Two Kinds of "Literary Poison": Diseases of the Learned and Overstimulating Novels in Georgian Britain

Lit Med. 2016;34(2):252-277. doi: 10.1353/lm.2016.0013.


This article will analyze the complex relationship between two separate traditions of anxiety about the medical impact of reading. On the one hand there was the older concept of the diseases of the learned (Gelehrtenkrankheiten), associated with crabbed, often impecunious academics. This is a tradition that went back centuries and drew on the six non-naturals of Galenic medicine. On the other hand there was fear that the sentimental novel-reading habits of the leisured elite were overstimulating their nerves, a model that was based primarily on the newer medicine of stimulation associated with physicians such as Cullen, Whytt, Tissot, and Brown. This article will examine how these two models of pathological reading came together during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and what they show about the role of the imagination, luxury, gender, and sexuality.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Fantasy*
  • France
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Identification, Psychological*
  • Literature, Modern / history*
  • Medicine in Literature*
  • Mind-Body Relations, Metaphysical*
  • Morals*
  • Reading*
  • Social Values / history*
  • United Kingdom