An introduction to the investigation into the mental health of female medieval mystics
Published Online (2012)
Introduction: The concept of mental illness and psychological disorders is a relatively modern construct. While the advancement of medical and scientific investigation may afford the contemporary theologian a greater understanding of human behaviour and its interpretation, ‘the theologians of the early Christian era, not aware of mental illness as such, ascribed bizarre reactions to divine intervention’. The Middle Ages were a time where ‘anything purely human was depreciated’, and everything was theologised. It was an era of divine explanation, ‘an era in which injury of limb, sickness of body and derangement of mind were correlated positively with demons’. Therefore, when individuals ‘manifested religious delusions, the puzzling question that arose was, were they inspired by God or possessed by Satan?’
While the Medieval ascription to madness is known, in the light of recent psychological and medical insights, I will explore alternative explanations for the extreme behaviour of devout women in the Middle Ages. The era witnessed a remarkable flowering of female visionaries who arguably, ‘lent new richness of meaning and new depth to the religious traditions of which they were part’. They were regarded in their time as among the most devout and holy persons, ‘at a time when female roles were strictly circumscribed’, and they achieved independence and empowerment. ‘By claiming a direct, intimate and personal relationship with God, they defied the traditions of a Church dominated society and gained unprecedented power and influence’. Controversy continues to surround the lives and works of these women, and pathological interest into their visionary and auditory experiences has also developed.
A tendency in the modern world to depreciate religious justification has led to proposals of alternative explanations for the remarkable claims made by female mystics. While in this study I in no way attempt to undermine the intense religiosity or credibility of the women I have studied, I will address the possibility of mental illness in reference to the experiences of Catherine of Siena, (c. 1347 – 1380), Margery Kempe, (c. 1373 – after 1438), Joan of Arc, (c. 1412 – 1431) and Hildergard of Bingen, (c. 1098 – 1179). I will address the notion that their experiences, including hallucinations and visions, were symptoms of psychosis – respectively anorexia nervosa, schizophrenia, and temporal lobe epilepsy or migraine. I will argue that their behaviour was mistakenly understood as stemming from religious experience, asserting that ‘Medieval people gave theological significance to behaviour that psychiatrists and doctors today see in secular terms, whether medical, psychoanalytical, or psychodynamic’.