For much of our recorded history, “odd” or deviant behavior was considered to be a reflection of a battle between good and evil. Where people saw inexplicable, irrational behavior, they saw evil. As a matter of fact, in the Great Persian Empire from 900 to 600 B.C. all physical and mental illnesses were thought to be the work of the devil.
Barbara Tuchman (a renowned historian) recounted the second half of the 14th century in A Distant Mirror (1978). This was a particularly rough time for humanity. In this book she describes the conflicting opinions on the origins and treatment of insanity during this dark and rowdy period.
Demons and Witches
One strong school of thought put the causes and treatment of psychological illness in the realm of the supernatural. During the last quarter of the 14th century, religious and lay authorities (who dealt with the reformation of the English church) fostered these superstitious beliefs. Society as a whole began to believe more strongly in the existence and power of demons and witches.
More and more often, people turned to magic and sorcery to solve their problems. Those with psychological disorders were thought to be possessed by demons or evil spirits and were accused to be the cause of the misfortune experienced by the townspeople. This lead to quite drastic action against the “possessed”.
Treatments for possession: exorcism, shaving, binding, drilling holes…
“Treatment” of their possession included exorcism, in which various religious rituals were performed to rid the victim of his demons. Other ways of treating the sick included shaving the pattern of a cross in the hair of the victim’s head and securing sufferers to a wall near the front of a church so that they might benefit from hearing the Mass.
Hydrotherapy was another form of treating “possessed” patients: they were shocked “back to their senses” by being submerged in ice-cold water.
Another common type of treatment of insanity was “trepanation”. This was “release the evil spirits” taken literally. The town’s physician would drill a hole in the sick person’s skull to release the demons. Consequently, the person often died shortly afterward, or they suffered such brain damage that they remained in a vegetative state for the rest of their lives.
Trepanation is still performed to this very day, but mostly to relieve intracranial pressure when there is no other way. (There are, however, groups of people who advocate more use of trepanation.)
The conviction that demons and witches are causes of madness and other evils continued into the 15th century, and evil continued to be blamed for unexplainable behavior.
What do you think of these treatments? Please share your thoughts
Source: Barlow, D.H., & Durand, V.M. (2009) Abnormal psychology: an integrative approach (5th Edition). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.