I have been careful up to this point in my discussion of madness, with everything that I have discussed referring to madmen, both generally as a term, and in regards to actual mad men. This is because, regardless of culture, the overarching theme which I have discovered within my reading is that of the importance of femininity, gender, and their relationship to madness.  What I mean by this is that femininity, when presented in men, can be seen as a symptom of madness, while on the opposite side, the female form is often presented as inherently mad. When men show excesses of so-called “feminine” emotions, especially that of love, this is the most normal presentation of extreme emotional, or love, madness. Male relationships can also present an interesting, and sometimes fraught, relationship with madness, particularly since feudal society is constructed within a homosocial framework. If the homosocial framework of feudal society provides a mechanism for the structuring of heterosexual passion and a defense against madness or isolation, however it is also fraught with a potential danger of its own, that of a transgressive eroticization of male relationships. More troubling, to Huot especially, is that of what the female object represents to male identity. She states,

The female object, in fact, affords men a means of participating in the symbolic. She is a medium through which a man can stage his identity, his relationship to the other male participants in the symbolic order, through both a transgressive challenging of the law and a conformance to it. Male trauma, in turn, arises both from the system of prohibitions and the exigencies established by male authority and the network of male rivalries constituted in the symbolic order, and from the disruption of that order by female desire both positive and negative. These two traumatic forces exist in a kind of balance or dialectic: masculine law regulates the troublesome woman and channels her through the network of male homosocial relations; while feminine desire sustains and breathes life into the male lover, affording him some relief from the strictures of the law.[1]

Woman, as an object, is inherently a threat to the social order, and ultimately to the sanity of man. The intensity of women’s suffering, it would seem, only enhances their value as objects of exchange and mediation between men and as sources of inspiration for literary and chivalric exploits. The explicit association of female desire with the destruction of male bodies reveals an anxiety about the female body’s capability of not only destroying men, but also usurping established structures of male power. [2] According to Joshua Eyler in Disability in the Middle Ages, Chaucer’s depiction of May’s pregnancy in Merchant’s Tale is one of the best English depictions of the female form being a threat to male sanity. Chaucer’s description of May’s body as dangerous echoes medieval anti-feminist authorities within medieval authoritative texts, and subsequently, renders her both disabled and capable of disabling. particularly, the pregnant body, which is interwoven throughout the tale’s subtext and finally literalized in May’s pregnancy at the end of the tale, represents the threat of the female body that must be controlled.[3]

Women, themselves, are the most susceptible to madness during the middle ages, because it was believed that a woman’s very nature predisposed her to melancholic delusions, and that the irrational symptoms of women were very different than those of men, because the madness in men was viewed as a fall from nature, rather than a natural occurrence. [4] Women were the weaker sex, the softer sex, the less rational sex. Women’s bodies were the glory of man, not the image of God. Women were moist; they were cool; they received impressions readily.[5] The female temperament was sluggish, but paradoxically women were hysterical, prone to fantasies and frenzies. Women’s wombs filled up with corrupting humors that clouded their minds and their vision. Women were also thought to be the more carnal sex in the middle Ages. Debilitated by sexual urges, women’s limited moral judgment and rational capabilities were easily overwhelmed by desire. This malleability, weakness, and softness made it clear that women were more prone to falling under the influence of external persuasions, especially those of spiritual influences, once again blurring the line between possession and madness.

There also seems to be many discussions of the precarious nature of the relationship between women and spirituality, and that while women can be prone to being religious creatures, they were also more susceptible to spirit possession, both positive and demonic. Nancy Caciola discusses this blurred line between religiosity and possession that is so often attributed to madness in medieval women in literature. She states,

The medieval debate over the testing of spirits focused with particular intensity on women. The rapid proliferation of female claims to divine inspiration was rife with ambivalences, and laywomen were particularly vulnerable. The sheer visibility involved in the penitential religious life rendered them significantly more liable than their protected, cloistered counterparts to charges of demonic possession or false sanctity[6]

Yet despite this inherent religiosity, the female also is more susceptible to evil influences and spiteful behavior as well. It was important for medieval writers and thinkers to consider the special case of the soul of a woman, because questions about man being made in the image of God came under scrutiny. Writers like Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Alexander of Hales hesitated to exclude women altogether from the divine image. Yet this created a conflict, for they wished to preserve the priesthood as an exclusively masculine prerogative. This group of writers thus made a distinction between body and soul that helped them both to assert male and female similarities in terms of being in God’s image and to preserve enough differences to reserve the priesthood for men alone. Arguing that the soul is sexless, they concluded that both men and women were in the image of God as regards their souls. Moreover, when a woman was deemed to be mad, or possessed, she could easily be discounted, because the speech of the possessed woman was not hers, but that of the entity inhabiting her, thus is a woman was considered to be possessed by a demon, all agency for her own actions was removed from her.

While depictions, and definitions, of madness varied across cultures, most medieval scholars seem to agree that the onset of Christianity fundamentally changed the way which madness was approached in literature. Even within the Bible itself, there is a shift from the Old Testament to the New Testament in regards to depictions of madness and possession, possibly because of the unique healing power which Jesus represented. This trend seems to follow through to other cultures, as is evidenced by Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian representations of madness, which seem to completely discount the possibility for spirit possession before Christianity. Once Christian ideology established a firm foothold in cultures, though, questions about identity became more prevalent in regards to madness, looking at both the individual and group identity of a culture surrounding a mad person. Finally, gender played a large role in what actions were considered to be mad, regardless of the culture which they resided in. Religious women were more exposed than religious men, and thus their acts of spirituality were more closely scrutinized then those of men. Men could also be seen as mad, but were seen especially so if they displayed any traits which would be traditionally seen as feminine. Overall, while there were many medical explanations for madness in the middle ages, cultures seemed to find any behaviors which could be considered extreme to be a sign of madness, regardless of if there were any actual medical signs of afflictions of the brain. Literature reflected these cultural trends, as it often tends to do.

[1] Huot, Sylvia. Madness in Medieval French Literature: Identities Found and Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003: 179

[2] Eyler, Joshua R. Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations. Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2010: 29

[3] Ibid., 27

[4] Huot, Sylvia. Madness in Medieval French Literature: Identities Found and Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003: 178

[5] This idea goes back to an elemental understanding of what men and women were made of. Nancy Caciola discusses this further in Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, stating, “coldness renders women intellectually weak, and this leads to a correspondingly greater strength in her sensory attachments. The result of this situation is a mental inability to grasp truth and goodness, combined with a proclivity for sensory indulgences-that is, sin. In man the situation is, of course, reversed. His vital heat begets virile virtus and righteousness. Thus women, being fundamentally the weaker, and hence the more sensual sex, also present an easier target for demonic illusion and attack. If feminine coolness begets irrationality and therefore sensual perversity, feminine moistness engenders other ruinous qualities. Moistness begets a changeable, inconstant, and highly impressionable nature, like mud retaining a footprint. (Women were, after all, composed primarily of the elements of earth and water.)”

[6] Caciola, Nancy Mandeville. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003: 16