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Hysterically Stressful Shropshire

Updated: Mar 1

“If you’ve got a lot on your mind, go for a walk,” is oft-given advice in the event that a ‘steadying cup of tea’ fails to do the trick. Apparently, no one associates a long walk in a forest with stress.

How I laughed hysterically when I read that. Clearly, anyone who asserts this has never disturbed not just one, but two, bears simultaneously whilst taking a lengthy perambulation across North America on one’s own.

I was reminded of the advice, though, as I commenced my journey through the barrenlands of the heathery Shropshire hills. As we lumbered up and down the dales around the Long Mynd, the Shitron and I fended off blasting gusts whose ferocity was so severe they seemed determined to rush us over verges into the valleys. I swerved haphazardly more than once as lorries whipped past in the opposite direction. Whilst it may have been a feast for the eyes, it certainly supplied a great deal in terms of heart palpitation. My search for Myndtown was, all told, quite the exhilarating thrill.

Historically spelt Mindtown, the hamlet sums up perfectly the tranquillity of the moody, windswept Shropshire valley in which it nestles. Hamlets always nestle, as opposed to urban zones which always sprawl. Some claim the latter to be nothing short of incubators of mental distress, given their increased association with anxiety disorders, depression and schizophrenia. The vastness of Shropshire offers much by way of wilderness to appease a disturbed soul.

All the same, it was the tiny hamlet of Bedlam that I was disappointed to have misplaced. Bedlam was once a nickname for the London-based Bethlam Institution dedicated to the care of mentally ill. Its name has gone on to be associated with pandemonium, disorder and chaos. Best yet, two eponymous settlements can be located away from the capital, which now has none. Shropshire was rumoured to be home to one of them.

I happened upon a road sign to Bedlam, quite by accident, and only after I got to Bitterley. Bitterley made my list of ‘worst places to live in England’ because it is a word more commonly associated with women than men, just like the word ‘hysterical’.

Alas, There is no hysteria to be found in Shropshire.

Nonetheless, the breath-taking beauty of the Long Mynd informs me that it is only now that research on the differences between urban and natural walks are being conducted to discern any difference. All thanks to the gloriousness of MRI scanners.

Like everything else in science, hypotheses are formed, then hopefully tested accurately, to provide provable, reliable and consistent results. Until then scientific facts might be nothing other than “factual myths”. The world abounds with these. History even more so. Women’s matters especially so. Even now, findings for MRI scanners screech across newspaper headlines in ways the research conclusions did not intend.

Women having smaller brains, for example, assumes an engendered stupidity.

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine in the fifth century, was the first to use the word “hysteria”, believing as he would, that the cause of this disease lay in a restless uterus. One’s mental health was most grave if one’s womb was prone to go a-wandering around the torso. The very presence of agitating womanly innards would, he claimed, produce toxic fumes, the build up of which would cause anxiety, a feeling of suffocation, paralysis or shakes, and sometimes even convulsions.

Naturally, he cited the ‘cure’ for such disorders was a lot of sex.

And if that failed, then...

Unfortunately, this remedy was not suitable for virgins, widows and bitter women who had been abandoned by their menfolk.

Elsewhere, in Greek Mythology, the possible founder of psychiatry, Melampus, is recorded to have cured the three wild women of Argos. The women’s hypersexuality had them committing sexual attacks on male shepherds in the woods, much to the embarrassment and chagrin of the king. Demanding a fee of a two-thirds of a kingdom, Melampus hunted down the three nymphomaniacs, inadvertently killing one, before trapping the other two in a cave. He went on to have them healed of their madness via the worship of the Goddess of the Wilderness, Artemis, a few baths and some Hellebore flowers.

Following that, he married one, and gave the other to his brother to wed. I suspect this kidnapping, enforced betrothal and curtailing of their wilderness exploits was more likely to have cured them instantly.

European history’s first female doctor, albeit she couldn’t claim to be one, was the magister Trota of the 12th Century. Recognising that the societal rules of women made them especially vulnerable, innocent and prone to condemnation, she could get to the heart of the matter. For women, sex and shame were an entangled mix. Her womanhood permitted her into confidences that could not, should not, and must not be revealed to one of the male persuasion for they would surely be damned by the prejudices and morals of their times.

The moral stain resulting from admitting self-pleasure would condemn a woman henceforth. Trota, a devout believer that abstinence was likely the cause of much illness, was able to secretly prescribe a few solutions that could placate their sexual desire, as well as flog a bit of musk oil and mint.

Alas, by the sixteenth century, advancements in medicine meant not much had changed for women. Although by now hysteria, and its close cousin melancholy, was a consequence of too much internal fluid and not enough ejaculation. Doctors openly cited marriage and child bearing as the cure, but it was all the more successful if the woman could be brought to her moment of ecstasy.

Moreover, in the absence of a husband, it would be acceptable for the local midwife to provide some manual stimulation.

Now doesn’t that bring a whole new interpretation to “Midwife Calling!”

Given their medical training, no doubt they would offer some purging oils and floral scents to hurry the process along. Alas, around this time, religious authorities impressed upon its clergy the need for celibacy and chastity. Dampening down much enthusiasm.

It was also somewhat convenient that when the physician could not identify the cause of a disease, he could nominally assign the symptoms as the work of the devil. Science and Religion were thus wed in holy matrimony. The only cure, then, for persistent hysteria was surely, in the absence of all other remedies, an exorcism.

Now aren’t we all relieved that science has recently discovered that walks in nature greatly reduce stress, but this is not the case strolls in for urban settings. For some, it will come as a great disappointment that the Shropshire Hills are very short on Hellebore flowers, Mint and Musk deer.

I did spy an explosion of snowdrops though so at least Spring is a-coming and from the sounds around my van on an evening, nature is very much taking its course with any medical intervention whatsoever.

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