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The Causes and Cures of Lovesickness: A 17th-Century Guide to the Woes of the Heart

The Causes and Cures of Lovesickness: A 17th-Century Guide to the Woes of the Heart

“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love,” philosopher Erich Fromm wrote in his 1956 masterwork on the art of loving and what is keeping us from mastering it. Nearly half a millennium earlier, a French physician named Jacques Ferrand examined the bodily and spiritual causes and effects of this common failing. In 1610, a decade before Robert Burton’s influential Anatomy of Melancholy, Ferrand published the verbosely titled study Of Lovesickness or Erotic Melancholy: A Scientific Discourse that teaches how to know the essence, causes, signs, and remedies of this disease of the fantasy, later shorthanded to A Treatise on Lovesickness (public library). His goal was to define, diagnose, and ultimately cure this “disease of the fantasy.”

The result is an absolutely fascinating document that reflects both the tremendous progress of the human mind in the centuries since and the perennial fixtures of the human heart — in light of modern science, the text is medically laughable and peppered with superstition; but it is also rife with abiding psychological truths that will ring with striking familiarity in the pit of the psyche for anyone who has ever fallen in love.

Art from Love Is Walking Hand in Hand by Charles Schulz, 1965
Art from Love Is Walking Hand in Hand by Charles Schulz, 1965

Ferrand writes:

At first it would appear a vain and useless enterprise to give instruction on how to cure love, since poets, philosophers, and theologians have acknowledged it to be the cause of all good… It is a chart-in-brief of justice, of temperance, of strength and wisdom, the author of medicine, poetry, and music — of all the liberal arts. It is the most noble and powerful as well as the most ancient of all the gods forged in the pagan imagination… Moreover, as a physician, to write against the principle of love would be to criticize my own profession since according to [the Ancient Greeks] medicine is the science by which we understand the “loves” of the body that govern repletion and evacuation. He who is able to discern the honest affections for the dishonest in the inclinations of the natural humors is to be accounted the wisest of physicians.

Ferrand distinguishes between “divine love” and “common or vulgar love,” the latter representing “nothing other than a passion or a violent and dishonorable perturbation of the mind, intractable to reason” — or what we today call lust. This perturbation, he argues, is the cause of “erotic melancholy.” The only people in little danger of this malady, he tells us, are “children under fourteen, girls under twelve or thereabouts, the old and decrepit, eunuchs, the frigid and impotent.”

He outlines the scope of his study:

I want to give instruction in the methods of preventing erotic melancholy, which often attacks those who do not know how to govern their desires by reason, inasmuch as wanton love is the nursery of a million ills as counted up by [the Roman comic playwright] Plautus:

For in the wake of love come all these
Ills — care, sorrow and excessive display

Sleeplessness, yes, and stupidity and recklessness, and
Senseless unreflexion, immodesty, wantonness and lust,
Ill-will, inertia, inordinate desire, sloth, injustice,
Contumely and extravagance, overtalking, undertalking.

Asserting that lovesickness is a malady of both the body and the soul, Ferrand writes:

The many vexations and perturbations that torture the soul of the passionate lover bring about greater harms to men than all the other affections of the mind… Love is the ground and origin of all our affections and the epitome of all the perturbations of the soul. We call it covetousness or concupiscence when we desire to enjoy that which pleases, whether it be beautiful in truth or only in appearance. It is suffering and hopelessness when such enjoyment is denied. Love takes on the name of pleasure and voluptuousness when one possesses the thing desired. Hope is the belief that the object will eventually be obtained; jealousy is the belief that it will be entirely or partially lost.

He then picks up where Plautus left off and lists the symptoms of lovesickness:

[Lovesickness] gives rise to a pale and wan complexion, joined by a slow fever that modern practitioners call amorous fever, to palpitations of the heart, swelling of the face, depraved appetite, a sense of grief, sighing, causeless tears, insatiable hunger, raging thirst, fainting, oppressions, suffocations, insomnia, headaches, melancholy, epilepsy, madness, uterine fury, satyriasis, and other pernicious symptoms that are, for the most part, without mitigation or cure other than through the established medical remedies for love and erotic melancholy…

These symptoms of disease have caused many to believe that love is a kind of poison that is generated within the body itself, that slips in through the eyes… [It is] numbered among the poisons … that corrupt the reason and destroy good blood, which is the cause of paleness in lovers.

Art from An ABZ of Love, the vintage Danish guide to sexuality that Kurt Vonnegut sent to his wife.
Art from An ABZ of Love, the vintage Danish guide to sexuality that Kurt Vonnegut sent to his wife.

Ferrand goes on to list these “established medical remedies,” ranging from diet (meats are to be avoided, especially goose) to “pharmaceutical means” (ample lentils are involved) to, even, “surgical remedies” (watch out for the “liver vein” of your right arm).

Particularly curious, both for its science-debunked falsehoods and its life-attested truths, is the section on how “love melancholy” begins — what we now know about biology renders it physiologically absurd, and yet anyone who has ever experienced lust recognizes the acute validity of Ferrand’s psychological insight:

Once love deceives the eyes, which are the true spies and gatekeepers of the soul, she slips through the passageways, traveling imperceptibly by way of the veins to the liver where she suddenly imprints an ardent desire for that object that is either truly lovable, or appears so… Fearing her own powers insufficient for overthrowing the reason — the sovereign part of the soul — love turns directly upon the citadel of the heart, and once that salient stronghold is made subject, she attacks the reason and all the noble forces of the brain so vigorously that she overwhelms them and makes them all her slaves. Then all is lost: the man is finished, his senses wander, his reason is deranged, his imagination becomes depraved, and his speech incoherent. The poor lover thinks of nothing but his [beloved]. All the actions of his body are equally corrupted: he becomes pale, lean, distracted, without appetite, his eyes hollow and sunk into his head and (as the poet says) he can see the night neither with his eyes nor with his breast. You will see him crying, sobbing, and sighing, gasp upon gasp, and in a state of perpetual inquietude, fleeing all company, preferring solitude and his own thoughts: on the one side his fear of the encounter, and on the other, his despair.

Especially fascinating is Ferrand’s advice on how to “cure love melancholy in married persons” — that is, what to do if you or your spouse developed lust for another person. Once again, beneath the surface datedness lies rather sensible and insightful relationship advice. Ferrand considers the origin of such extramarital infatuations:

We see that married persons … sometimes develop a secret hatred for each other, creating such discord, such distrust and recrimination that they come to loathe and flee each other’s company. Thereafter, they find themselves easily carried away by their passions, seduced by some alien love… There are diverse causes for this calamity: sometimes it is owing to a difference in manners and customs or to a secret antipathy, sometimes to the imperfections of the body or the spirit, or at times to some charm or ligature, or else to the impression that one is not loved by the other.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

He offers practical advice for handling some of these causes:

If one of these marriage partners has certain defects of beauty that have quelled the love of the other, that person should try to correct these imperfections by the appropriate remedies, or if that is impossible, to compensate with a beauty of spirit.


Married persons should also try to render themselves compatible in matters of will, life-style, and manners.


If a couple notes certain antipathies arising, they should continue to make a show of love for one another, so that in time the feigned can change into true love.

A Treatise on Lovesickness remains a rare curiosity in its totality. Complement it with philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love, Stendhal on the seven stages of romance, poet and philosopher John O’Donohue on the life-force of desire, and the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn on how to love, then revisit Susan Sontag’s illustrated meditations on love.

Published March 9, 2016




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