• Kloe Gentry

Mental illness in the middle ages

The advent of antipsychotics has been nothing short of a blessing for those suffering from mental illnesses. With proper treatment, it is possible to lead an entirely normal lifestyle. However for centuries prior, those with disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar had to go their entire lives without any form of effective treatment. Like the physically ill, they would receive few expressions of sympathy and understanding from their kin.

Today, persecutory delusions mostly manifest themselves in overarching conspiracies of government surveillance, or of sinister organizations plotting against them, however in medieval times such concepts did not exist. Instead, there was constant preoccupation with sin and fear of divine retribution.

There was an unhealthy obsession with confessing, a concept heavily promoted by the church. People were afraid that even the slightest sin would land their soul in hell, and were willing to go to extreme lengths in order to achieve penance.

Some of them became revered as saints for their hermit lifestyle and devotion to Christ. Delusions and visions were perceived as communication with God, or in other cases, with the devil. One of the highest forms of spirituality was the bearing of stigmata- the appearance of the crucifixion wounds of Christ on the hands and legs and chest, without any form of apparent injury. Today, this medieval phenomenon is explained by modern researches as a result of subconscious self-mutilation.

St Catherine fainting from the stigmata. Note the mark on her hands

Of course, the conception of mental illness back then wasn’t understood the same way as it is today, which is why most research on the topic remains a matter of speculation. Medieval society regarded mental disorders as what we nowadays call ‘foolishness’. If a person bore ridiculous and bizarre beliefs, he was perceived as an idiot, not as mentally disturbed.

That being said, some famous medieval figures appear to be likely contenders for paranoid schizophrenia. The monarch of France, Charles VI (1368-1422), also known as ‘Charles the mad’, is most prominent of them. Throughout his reign he would display frequent outburst of dangerous and bizarre behavior that left him unfit to rule.

During one campaign he abruptly attacked and killed a group of his own knights in a fit of paranoia, accusing them of being traitors and plotting against him. He also had attacks that made him forget his name and the identity of his wife and children. He became convinced that he was Saint George and walked around in padding, adamant that he was made of glass and that falling would shatter him (Known as the glass delusion, this belief was also a popular manifestation of mental illness in the middle ages).

King Charles VI
King Charles VI

Another interesting figure is John Dee (1527-1608/9), a senior advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. His extensive writings on occult rituals and his conversations with angels give a lot of fascinating insight into the bizarre mind of a 16th century schizophrenic.

Dee communicated and recorded much of the conversations in an angelic language known as Enochian, which according to him, was the original language that Adam used to converse with god before he was banished to earth. He received the twenty letters of the language through visions from his crystal ball. From his writings, the language appears to be rather inconsistent and linguistically similar to English. However, many parts of it remain unciphered.

Portrait of John Dee
Portrait of John Dee

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