Civic and Religious Understanding of the Mentally Ill, Incompetent, and Disabled of Medieval England

Civic and Religious Understanding of the Mentally Ill, Incompetent, and Disabled of Medieval Englandmedieval disability

Wendy J. Turner

Session: Mental Health in Non-medical Terms

This brief summary covered the fourth paper given at KZOO’s Mental Health in Non-medical Terms. It covered ways in which theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, tried to categorize mental disability. Aquinas also tried to prove that the mentally impaired were able to receive sacraments depending their lucidity and where they fit in his four categories. It was an interesting and enjoyable paper. 

The medieval English medical community were well aware of disorders such as migraines, epilepsy, and anxiety. Perception, Cogitation, Memory – these were the three terms for mental health conditions and learning disabilities. There was a division in the law between those born with mental disability and those who become mentally disabled  later in life. The income from the lands of those mentally unable to fulfill vassalage was used by the king and he ultimately did whatever he wanted. The king kept the income or kept it in the hands of the mentally incompetent. Thomas Aquinas estimated there were four groups outlining varying level of mental capability: Those born incapacitated with no lucidity, those who were born impaired but had lucidity, those who became disabled later in life and those with intellectual disabilities. Aquinas indicated that if the individual had some lucidity they could request baptism.


He sought to answer how a mentally disabled/ill person could appreciate the sacraments? The Insanus “unhealthy mind” encompassed conditions with trouble with perception but with the possibility for periods of lucid thought. Non Compos Mentis “With mental ability” Non Sane Memoria ” How do you reconcile Aquinas’s models with the medieval medical community? He separated ability with terms but the lines were not that sharply drawn. Turner tried to put the theories into four categories then moved to new hypothesis with some overlay: Anterior, Posterior, and Mild, which overlaid Aquinas’s categories.