By Elma Brenner, University of Toronto
Given at the 2011 Haskins Society Conference, Boston College
Brenner asks the questions to what extent was mental illness attributed to the devil? What was the view of illnesses which had physical signs and non-physical signs? What about mental illness caused by trauma?
To answer some of these questions, she looks at the broader social and medical contexts of mental illness in medieval Normandy. Brenner notes that definitions of mental illness are constantly evolving in the modern world (ie perceptions of autism) and that it also varied in the medieval world.
The research focuses on ecclesiastical sources such as hagiographic accounts and episcopal visitation records and finds that monasteries seem to have housed people with developmental disabilities. For example, she found that two ‘foolish’ lay sisters at were being kept at Bondeville in 1259 – indicates that the priory were doing some type of formal care, it may have been unusual since the archbishop choose to mention it.
A monastery would have been a good choice for them – could feed, clothe them, and be a place where they could be protected and work under supervision. Another account from the early 12th century, a prioress at a nunnery writes how an aristocratic women attempted suicide after hearing that her husband was committing adultery – she was said to be influenced by the Devil – she was sheltered in a nunnery.
A collection of miracles attributed to St Dominic’s relic, from the the 1260s has a story where a man named William walks into to a place where people were hung and becomes panic-ridden. He is bedridden, and after 8 days he tries to kill himself, but fails to do so. Then he becomes comatose/physically impaired, but revives after a plea to the saint. Brenner notes that a woman cares for him while this is happening and that there is no reference to the devil causing this pr, he is referred to as being ‘sick’, ‘like an animal’.
Brenner concludes that mentally ill people were being cared for – by the monastery, family or local community
and that “afflicted people were not abandoned and retained their place in Norman society”