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April 1979

Medieval and Early Modern Theories of Mental Illness

Author Affiliations

From the Psychiatric Epidemiology Training Program, Division of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1979;36(4):477-483. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1979.01780040119013

• Historians of medieval and early modern psychiatry have utilized limited source materials in their research. They have focused on printed works, particularly formal treatises by celebrated authors, and neglected manuscript collections. The resulting histories depict early European psychiatric thought as dominated by demonology.

Examination of the archives of an early English legal incompetency jurisdiction flatly contradicts this picture. Starting in the 13th century, the English government conducted mental status examinations of psychiatrically disabled individuals, using commonsense, naturalistic criteria of impairment; private, supervised guardians were appointed for such persons. Furthermore, etiological theories entertained by royal officials and laymen relied on physiological and psychological notions of psychiatric illness. These findings raise serious questions about conventional accounts of this period and underline the need for more research using original manuscripts.