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HF About Mental Illness in the Middle Ages

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JenniferLovesRoxi
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HF About Mental Illness in the Middle Ages

Postby JenniferLovesRoxi » Sun July 7th, 2013, 1:16 am

This is my first post here, although I have been a lurker for quite a while. So hello!

Anyway, I just started reading Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt. In the book the main character, Hildegard, has visions and is considered either insane or possessed by the devil. She is then sent to live as an Anchorite recluse in a monastery (yes, a monastery with monks, not a nunnery!) for the rest of her life.

This made me start wondering if there are any good Historical Fiction books that are set in non-modern times (ancient times to around the 1700s) that deal with how mental illness was viewed in the past, or how people with mental illnesses were treated or dealt with.

I imagine that Hildegard's story was not an uncommon one, particularly in the Middle Ages when things that we would recognize today as mental illnesses were viewed as demonic possessions or curses, etc.

Any suggestions would be much appreciated! Thanks!

annis
Bibliomaniac

Postby annis » Sun July 7th, 2013, 8:04 pm

There are a few around, but the one that comes to mind first is Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall, here reviewed at the Historical Novels Info website .

A personal favourite is Charlotte Randall's The Curative, but I imagine it would be hard to find outside of New Zealand.
Last edited by annis on Mon July 8th, 2013, 7:52 am, edited 1 time in total.

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fljustice
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Postby fljustice » Mon July 8th, 2013, 3:00 pm

A non-fiction book that is a fascinating read about two of fascinating subjects: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. I thought Sarah Waters had written one about an insane asylum, but it was about a prison (where many mentally ill ended up): Affinity
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Ludmilla
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Location: Georgia USA

Postby Ludmilla » Mon July 8th, 2013, 3:35 pm

Most historicals that I can think of that deal with the mentally ill have taken place in the Victorian or later times when public institutions for the mentally ill existed. Not sure how many, if any, would have been in existence before the 1700s. If you're interested in the 19th century, though, Clare Dudman's 98 Reasons for Being examines the treatments for the mentally ill in 1850s Germany by real life German physician Heinrich Hoffmann (better known now for his book of children's rhymes, Struwwelpeter).


I also found this timeline on PBS for the treatments for mental illness.

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sweetpotatoboy
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Location: London, UK

Postby sweetpotatoboy » Mon July 8th, 2013, 5:22 pm

"fljustice" wrote:A non-fiction book that is a fascinating read about two of fascinating subjects: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester.


Yes, that is a fascinating story. Incidentally, while I was reading that book, one of my colleagues at the time asked me what I thought of it. I said it was a great story but that the writing could have been better. Only then did my colleague reveal that the author was his father - he could have mentioned it beforehand!

"fljustice" wrote:I thought Sarah Waters had written one about an insane asylum, but it was about a prison (where many mentally ill ended up): Affinity


Actually her book "Fingersmith" has a major plot strand about a mental asylum, so you were right after all!

annis
Bibliomaniac

Postby annis » Mon July 8th, 2013, 5:43 pm

Another couple that come to mind -
Rose Tremain's Restoration, which sees the doctor Merivel grappling with the causes and treatment of melancholia and madness while working at a humane Quaker asylum in 17th century England and Pat Barker's Regeneration, which deals with the rehabilitation of shell-shocked soldiers during WWI.

Patricia Finney's Firedrake, set in Elizabethan times, uses the device of an insane protagonist, through whose eyes we see much of the action - brilliant.

There a useful little post here at the English Historical Fiction Authors website which gives a potted history of mental illness and its "cures".

Of course mental illness was regarded differently in different cultures. For some it was considered a sign of divine possession rather than demonic. And it's interesting when we think about what's "normal", to note that human creativity quite often goes hand-in-hand with various degrees of what we used to call manic-depression - cue Symphony by Jude Morgan, which features manic-depressive composer Hector Belioz.
Last edited by annis on Tue July 9th, 2013, 3:26 am, edited 3 times in total.

Ash
Bibliomaniac
Location: Arizona, USA

Postby Ash » Wed July 10th, 2013, 1:50 pm

Can't remember if its a book or a play, but the Madness of King George comes to mind.

Oh, there is that little book someone hereabouts wrote about the Mad Queen Juana. called The Last Queen. Quite a good read.

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Susan
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Postby Susan » Wed July 10th, 2013, 2:34 pm

"Ash" wrote:Can't remember if its a book or a play, but the Madness of King George comes to mind.


It's a play The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett (1991) which was later turned into an excellent film The Madness of King George which I just re-watched a couple of months ago. Nigel Hawthorne originally played King George on the stage and he played him again (magnificently) in the film and was nominated for an Oscar. He lost to Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. Helen Mirren played Queen Charlotte in the film.

On the same topic, the novel God Save the King by Laura Purcell does deal with this topic quite a bit. King George's illness was most likely caused by the hereditary disease porphyria. See The Royal Family's Toxic Time-Bomb
~Susan~
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JenniferLovesRoxi
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Postby JenniferLovesRoxi » Thu July 11th, 2013, 3:25 am

Thanks for all the replies. I do have Gortner book about mad Juana, but haven't read it yet. I will definitely check out the other books that have been recommended. Affinity by Sara Waters sounds particularly interesting to me, although it isn't exactly about insane people per se.

FYI I finished Illuminations by Mary Sharratt the other day and it was an excellent book. I would definitely recommend it!

Ash
Bibliomaniac
Location: Arizona, USA

Postby Ash » Thu July 11th, 2013, 3:00 pm

He lost to Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump.


I do love Hanks, but that award was a travesty; That movie also won best picture and best director. I hated that movie with a passion and couldn't believe it would be awarded so well. (end of rant, sorry!)

BTW if you want to delve into non fiction - The writer Paul Collins )of Sixpence House), wrote a wonderful book called Not Even Wrong, about his son who has autism. It focuses a great deal on how people with autism, mental disabilities and mental illness were treated (or not treated) through the ages. Very interesting and very moving (one of the best books about disabilities I've ever read and I recommend it frequently to parents)


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