Avicenna on female masturbation

I present to you: the backstory from this Times article on the history of the vibrator. Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna- two ancients and a medieval Muslim, all widely copied throughout the West from the twelfth century onwards.

It starts hysterically with “womb furie”. Hippocrates thought the womb wasn’t a fixed item but wandered about the body looking for trouble… From earliest times there was a recognised women’s complaint characterised by nervousness, fluid retention, insomnia and lack of appetite. Hippocrates thought that a blockage in the womb was the cause of it, hence it was called hysteria from the Greek for womb (hysteros). Galen, a Greek physician, claimed it was caused by sexual deprivation, particularly in passionate women, and was noted in nuns, virgins, widows and occasionally in married women whose husbands were not up to the job.

Massage to “paroxysm” was the ticket…. And masturbation (by either sex) was regarded as wrong. It was not only a moral affront but something that was thought of as constitutionally dangerous, enfeebling mind and body. “Women [with hysteria] should not resort to rubbing,” said Avicenna, the Muslim scholar and founder of early modern medicine. It was, he advised, “a man’s job, suitable only for husbands and doctors”…

One wonders- or at least, I wonder, what Avicenna, or any of his successors prior to the invention of medical vibrators in the late 1800s, did with a woman who didn’t respond to ‘rubbing’. Was she just doomed to hysteria?

If this vein of enquiry interests you, check out Hildegaard of Bingen on male masturbation, in my old blog. And if anyone can point me to the late medieval/ early modern source which recommends the application of a hot compress to the vulva as treatment for ‘green sickness’, you win internet cookies.


2 Responses to “Avicenna on female masturbation”

  1. biochemistryquestions Says:

    This post reminded me a book (an historical fiction) from an Argentinian writer: Federico Andahazi, “The Anatomist”
    This novel describes how an italian anatomist professor, discovered the clitoris in the XVI century, he is accused and he has to defend himself in front of the insquisition…and the rest is in the book, very imaginative and interesting.
    Two literary “professional” opinions about this book can be found in these links:



  2. Sophist Says:

    Those Times articles. Hysteros is something which is behind, after, following, etc. Hystera is a body-part which is then, accordingly, behind, commonly used to refer to the womb.

    C.f. http://shapelessandconfusingmonstrosity.blogspot.com/2008/04/54-hysteria.html

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