Saint Francis of Assisi: An Exorcist of Demons
By Carlos Espi Forcen
Journal of Humanistic Psychiatry, Vol.1:1 (2013)
Introduction: In the Umbrian town of Assisi one of the most prominent figures of the Late Middle Ages was born in 1181: Saint Francis of Assisi. He was a friar that chose to follow a righteous life by helping the poor and preaching the Christian message all over the world to win the battle against the devil. Saint Francis was considered such a model of Christian virtue that he was able to perform miracles as an agent of Jesus. Among them, the description of demoniacs and exorcisms are particularly interesting for the history of psychiatry.
Ever since the writing of the Gospels, demoniacs are described with traits of mental disorders that were believed to be caused by the invasion of the body by one ore several demons. The solution Jesus applied for this type of afflictions was the exorcism of the alleged demons. The spread of Christianity entailed that the diagnosis of mental illness was in most cases demonic possession and its treatment was thereby exorcism. There is a long tradition of exorcism during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages that was maintained in the times of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Thomas of Celano describes around 1228 in his hagiography of the saint the exorcism of a woman of Narni that “moved by a brutal fury and deprived of all judgment, did horrible things and spoke sheer folly.” Even if it is not possible to state an accurate diagnosis of the woman, traits of acute mania and schizophrenia can be glimpsed in this brief description. The Legenda maior, the hagiography of the saint written by St. Bonaventure in 1263, narrates a much more vivid description of a demoniac, a Franciscan brother that “of times he was quite dashed down on the ground, and wallowed foaming, with his limbs now drawn up, now stretched forth, now folded, now twister, now become rigid and fixed.” These are clear symptoms of grand mal seizures typical of epilepsy, another disease frequently associated with demonic possession.