Perceptions of insanity in medieval England

norton-margery-kempe-coverPerceptions of insanity in medieval England

By David Roffe

Haskins Society Journal Japan, Vol.5 (2013)

Introduction: In 1980 Norman St John-Stevas, Conservative MP for Aldershot, famously called Mrs Thatcher ‘the leaderene’. It was a neologism full of redolence, and one that was not entirely lost on the Conservative Party, although, of course, it was not for another ten years that the penny finally dropped. Mrs Thatcher, by contrast, immediately saw the point. She was not amused and put an end to any hopes that St John Stevas still entertained of further political preferment. What Mrs Thatcher had recognized was a potent notion in Judeo-Christian culture. It is recorded in the Gospel  according to Mark, chapter 5, that Jesus went into the country of the Gadarenes and cured a madman by casting out the devils within him into a herd swine. The swine forthwith stampeded and fell to their deaths in the Sea of Galilee. St John-Stevas’ amusing allusion to the Gadarene swine reminds us of the enduring perception of madness as possession in the western world.

Needless to say, it was a perception that was prevalent throughout the Middle Ages. In a Christian society that perceived of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, madness was evidence of a battle lost. It was, then, a moral malady and it was natural that remedies for the condition were spiritual. Thus, in the Christian formulation the distaff of madness was not rationality or normality but holiness. And, indeed, it was a fine line that divided the two states. Many a saint’s life, the Jeffrey Archers of the Middle Ages, hinged upon the imminent descent of the hero into moral turpitude and the resultant insanity.


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