Friday, April 13, 2012

From Melancholia: the opening to "Medieval Melancholy"

On September 4, 476 Romulus Augustulus, fifteen year-old ruler of the Western Roman Empire, was deposed by a barbarian chieftain named Odoacer. This event has historically been said to mark the fall of Rome: the truth is that by 476 Rome had been irrelevant for well over a century. The Germanic tribesmen who had long served as Rome's mightiest warriors had taken control of increasingly large swatches of territory and appointed puppet rulers to serve their interest in Rome. Roman coinage had become so debased that most transactions involved barter rather than currency: a small aristocratic class ruled over an oppressed, overtaxed, impoverished and increasingly restive majority. And a religion once persecuted for its refusal to honor Roman gods and customs was now legally recognized as the One True Faith.

Greek and Roman philosophers and physicians took pains to find rational causes for diseases and events. The Gods were to be honored: the world was to be understood. With the rise of Christiandom, this approach was far less popular. The Holy Scriptures became a compass not only for theological speculation but for all endeavors: everything could be interpreted in light of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and in the eternal battle between the Armies of Christ and the forces of darkness. And as Late Antiquity became the Early Middle Ages, what had once been seen as a disease of imbalanced humors became a dangerous temptation to despair and damnation.

Melancholia as a Moral Failing

Writing near the end of the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great listed melancholia as one of seven "Deadly Sins." In his Moralia in Job (Morals on the Book of Job), he claimed that "From melancholy there arise malice, rancour, cowardice, despair, slothfulness in fulfilling the commands, and a wandering of the mind on unlawful objects" and explained that melancholy was "wont to exhort the conquered heart as if with reason, when it says, What ground hast thou to rejoice, when thou endurest so many wrongs from thy neighbours? Consider with what sorrow all must be looked upon, who are turned in such gall of bitterness against thee."

Not only did could melancholia lead to damnation: it was often a weapon used by the Devil and his minions to ensnare believers. Speaking from his experience in the Egyptian deserts, the 5th century Desert Father St. John Cassian [Chapter ___] described "accedia," a spiritual sloth and dryness which plagued hermits and monastics and which they called "the noonday demon." This demon could be driven away only by the rigorous application of Christian discipline. An Old Irish penitential manual from 800 CE ordered that a monk "whom the Devil has mocked by means of grief and sorrows, such as the loss of friends and relatives, so that it allows him to do nothing good, but [only] to despair," be sentenced to three days of complete fasting, deprived of all food and drink. A second offense would earn the depressed monk forty days on bread and water; should this not improve his morale, he would be separated from the community and kept indefinitely on this diet in solitary confinement "until he be joyful in body and soul."

Women who showed the symptoms of melancholy or mental illness would, if fortunate, be diagnosed with "hysteria." Those who were less fortunate might find themselves in very serious trouble with their fellows. In 906 Abbot Regino of Prüm wrote of "certain abandoned women, turning aside to follow Satan, being seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons." As the Church faced the threat of schismatic movements like the Cathari, efforts to root out sorcery and witchcraft became more serious. Cantankerous and unpopular old spinsters – the classic medieval examples of melancholic women – were often targeted for these accusations and imprisoned, tortured or killed.

Where Aristotle described melancholics as "exceptional people," medieval Christians saw them as especially prone to wickedness. Because they took little pleasure in the company of their fellows, they were untrustworthy and quarrelsome threats to the divine social order. 12th century mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen criticized melancholic men in her Causae et Curae (Of Causes and Cures):
[T]hey really love no one; rather they are embittered, suspicious, resentful, dissolute in their passion, and as unregulated in their interaction with women as a donkey. If they ever refrain from their desire, they easily become sick in the head so that they become crazy. If they satisfy their desire for women, they suffer no spiritual sickness. However, their cohabitation with women which they should maintain in a proper way, is difficult, contradictory, and as deadly as with vicious wolves… The influence of the devil rages so powerfully in the passion of these men that they would kill the woman with whom they are having sexual relations if they could. For there is nothing of love or affection in them… They are like ordinary stones that lie around without any shine, as if randomly scattered. Because of that, they cannot be prized among the brilliant stones, for they have no attractive gleam.
Not only did melancholy make its victims less than moral. It could, on occasion, make them less than human. 

(The next section deals with one of the medieval world's more interesting mental illnesses - lycanthropic melancholy - KF).