This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Friday, May 28, 2010

The History of Seizures and Epilepsy

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

Seizures and Epilepsy have been around since the beginning of time, only people didn't have a name for it and they certainly didn't understand it. In ancient times, it was referred to as the "Falling Disease" or "Falling Sickness". Other people referred to seizures as fits or spells. The bottom line is, people didn't begin to understand it as a medical neurological issue until the 19th century and it has only been within the second half of the 20th century that the "bad" stigma of Epilepsy and seizures began to change and be more accepted. For instance, prior to the 1950's, a person with Epilepsy would not be given a job. Even today, some employers are still reluctant to hire an individual with Epilepsy. Without medication and a doctor's note, some individuals may not be able to drive.

Seizures are difficult to watch. For parents they are VERY painful to witness. I know from first-hand experience, and I have shed my share of tears. I have pleaded in prayer to God to heal my child. I have lain awake at night afraid to fall asleep, worried that she would stop breathing during a seizure and die. (The photo above is of my daughter when she was 10 months old on one of her many visits to the hospital.) If you are unaware about SUDEP, it stands for Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy

The fear my character Evelina Boyd experiences in my second novel, Highland Sanctuary, is very real. It was my reality for the first five years of my motherhood--even with modern medications, science, technology, specialists and hospitals. I can only imagine what it would have been like for a parent in the late middle ages. Evelina would have not only fought her own fears in preserving the life of her child, but those of the world--especially that of the church--a place that should have been a safe sanctuary.

Throughout the Middle ages and into the Renaissance period, seizures were thought to be demonic. Clergy tried to cast out the demons through exorcisms, prayer and fasting. Families would offer sacrifices and/or make holy pilgrimages in hopes that their loved one would be cured and healed by God's mercy. Sometimes if an individual couldn't be healed or they lived in an area that would not tolerate their existence, epileptics were burned at the stake as witches, sorcerers, or demon possessed.

Highland Sanctuary is set in 1477.  According to William Brohaugh's English Through the Ages, the word "seizure" was not in existence until around 1470. Since there is only a seven year difference from the setting of my novel, a seizure might have been known among some prominent physicians, but not among general doctors in rural districts, and definitely not among the general population. Similarly, the word "epilepsy" wasn't in use until around 1545.

A study of historical Christian art from the 13th century to the present was conducted by experts through the Clinic for Neuropaediatrics and Neurological Rehabilitation, Paediatric and Adolescent Epilepsy Centre in Germany. Three hundred forty-one art samples were collected from various countries. A total of 143 people who possibly had epilepsy were depicted in 127 illustrations. Of those, 17 were infants, 35 children, 7 adolescents, and 84 adults. More men than women were shown with epilepsy. For there to be so much art showing this condition throughout centuries when it was least understood, seizures must have had a significant impact on these artists. 

The Bible does have one biblical story that indicates epilepsy is caused by demonic influence. This is where many Christians believed the exorcism of a demon was necessary, as well as prayer and fasting. This story is found in Matthew 17:14-21.

A man came to Him (Jesus), kneeling down to Him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 

Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour.

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?”

So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”

According to this biblical passage, if a healing does not occur, it is because of unbelief. Jesus never once blamed the person with epilepsy, nor did he try to destroy the individual through burning at the stake. He loved and healed them. Christians in the Middle Ages missed the entire purpose of this story. They let their fear and unbelief control their behavior and backward thinking. I am amazed at how human beings can take a piece of the Scripture and twist it into something evil due to fear and pride at not being willing to admit to a lack of understanding or a lack of faith.

We prayed for our daughter, had the church lay hands on her in prayer, and while we waited for her healing we took her to pediatric neurologists and gave her seizure medications to control them. We were willing to let God heal her in His time and in His way, whether it be by a supernatural miracle or through medical science. I praise God that she is now seizure free and medication free!

Stay tuned as I write Highland Sanctuary. This is a story that God has laid upon my heart. I feel humbled, blessed, and thankful that He gave me this story to share.

Update: After 11 years of being seizure-free and medication-free, my daughter's seizures returned 6 months after Highland Sanctuary was released on October 2011. These are Tonic-Clonic seizures (grand mal) where she loses consciousness, falls wherever she is at, and stops breathing for a short while. She was 14 years old. We believe the monthly migraines she experienced for a year were warning signs leading up to the return of her seizures, but we didn't know it at the time. After many tests, hospital and doctor visits, medication trials, we have discovered her seizures are due to a hormonal imbalance that adolescence brought on. Now my daughter is almost 17, and on a combination of meds and hormone therapy that has kept her seizure-free for two years with very few side effects. I thank God for modern medicine and technology.

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