'The Falling Sickness' in Literature

Jeffrey M. Jones, MD, Neurology of Battle Creek, Battle Creek, Mich.

South Med J. 2000;93(12) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Seizures have been described in literature since early times. Since classical literature reflects the attitudes of society, a review of "the falling sickness" in literature provides some insights into the profound affect of epilepsy. This article explores some great writings describing epilepsy and the changing view of an epileptic as a person being "possessed" to that of one with a medical condition.

Just as epilepsy has acquired many different names, such as "the falling sickness," which appeared in medieval literature and is used as the title of Owsei Temkin's landmark book[1] on the history of seizure disorders, epilepsy has been incorporated in great literature in many ways over the years. Since this literature reflects the way society perceives reality, a study of epilepsy in literature enriches the appreciation of this disorder. In ancient times, society thought supernatural forces caused "the falling sickness." Today, the understanding of epilepsy has improved, and it is encouraging that society's perception has changed from assuming an epileptic is being "seized" or "possessed," to that of a human with a medical condition. Despite this improved perception, even modern literature raises the question of whether people with epilepsy are responsible for their behavior.

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