J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

When and Why Johannes Hofer Wrote about “Nostalgia”

Last month I gave a presentation about the first year of the Continental Army to the interpretive staff at Boston National Historical Park. One of the good questions that came up was whether we know of men in that army who suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

I thought there might well be, but I couldn’t identify any examples, so after the talk I started nosing around to find useful sources. I came across many online articles saying flat out that P.T.S.D. was called “nostalgia” in the Revolutionary period, which would be a good lead—if we could rely on that statement.

For example, Joshua A. Jones wrote in “From Nostalgia to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Mass Society Theory of Psychological Reactions to Combat” (Inquiries, 2013):
Military doctors made the first concerted attempts to categorize and diagnose the manifestations of acute combat reaction for which Johannes Hofer had championed the term “nostalgia” in his 1688 medical dissertation. This classification survived through the end of the Seven Years War and described the disorder as consisting of depression, angst, and exhaustion. Since the symptoms were believed to be associated with soldier’s longing to return home during extended campaigns (not to actual battlefield experiences), both the French and Germans classified the malady as “homesickness”; maladie du pays and heimweh respectively. In Spain, the same symptoms would come to be known as estar roto (“to be broken”). This notion persisted through much of the Napoleonic era (Charvat, 2010).
Jones’s citation pointed to Mylea Charvat’s 2010 “History of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Combat," which is a set of PowerPoint slides from a presentation for the Department of Veterans Affairs. One of those slides says, “1678[:] Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coins the term ‘nostalgia.’ to describe symptoms seen in Swiss Troops.” No further citations.

Scholars agree that Johannes Hofer coined the term “nostalgia” as a particular psychological condition that produced physical symptoms. They disagree, as Jones and Charvat did, on when Hofer did so. Some authors say 1678, some ten years later.

Alex Davis’s paper “Coming Home Again: Johannes Hofer, Edmund Spenser, and Premodern Nostalgia” provides an answer to that discrepancy by stating that an edition of Hofer’s Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia, oder Heimwehe (shown above, beside his portrait from later in life) “is mis-dated on the titlepage to 1678” but was actually published in 1688. Since Hofer was only nine years old in 1678, that makes sense. He published this dissertation and another in the year when he graduated medical school.

So I went looking for Hofer’s Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia to see what he wrote about soldiers’ psyches. Fortunately, the text was translated in 1934 for the Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine.

And I was surprised to find that Hofer wrote nothing about Swiss soldiers or mercenaries. He didn’t coin “nostalgia” as a term for a response to trauma or military experiences. The closest he came was the statement: “[nostalgia] is ascribed to some (authority) for a short time it was frequent with the centurions of the forces in Helvetian Gaul” during Roman times. Hofer’s detailed descriptions of the condition all involved Swiss civilians.

TOMORROW: So how did the diagnosis of “nostalgia” get attached to soldiers?

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