Suffering in the Middle Ages: A Christian Context. Suffering was a fact of life in the Middle Ages. It was understood within a

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1 1 Alexandria Krause Prague Conference Introduction Part 1: Suffering in the Middle Ages: A Christian Context Part 2: Medieval Views of Madness Suffering in the Middle Ages: A Christian Context Suffering was a fact of life in the Middle Ages. It was understood within a Christian framework as a message or a test from God (Wallis 47), and the story of the long-suffering Job in the Bible highlights this interpretation of suffering as a divinelyinflicted test, and Christians were to follow Job s example of endurance, and his trust in God s goodness of will and intention. Furthermore, compared to this biblical figure, people s sufferings of the time, although often terrible and difficult, were likely not as drastic and arduous as Job s; for he lost his wealth, his loved ones, his health, and finally, his friends. Yet he trusted in God s grace, and was in time doubly rewarded for his devotion and steadfast trust. A medieval Christian, influenced by this tale, might therefore anticipate an end to her or his time of suffering, if she or he too were to endure the god-sent trial patiently, suppressing feelings of anger or self-pity that might arise. Although Job was not punished by God, but was instead tested, suffering in the Middle Ages was also viewed as the unavoidable consequence of human sin (Wallis 47). Because humans, according to Christian teachings, were born into sin, they could expect to suffer the consequences of their ungodly behaviours and actions. And because suffering, in its many forms, is a trying and life-altering experience, one cannot blame those who lived at this time of pervasive Christian influence for believing they had

2 2 earned their condition as punishment from a higher power, for failing to act appropriately. Those who suffered from illness or injury would be treated by healers or physicians with secular medicine (such as herbal concoctions), or they would seek help and guidance from a member of the clergy who would advise or instruct them to perform certain acts of penance, and to repent of their sins (REF). Despite the medical training provided to certain clergy members at various ecclesiastical institutions, including monasteries, and later, universities (Thiher 44-45), the Christian church was primarily concerned with spiritual healing. Their methods took the form of prayer rituals, anointment and exorcism, in order to heal (Wallis 48), or to provide salvation to those who suffered, regardless of what the ailment might be or how it manifested on or in the person s body, or within the psyche. Thus we see the dichotomy between physicians and priests; the former was concerned with the health of the body, the latter of the soul. It is also important to note that although it was thought that one who suffers should endure this condition with patience and an attitude of penance and submission [,] the suffering of others was to be relieved through Christian charity (Wallis 47). A good Christian should therefore try to ease the suffering of another while enduring her or his physical pain or mental anguish. In sum to the brief outline I present here, it is evident that the Christian system of belief informed medieval Europe s understanding of suffering, and, by extension, how it was to be dealt with.

3 3 Medieval Views of Madness In the medieval period, suffering took many forms, including the physical, which could manifest in bodily illness and disease, such as leprosy, also interpreted as a punishment for human sin (Thiher 46). Madness, conversely, was understood as mental suffering, and therefore the medieval reasoning behind the conditions of suffering in general, formed the basis for understanding this mental disease. Christian logic was such that if madness exists, it must be part of God s plan (Thiher 46). One might be struck with insanity, so to speak, in order to be tested (Thiher 46) or tried, which would ultimately lead to the afflicted s moral improvement. Mental illness might be simply viewed as a punishment for sins, namely pride, and for wicked behaviour in general (Thiher 46). Interestingly, as demonstrated in the literature of the time, particularly in romance, such a condition might, like its sudden infliction, be mysteriously [and] miraculously removed (Saunders 69). (This is essentially what happens to Chrétien de Troyes hero, Yvain.) A view that opposes the notion of God s will is that of diabolical possession as the cause for madness (Thiher 46). This belief could, as Corrine Saunders concludes in her study of madness in medieval writing, have arisen from the the inexplicability and strangeness of such [a condition], as well as a belief in the devil s great plan to cause the downfall of [humankind] (69). Those with some education might see this particular ailment as caused by an imbalance of the humours, a result of the humours theory, developed in by the Classical thinkers of Antiquity, which formed the basis of medieval medical knowledge (Thiher 46). This school of thought taught that all diseases arise from the four

4 4 humours : blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile (Wallis 7). Yet even this attempt at a medical explanation was rooted in the idea of God s great design, since it was He who deliberately caused the imbalance (Thiher 46). There is some debate surrounding the acceptance by medieval European society of those deemed mad. It is widely thought that during this period, although legal criteria for the insane existed, the distinction between the mad and nonmad was not as sharp as it would later become, and that those afflicted by the disease enjoyed relatively greater tolerance than they would in later periods, including the Renaissance, when, as Allen Thiher concludes in his historical study of this issue, the irrational achieved a demonical status that it had never had before (Thiher 50). The logic behind this presumed (and partial) acceptance, was that all are born into sin and madness, and everyone is part of God s divine design (Thiher 49). Saunders explains that mental illness was more a part of the everyday world, in that there were no institutions in place for such people to be looked after, and thus these people were part of the community, cared for by family or servants (68-9). Yet because of their inability to behave in a socially acceptable manner, mad people, like lepers, were excluded from society. The law, for instance, neither punished nor protected them (Huot 67), and they were typically likened to beasts, and were a cause for entertainment 1. Attitudes toward the insane were not inclusive because these individuals were seen as a threat to the social order; Huot, in her extensive analysis of madness in various Old French texts, remarks that [t]he preservation of cultural hegemony requires that [mad people] must be subdued through violence or exclusion, simultaneously demonized and neutralized through comic reduction if they cannot be

5 5 assimilated (96). We come to learn, therefore, that despite arguments for a general tolerance of those viewed as insane, we see in the literature of the period, as Huot reveals, that people whom society did not accept were othered, and had to locate themselves in a separate space, as Yvain does when he comes to inhabit the wilderness. Works Cited Huot, Sylvia. Madness in French Medieval Literature: Identities Found and Lost. Oxford: Oxford U P, Macnaughton, Jane and Corinne Saunders, eds. Madness and Creativity in Literature and Culture. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, Thiher, Allen. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan P, Wallis, Faith. Medieval Medicine: A Reader. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010.

6 1 See Huot s chapter, The Violence of the Law: Madness and Social Exclusion, for a thorough discussion of how mad people were subjected to violence and how they failed to be accepted by society. This liminal position is exemplified by the character of the fol in medieval literature.

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