Melancholia of Virgins

The term ‘Hysteria’ is now recognised as a diagnosis stemming from pseudo-science, intrinsically linked to misogyny and man’s dominance. Symptoms eventually attributed to ‘Hysteria’ have been common throughout history. In ancient Greece, they were attributed to uterine movement.


In 19th century Europe, psychiatrists sought a term to describe this malady among them Uterine Suffocation, Uterine Fury, Female Asthma, and Melancholy of Virgins were considered. Ultimately, the term Hysteria would be chosen as the catch-all diagnosis for women suffering from many ailments of no visible root.

One front-runner in Hysteria science was Jean-Martin Charcot he was charged with Hysteria treatment at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, Charcot was notoriously fixated on a particular patient. Admitted to the Salpêtrière when she was only sixteen, her name was Augustine. A traumatic rape episode in her childhood led to her Hysteria diagnosis. When in reality what she was suffering was PTSD combined with schizophrenic episodes.

Once at Salpêtrière, she quickly became Charcot’s muse. Each Tuesday, when he conducted ‘Grand Rounds’. Hysterical women were put on display for audiences consisting of medical contemporaries, students and members of the general public. Armed with a camera, Charcot used photography as a machine to capture patients’ attack symptoms for later analysis. These pictures would then be published, used as ‘evidence’.


‘Melancholia of Virgins’ explores this imagery, focusing primarily on Augustine in the Salpêtrière, and redefining visual representation through digital technology. Handmade collages sliced, stitched and inverted, quickly evolved to animations – transforming this once static archive into one now dynamic and contemporary. These experimental pieces seek to increase awareness of a time when the field of medicine subjected women to abhorrent treatment.


Through collaboration with a writer, Augustine’s story is explored through poetry as a fictional re-imagining of her perspective.

Am I still somebody when I’m alone, or

Just when his eyes creep over me?

Unflinching, always curious, bold and relentless

Probing and searching; seeking out truth

The absence of reality is no obstruction

For a man who creates the very thing he discovers

Am I performing for him as I perform for them?

Is their applause his, mine or ours?

Only through observation can I be classified

How can so many eyes look and not see

The relentless dual purpose of neglected uteri

To bring forth life and to drive it insane

This ugly stain; this blight

Poking holes in society’s sinister cloak

Hidden beneath, ruined women cry

For what and for whom, has no scientific relevance

We’re just Jezebel falling. We’re Eve in the Garden, and

We are Joan at her stake, being cleansed of existence

Only the love of a man can cure such madness

May God have mercy on our wandering wombs

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A bustling beehive of furrowed brows and open mouths

Just another Tuesday at the Salpêtrière

The coldest touch shivers along my skin; it is time

For the Grand Rounds to go round and round, and so

I prance and I pose, I dance and forget, that

Once I was a woman

Now I’m just a tool; his ladder to greatness

Now I’m just paint adorning his canvas

The audience adores him, but his masterpiece is a fraud

Though which one of us is lying, I can never be sure

The darkness devours me, but there in the gloom

His contraption is waiting to capture my truth

Here in the dark where my thoughts float in nothing

I am almost myself, I am almost something

Though I know it is coming. Soon

The light overwhelms, the light consumes

A light of self-fulfilling prophecy, and

The cause of my catalepsy. But

In the pursuit of greatness, does it matter what’s true?

He has his camera. He has his proof

They were supposed to help us, but

They can’t even hear us. We’re just

Pathological specimens and scientific inquiries

Our identities removed like an old pair of boots

Tossed in the cupboard, gathering dust

Never to be worn again

I would speak out if I could, I would shout. But

Our words are just noise to them

The mindless drone of chattering women

What a terrible burden it is to be a man

Soon a day will come; an afternoon

The hypnotic veil will lift. Amidst the lights

I will see the light that will guide me to an epiphany

And his legacy will tremble beneath my foot

I could crush him with but a thought

No more will he coax my symptoms for show

No more will he hypnotise his favourite creation

No more will he parade this unbroken woman

I will find a way, the future has told

Somehow I’ll survive. Somehow, I just know