Pierre’s Notes on Madeleine’s Medical and Psychological History


Madeleine's strange gait, walking on tip toes

Madeleine’s strange gait, walking on tip toes

I’ve done a little translating, relying on my rickety French and Google translate to produce a smoother version of a portion of Dr. Janet’s notes, to see what nuances I could detect reading between the lines.  Here it is, for your reading pleasure

This family had four children. Madeleine’s sisters were intelligent and morally normal.  But two of them have quite severe migraines and menstrual periods. The other suffered from hysterical tantrums.  This latter sister also suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and, towards the end of her life, Madeleine acted as her nurse.  There are seven children from the sisters, and they all seem fairly well-balanced.

One notable detail: although the family was religious – practicing Catholics –  they were not  over-zealous.  The sisters had a religious education but not an overly devout one. One of the sisters is considered a bit pious, but another has completely abandoned all religious practice and considers herself to be an atheist.  While Madeleine was engaged in nursing her sister, she was laughed at for her religiosity. Madeleine sensibly retorted that “If you succeed in taking away my religion, what will you leave me in its place?” These are interesting remarks when it comes to the study of religious delirium. They show that a religious education and moral environment don’t exert as great an influence as we would normally assume.

The third child, Madeleine’s health has always been delicate and she suffered from constitutional disorders in her infancy. This is where her walking disorder began. She was late in learning to walk and her legs were very weak.  She stumbled and fell  on encountering even the smallest of obstacles, and had difficulty with complex movements, most notably when negotiating stairs, which she’d climb with a running, stopping and turning set of motions.  These walking problem were very serious until the age of 9 or 10,  at which time they lessened and seemed to disappear.  I have focused on these early symptoms as they can play  an important role in  the later development of gait abnormalities and leg cramps.  Always weak, the child overcame diseases only with difficulty: at the age of 3 or 4  she caught scarlet fever and measles, which did not follow normal courses and therefore seriously affected her health.  Then came a series of chronic coughs with pertussis including the vomiting up of mucus. This sickness seemed long-lived, as it would lessen or stop for a few weeks, and then return with the same intensity. This coughing with vomiting lasted entire years and had never completely disappeared, even when we met, at the age of 40.  She also suffered  sequentially from stomach disorders alternating between acid dyspepsia and tenacious muco-membranous diarrhea. As a teenager, Madeleine was obliged to keep to a very strict diet which resulted in malnourishment and contributed to her underdeveloped size.  Strenuous movement left her breathless and consequently, she was forbidden to run and play like other children. Finally, she suffered from chronic skin disorders: extensive eczema, abscesses, inflammation and swollen glands and cysts on her eyelids.  This poor health, these conditions arising in infancy led to all kinds of characteristic diseases.

This abnormal feebleness in childhood made her extremely impressionable.  She had chills and silent bouts of shivering; the squeak of new shoes, the creaking of a saw, the rustling of a needle in wool were torturous for her, causing tremors and leading to bouts of fainting.  She had a morbid fear of storms and railway cars. These childhood fears resulted in tantrums and catalepsy. Madeleine was extremely emotional and was upset by even the smallest of life’s difficulties.  She was especially affected when witnessing the suffering of others; she would rather have been punished herself than be a witness to the punishment of her sisters and, despite her shyness, she would always intercede on their behalf. 

Her joys were as vivid and exaggerated as her sorrows, and yet, at the age of 50, she still becomes teary over the memory  of “experiencing the sweet pleasures of childhood – the return of spring and the reappearance of leaves on the trees.” These sorts of changes often exacerbated her feelings: Madeleine suffered from occasional periods of ‘black sadness’ lasting for weeks. She was the child in tears in a corner who was too confined to understand her own grief.  She felt “ashamed and unable to show her soul.” She asked only to be left alone “because she dreamed of living in solitude.” She kept these feelings to herself often took the form of solemn forebodings. “Even at the age of five, ” she said to me, “a voice told me what I should and should not do and I received insights about things we normally don’t understand at that age. I suffered particularly in thinking of the pain of others and I sobbed all night without having any knowledge of the evil that I would later come to know.” Madeleine told me many of these feelings,  of her vivid childhood memories of foreboding.  If one were to accept her word for it, she had visions at the age of nine and again at the age of eleven.

She had what she believed to be supernatural experiences which “she felt without understanding them,” and saw apparitions which stared back at her, touched or kissed her on the forehead or blew air over it.  She felt these breaths were mysterious blessings and she was careful not to mention them to her family members.  It is likely that these stories reflect a combination of memory of emotions, dreams and childhood nightmares.  I haven’t given detailed accounts of these stories; but only note the extreme character and early onset of these feelings and daydreams. 1


  1. Janet, P. (1926). De l’angoisse à l’extase: Études sur les croyances et les sentiments. Un délire religieux. La croyance. (pp. 18–20).

2 Thoughts on “Pierre’s Notes on Madeleine’s Medical and Psychological History

  1. Thanks for posting this, it’s fascinating.

    I wouldn’t mind reading the book myself but alas my French is non-existent. I could use Google translate but, given past experience, I find it is shoddy at best. Fingers crossed for an English translation!

    Good luck with your paper.

  2. Madeline Moore on December 9, 2013 at 10:12 pm said:

    This is fascinating. This: “If you succeed in taking away my religion, what will you leave me in its place?” is something I’ve wondered, at times, though not about religion. But when peppy caretakers give unsolicited advice it occurs to me that they are too quick to suggest a solution to a problem they perceive, without considering the consequences. There is always something lost, even in the most positive outcomes. Also interesting that one sister was too pious and another an atheist and Madeleine was “laughed at for her religiosity.” I wonder who decides what is the proper amount of religiosity, and how.

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