We need fictionality, or the creative employment of human language, art, imagination, and music in order to come to terms with ethereal, spiritual, mental, and metaphysical aspects of human existence, often expressed in suffering and pain, feelings of anguish and insecurity, and responded to by a literary quest the exploration of the human word and its spiritual power. As realized already in the early Middle Ages when healing was believed to be commonly done by means of charms and magical incantation, continues throughout the ages, and still appeals to us today because we know how much assuring, hopeful, confidence inspiring, and energizing words can achieve in either maintaining our health or in restoring a sick body to health. Even in the present era, the term madness is rife with an abundance of contrary definitions and differing degrees of cultural acceptance of people afflicted with some sort of mental condition.

The middle ages did not view madness as one singular thing, much like modern observers today. In medieval studies, the discussion of madness in ancient and medieval people is not so much contentious, but rather diverse depending on the locale that the scholar chooses to study. Moreover, regardless of the location of study, the topic of madness, both in how it was viewed in the middle ages and how it was viewed contemporarily, has changed significantly in its study. The Victorian view of madness was disapproving and often patronizing, which carried over well into the twentieth century. Even by 1941, when Gregory Zilboorg published his A History of Medical Psychology, which helped to contribute to the folk belief that people in the Middle Ages viewed madness in a mystical manner, the prevailing scholarly attitude toward the middle ages was that it was an unenlightened era when the insane were treated cruelly.[1]

Any study of the social and cultural significance of madness is indebted to Michel Foucault and his History of Madness (1961), which played a large role in a shifting view toward madness. Foucault attempts to recover the experience of insanity, and portray madness as something that was essential to society as it formed a background and language to daily life.[2] Despite these major innovations to the study of madness, Foucault does still insist on painting a rather romantic picture of the Middle Ages as some sort of golden age with was incredibly permissive towards insanity, a view which is simplistic and incorrect. That being said, Foucault did begin a new, more understanding approach to the study of madness in the Middle Ages, which broke almost completely with the view of the Victorians. There were still many scholars, including Lynn White Jr, who stood by the idea that 1300-1650 was the most psychically disturbed era of European history, but that was a trend that seemed to be fading in medieval studies. [3]

Much of what is known about different cultural attitudes toward madness exist within the surviving literature of the time, and can often be an interesting window into the views which different facets of society fall on an issue. Moreover, many of the accounts of symptoms, which are commonly associated with madness, are derived from literature rather than direct observation; so much of the modern understanding of madness in the middle Ages survives because of literature. Regardless of the culture, attitudes toward madness in literature run the gambit: from compassion and care, to amusement, mockery, contempt, fear, and revulsion. To many scholars, there exists within literature a fundamental portrait of commonly held ideas and beliefs surrounding the precarious nature of madness and insanity in the middle ages. While views of madness have changed in many ways since the fourteenth century, there is still much about the human psyche that remains to be explained, so in many instances, people today are still grappling with the complexities of the mind, in much the same way that people in the middle ages were. There is much that is still left to be understood and it is only with the past decade that dysfunctions of the brains were again reclassified as illnesses, rather than disorders, and ideas of imbalance within the mind reemerge, if somewhat different than their original appearance during ancient and medieval periods.

Religion, spirituality, and mental health are intimately interlocking entities, if properly understood, and they find some of their most powerful expressions in the arts, in literature, in music, in architecture, and other aesthetically determined manifestations, especially in the Middle Ages. This essay does not make the attempt to come to any sort of definitive conclusions about representations of madness within medieval literature, as that would a task far beyond the scope of present scholarship. Instead, this piece will merely work to outline the topics and ideas of present scholarship surrounding representations of madness in ancient and medieval literature, as I have deemed to be the most important because of how often they reappear. I have chosen to take an approach that looks at differences in representations geographically, and compare trends across cultures. Initially, I will work to very broadly try to define the different types and appearances of madness in fiction, since there are many similarities across cultures, such as the ability for people in the middle ages to distinguish between supernatural and rational explanations of madness. I will follow with discussions of Biblical, French, Scandinavian, Anglo Saxon/English, and Irish representations of madness in literature. Finally, I plan to conclude with a discussion of the importance that gender plays in discussions of madness, regardless of gender, specifically femininity as a sign of madness or possession.

[1] Harper, Stephen. Insanity, Individuals, and Society in Late-Medieval English Literature: The Subject of Madness. Studies in Mediaeval Literature 26. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003: 4

[2] Foucault states, “The ship is a symbol of a sudden unease that appears on the horizon of European culture towards the end of the Middle Ages. Madness and the figure of the madman take on a new importance for the ambiguousness of their role: they are both threat and derision, the vertiginous unreason of the world, and the shallow ridiculousness of men.” in Foucault, Michel. History of Madness. Edited by Jean Khalfa. Translated by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa. London, England: Routledge, 2006: 12

[3] Harper, Stephen. Insanity, Individuals, and Society in Late-Medieval English Literature: The Subject of Madness. Studies in Mediaeval Literature 26. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003