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Neither Cursed Nor Possessed: Mental Abnormality in the Late Middle Ages

Neither Cursed Nor Possessed: Mental Abnormality in the Late Middle Ages

By Alison Spyker

Paper given at the 44th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2009)

15th century image of Saint Thomas Aquinas
15th century image of Saint Thomas Aquinas

Introduction: My paper today, “Neither Cursed nor Possessed: Mental Abnormality in the Late Middle Ages,” will take up a brief note in Michel Foucault’s History of Madness, where he says “the insane were barred entry to churches, while ecclesiastical law allowed them to partake of the sacraments.” This brief note does not account for the importance of Church sacraments during the Middle Ages, nor the complexity of thought surrounding the implications of mental impairment. Religion was a matter of daily concern in the Middle Ages in a way unfamiliar to us today, as demonstrated by the panel today, both informally and within formal structures, so it’s perhaps forgivable that Foucault glossed this aspect of disability over. Yet birth, death, and marriage were facts of everyday life, and the Church made concerted efforts to sacramentalise them. The disability of religious exclusion, what I have taken to calling “sacral disability,” is, I believe, a distinct enough manifestation of the disabling of impaired persons that it deserves to be studied in its own right. Today we have heard various perspectives on this form of disability in miracula, biography, and exemplaria, and I plan to address the more formal ecclesiastical proscriptions regarding mental abnormality.



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