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’.
The first chapter will attempt to distinguish the differences and similarities between Catherine of Siena’s condition and the present day understanding of anorexia nervosa; a proposition most notably presented by Rudolph Bell. The second chapter will discuss the characteristics that Margery Kempe shares with diagnosed schizophrenics, with reference to her major work, The Book of Margery Kempe, and the third will address the notion Joan of Arc may have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy or an unusual form of migraine.
‘Behaviour in which bodiliness provides access to the sacred seems to have increased dramatically in the Middle Ages and to have been more characteristic of women than of men’. Dinzelbacher and Bauer (in Frauenmystik im Mittelalter) agree that the spirituality of women has traditionally and consistently been regarded as different from men’s. There were degrees to both, which the male and female religious are regarded as manipulating their selves, but although external manipulation (eg. self-inflicted hardship) was common to both sexes, psychosomatic manipulation was almost exclusively the province of women. This essay considers a number of phenomena that contemporary theologians refer to as ‘paramystical’, and contemporary psychologists, ‘hysterical’. Bell noted a condition amongst these women that he called ‘Holy Anorexia’, in which the subject was unable to ingest nothing but the Eucharistic Host. In the 13th and 14th centuries this condition was found only amongst women, as were levitations, trances, and ecstatic nosebleeds, which were seldom if ever reported in male saints.
This ‘gender gap’ can be traced back to Biblical references. The theological role of Eve presented in Genesis led to the assumption that women were morally and spiritually inferior to men, and more liable to commit sins of the flesh. Eve’s temptation of Adam was seen as a sexual one and women were portrayed as particularly vulnerable to such desires due to the weakness of their sex. ‘[Religious women] were looked upon with suspicion by both the secular clergy and the members of religious orders, sometimes accused of hypocritical virtue, and at other times on equally slender grounds, of sexual immorality.’ Therefore, within patriarchal medieval society, more was required of women, and demonstrations of austerity, fasting, and self-flagellation allowed them to claim authority over their gender’s perception, and their own sexuality.
Self-inflicted suffering characterised womanly devotion, and it was more common for religious significance to be attached to illness or recurrent pain if the sufferer was female rather than male. For example, many saints led extremely pious lives during which time their malnourishment drew attention to, and magnified, their symptoms, which in turn was considered an act of divinity.
Early writers often wrote of suffering and sickness as conditions ‘to be endured’ rather than cured, and this attitude was expressed in the poetry of a nun belonging to the monastery of Toss in which Christ sais to her, ‘The sicker you are, the dearer you are to me’. Hadewijch of Brabant similarly wrote, ‘Come, desire to suffer in order to ascend’. Weinstein and Bell conducted a statistical study of saints which yielded some interesting statistics: between 1000 and 1700 AD, 82.5% of those canonised were male, and 17.5% were female. However, of those saints whose reputation for sanctity arose from their patient bearing of illness, women formed 53%. Many medieval women including Alpais of Cudot, Serafina of San Gimignano and Margaret of Ypres made physical and psychological torment opportunities for their own salvation, while Julian of Norwich prayed to God for ill-health. Beatrice of Nazareth even contemplated trying to drive herself insane out of love for God.
 Graham, Medieval Minds: Mental Health in the Middle Ages, p.20
 Ibid, p.21
 Ibid, p.20
 Voaden, God’s Words, Women’s Voices, p.156
 Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, p. 195
 Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption, p.186
 http://www.gutenberg-e.org/lindgren/chapter4.html #note1
 Hadewijch, Hadewijch: The Complete Works, p.329
 Weinstein & Bell, Saints and Society, p.234-235