Claire Trenery, Madness, Medicine and Miracle in 12th Century England

Claire Trenery positions this work as an answer to overly reductive dialogues about medieval madness. She is interested in 12th century miracle stories about individuals being cured of their madness, of which she focuses on the most physical, outwardly expressed versions (insania and amens). She explores how madness was diagnosed in the 12th century and what causes it was thought to have, and focuses on miracle stories because detailed case studies of individual saints’ cults and records allow for a less across-the-board view of medieval madness being caused primarily by sin. While her work is focused mostly on demonic possession as a cause of madness, she does allow for other viewpoints within medical writing as to its cause.

Trenery explores five case studies, one of which is the treatment of the mad who were brought to the tomb of William of Norwich. Thomas of Monmouth’s record of this in his Life and Miracles, she argues, is both based on intention, social custom, and the relational definition of the term “violence”. One interesting nuance she addresses in this section is the distinction between being considered mad and being labeled as “acting” mad. The distinction is whether or not the action is proportionate to the feeling. For example, a mother who had lost her child and “gone mad” would in fact be sane, but responding to a traumatic emotional event. This is interesting in light of my and others’ observations about melancholy, which (when it is in response to something) comes into being primarily as an inappropriate reaction or an outsized emotional investment.

In her last chapter, Trenery uses the vita of Hugh of Lincoln to argue that there was a shift in thirteenth century texts about saints toward using medicalized language to refer to madness and magical healings. This corresponds with the creation of many translations of medical texts, and it makes sense that saints’ lives would parallel the process undergone in other kinds of texts at the time. When situated with other terms, it’s clear that madness is both an umbrella term and a specific condition distinct from e.g. epilepsy. While the medical angle on madness appears more in the thirteenth century, its spiritual resonance is equally present.

My main takeaway from this book is that the mad were largely defined by “inappropriate” responses that require a knowledge of typical social order to “diagnose”. Mad people were restrained both literally and socially, and (because they could not give consent) were often estranged from social gatherings. Their actions disrupted the social fabric almost by definition: if screaming in church is inappropriate, while screaming at the loss of a loved one is fine, madness is situational and the approval of violence against people exhibiting signs of madness is also situational. This contributes to my thoughts about how madness fits into the social body, and how it tends to be just as much a social as a medical phenomenon.