A History of Madness in Sixteenth-century Germany

Front Cover
Stanford University Press, 1999 - Psychology - 438 pages
This magisterial work explores how Renaissance Germans understood and experienced madness. It focuses on the insanity of the world in general but also on specific disorders; examines the thinking on madness of theologians, jurists, and physicians; and analyzes the vernacular ideas that propelled sufferers to seek help in pilgrimage or newly founded hospitals for the helplessly disordered. In the process, the author uses the history of madness as a lens to illuminate the history of the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the history of poverty and social welfare, and the history of princely courts, state building, and the civilizing process.

Rather than try to fit historical experience into modern psychiatric categories, this book reconstructs the images and metaphors through which Renaissance Germans themselves understood and experienced mental illness and deviance, ranging from such bizarre conditions as St. Vitus s dance and demonic possession to such medical crises as melancholy and mania. By examining the records of shrines and hospitals, where the mad went for relief, we hear the voices of the mad themselves.

For many religious Germans, sin was a form of madness and the sinful world was thoroughly insane. This book compares the thought of Martin Luther and the medical-religious reformer Paracelsus, who both believed that madness was a basic category of human experience. For them and others, the sixteenth century was an age of increasing demonic presence; the demon-possessed seemed to be everywhere. For Renaissance physicians, however, the problem was finding the correct ancient Greek concepts to describe mental illness. In medical terms, the late sixteenth century was the age of melancholy. For jurists, the customary insanity defense did not clarify whether melancholy persons were responsible for their actions, and they frequently solicited the advice of physicians.

Sixteenth-century Germany was also an age of folly, with fools filling a major role in German art and literature and present at every prince and princeling s court. The author analyzes what Renaissance Germans meant by folly and examines the lives and social contexts of several court fools.


What people are saying - Write a review

We haven't found any reviews in the usual places.


Historical Problems Sin StVitus and the Devil
Two Reformers and a World Gone Mad Luther and Paracelsus
Psychiatry and the Rise of Galenic Observation
Witchcraft and the Melancholy Interpretation of the Insanity Defense
Court Fools and Their Folly Image and Social Reality
Pilgrims in Search of Their Reason
Madness as Helplessness Two Hospitals in the Age of the Reformations

Other editions - View all

Common terms and phrases

Popular passages

Page 10 - The truth of the doctrine of cultural . . . relativism is that we can never apprehend another people's or another period's imagination neatly, as though it were our own. The falsity of it is that we can therefore never genuinely apprehend it at all.
Page 11 - But nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation And every bit of us is lost in it (Or found — I wander through the ruin of S Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness...
Page 16 - Renaissance Quarterly 44 (1991): 776-91. 26. For a useful discussion regarding how the issue of class differentiates the apparently similar diseases of "melancholy
Page 10 - The falsify of it is that we can therefore never genuinely apprehend it at all. We can apprehend it well enough, at least as well as we apprehend anything else not properly ours; but we do so not by looking behind the interfering glosses that connect us to it but through them. Professor Trilling's nervousness about the epistemological complacency of traditional humanism is not misplaced. The exactest reply to it is James Merrill's wrenching observation that life is translation, and we are all lost...
Page viii - Romanticism (2005), supported by fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation.

About the author (1999)

H. C. Erik Midelfort is C. Julian Bishko Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

Bibliographic information