The same cannot be said for the entirety of the Scandinavian literature tradition, because they were not Christian for the entirety of the Middle Ages. Their literary approach to madness did begin to resemble that of the French, and English which I will later discuss, once they began to view madness as a punishment for sin, so I will be focusing on early medieval approaches to madness. The first major difference from Christian approaches was that the far north did not hold to just demonic and magical forces as causing mental disorders, even in the popular imagination. Even in Christian Europe, as stated before, medical professions were concerned with conceptions of organic defects of the brain being the causal factors of mental disorders, something which had been around since the fourth century, as proposed by Poidonius. Outside of literature, madness was seen as something which was debilitating and that could remove you from society, but that did not necessarily mean that it was caused by supernatural sources. A spectacular lawsuit in Bergen 1325 against a woman named Ragnhild Tregagas is interesting; it is the only known verdict of the kind from the Norwegian Middle Ages. She was exonerated from the accusation of having caused shipwrecks by means of sorcery. She was found not accountable because of her apparent mental state. The laws in Scandinavia reflected this court ruling. The Gulatingsloven states that murdering a close relative was by itself indicative of madness in the perpetrator.
While this seems very different from madness in Christian nations, it should also be noted that on the same page which the law above is states, is mention of the phenomenon of werewolves as being indicative of madness as well. While organic causes for madness were more often looked to, this does not mean that the supernatural did not play into discussions of madness. According to Jon Feier Hoyerster in his article, “Madness in the Old Norse Society,” many still believed that all illnesses were the result of magical influence, so while the laws did not account for magical madness, within the popular imagination, magic still played an important role. For example, the affliction acute (reactive) psychoses is mentioned in several contexts. A common denominator for this group of reactions is exposure to grave frightening experiences. Especially typical are encounters with ghosts of the recently deceased who were renowned for their evil nature. People then immediately lose their wits and the outcome is often mortal.
The most notable of Scandinavian conditions is that of the berserkr. Several figures are characterized as being berserk (berserkr), with a reckless fury with violence and fits of manslaughter. They were insensitive to pain, they hardly noticed their surroundings during the fits and they exhibited without doubt dissocial traits. However, they were not considered or labelled insane, in the same sense as the foregoing figures. The berserk went around without coat of mail, they were mad as dogs or wolves, they were biting the edges of their shields, they had the strength of bears or oxen, they killed all people, neither fire nor iron could injure them; this is called going berserk. It is said that those people who are shape-shift, those who go berserk have got such a capacity that whilst this is going on they are so strong that nothing can withstand them. But as soon as the state wanes the get weaker than otherwise.
 Hoyersten, Jon Feier. “Madness in the Old Norse Society: Narratives and Ideas.” Nord J Psychiatry 61, no. 5 (2007): 325
 Hoyersten, Jon Feier. “Madness in the Old Norse Society: Narratives and Ideas.” Nord J Psychiatry 61, no. 5 (2007): 326
 Ibid., 327
 Hoyersten, Jon Feier. “Madness in the Old Norse Society: Narratives and Ideas.” Nord J Psychiatry 61, no. 5 (2007): 328
Leave a Reply