6 Iconography
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Annales médico-psychologiques
Sous presse. Epreuves corrigées par l'auteur. Disponible en ligne depuis le samedi 5 juillet 2014
Doi : 10.1016/j.amp.2014.06.002
Received : 13 Mars 2014 ;  accepted : 7 May 2014
L’arc de cercle des hystériques. Historique, interprétations
The “arc de cercle” of hysteria. History, interpretations

Jean-Pierre Luauté a, , Olivier Saladini a, Olivier Walusinski b
a Service de psychiatrie générale, centre hospitalier, 25 rue de la République, 26100 Romans, France 
b 20, rue de Chartres, 28160 Brou, France 

Auteur correspondant.

La systématisation en quatre périodes de la grande crise d’hystérie a en grande partie disparu avec son auteur et elle est maintenant considérée comme une construction sociale. Tel n’est pas le cas de l’arc de cercle, lequel se révèle être un phénomène naturel au sens où Charcot l’entendait. Une enquête historique a permis de découvrir l’ancienneté de sa description et de sa représentation iconographique. Actuellement, l’arc de cercle est devenu un symptôme des Crises Psychogènes Non Épileptiques et il peut être observé lors des épidémies d’hystérie collective. Son interprétation dans le langage du corps en fait l’expression archaïque d’une souffrance ou d’une terreur majeure, à laquelle s’ajoute la popularisation de sa signification érotique.

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Charcot's “Grand hysteria” – with its systematisation in four phases – disappeared along with its author and is now considered to be a socioeconomical and cultural construction of a bygone era.


The objective of this study is firstly to find out whether the “arc de cercle” (arching-back attitude), which is the master symptom of hysteria “à la Charcot” and its current emblem, was itself socially constructed, or whether it is natural. Following on from this, we review the various interpretations, which have been proposed for it over the years.

Materials and methods

After recalling the description of the “arc de cercle” by Charcot and his pupils, along with the various differential diagnoses that it raises, a dual inquiry has been undertaken: 1. Clinical, into the contemporary manifestations of hysterical conversion; 2. Historical, destined to discover when the first descriptions and iconographic representations were made.


1. Some current manifestations of conversion are still seen, though essentially in neurology. Amongst these, the “arc de cercle”, also called opisthotonos, is a symptom of Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures. However, the “arc de cercle” has also been observed – naturally – in an epidemic of collective hysteria, where its strong contagiousness was highlighted. 2. Even if the description of hysteria does not hark from the earliest times, that of the “arc de cercle” has been found in a text dating from the 2nd century A.D. and its first known iconographic representation also dates from antiquity. However, it is most notably in the 16th and 17th centuries that it became appropriated by the imagery of the day, amidst its witches and convulsionaries. Contrary to Charcot's opinion, it has been suggested that certain of these images represented tetanos or pathological rage, rather than cases of hysteria. The interpretation of the “arc de cercle” initially evoked uterine conceptions of hysteria before it was to be “desexualised” by Charcot and his pupils, (notably through the importance they accorded to masculine hysteria). Freud, with his term and concept of conversion, conferring a symbolic signification on the symptoms, opened the way to a resexualisation, which blossomed along with his disciples. Subsequently the vulgarisation of the “arc de cercle” in literature, imagery and film rendered it a “theme of modernity” and the cliché of a compelling feminine desire. A concurrent interpretation by Shorter – according to which the potential patients of the day draw from a pool of symptoms – places the accent on the cultural factors determining the symptomatology of hysteria. Conversely, a natural conception underpins the interpretations of Claparède, for whom the symptoms of hysteria were “the revival of adapted defence mechanisms” and of Szasz, for whom they composed a “protolanguage”. The “arc de cercle” thus appears as the archaic manifestation of major suffering or fright. Nonetheless, a physiological interpretation is provided by the analogy with the brief enjoyment – resembling orgasm – occurring after abrupt cessation of the powerful contraction of all the anti-gravity muscles during yawning.


The “arc de cercle” cannot be considered to be a social construction. It appears to be a natural phenomenon in the way Charcot understood it. We consider it as a final common pathway located at the convergence of the functional and the organic, pleasure and pain.

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Mots clés : Attitude en arc de cercle, Conversion hystérique, Crises psychogènes non épileptiques, Opisthotonos

Keywords : Arching-back attitude, Hysterical conversion, Opisthotonos, Psychogenic non-epileptic seizures

1  Ils n’avaient pas pris en compte les terres cuites antiques. L’une d’elles, au Louvre, montre un torse cambré, elle représente pour D. Gourévitch et M. Gourévitch [15] « une grande attaque d’hystérie fidèle à la description de Charcot ».
2  Auparavant, la description de l’extase amoureuse par Faulkner ne pouvait se trouver que dans le chapitre « Hystérie » d’un ouvrage de médecine (cf. Pidoux).

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