. It was enough to claim that women were intelligent, virtuous, and courageous.

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