Mental Illness: An Early Modern Perspective

Jonathan Willis

This week (18-24 May 2020) is ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ in the UK – May is also US ‘Mental Health Month’, and ‘World Mental Health Day’, in case you were wondering, is a separately-coordinated enterprise, and will be on Saturday 10 October.  The fact that we have events such as these in the twenty-first century tells you two things.  Explicitly it is evidence that, in general, our society pushes itself to recognise the importance of mental health, the prevalence of mental illness, and that signposting the various specialist treatments and https3a2f2fblogs-images.forbes.com2fbernardmarr2ffiles2f20192f052fthe-incredible-ways-artificial-intelligence-is-now-used-in-mental-health-1200x720-1resources that are available for people struggling with any number of specific conditions is an urgent priority.  The implicit message, though, is that mental health and mental illness have long been neglected in our broader political, social and medical public discourse.  While there are valuable and life-saving public health campaigns around specific physical conditions such as various forms of cancer, strokes, heart disease, etc., there is palpably no need for a special day or week or month to remind people that physical illness is, in fact, a ‘thing’.

My motivation for writing this post comes from two sources – firstly, from the project I am working on on the relationship between mental health and the English reformation, and secondly from my own experience of suffering from and receiving treatment for anxiety over the past few years.  By accident rather than design(!), it just so happened during the autumn of 2019 that I read a lot of brilliant work about early modern mental health, mental illness, and the history of the early modern emotions, at the same time as I was working on my own mental health during a course of therapy.  In this context I could not help but reflect upon the used-books-store-2concordances and divergences between how we and our early modern forebears understood the workings of the human mind.  In this post I want to offer some broad reflections on the similarities and differences between early modern and twenty-first century conceptions of mental illness, based largely on secondary literature.  In subsequent posts (for I see this post by way of introduction) I plan to delve more deeply into the specific relationship between religious beliefs and mental illness, using evidence drawn from early modern letters.

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A Wandering Story of the Wandering Jew

Laura Sangha

Part I

 

Wandering_jew

Gustave Dore, The Legend of the Wandering Jew: A Series of 12 Designs, c. 1857, V&A Collections.

Story 1

A month or so ago I read Sarah Perry’s wonderful third novel Melmoth. Central to the book is the myth of Melmotka, a woman who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, but who later denied that she had seen him. Since that time Melmotka has wandered the earth without home or respite, bearing witness to all humanity’s violence and cruelty, as she will do until Christ comes again.

The Stories of Story 1

In modern day Prague Helen Franklin traces the history of Melmotka through a collection of texts that speak of a wraith-like figure who appears at moments of great sorrow. The narratives found in these documents – a seventeenth-century letter, a contemporary manuscript, a twentieth-century journal – put flesh on the bones of Melmotka, a shadow that leaves bloody scarlet footprints where she treads, who is clad in some thin black billowy stuff, who stares with eyes that are like ink dropped into water… Continue reading

A Page in the Life of Sarah Savage: Love Among Women

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Amanda E. Herbert (@amandaeherbert) introduces us to a diary-writing woman and her extraordinary relationship with a female friend. Amanda has explored the diary in more detail in her new Gender & History article, ‘Queer Intimacy: Speaking with the Dead in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, and her book on Female Alliances.]

Sarah Henry Savage (1664-c.1751) had a very hard time making friends.  A middling-sort Nonconformist from Cheshire at the turn of the eighteenth century, she lived at the edges and borders of early modern life: financially, spiritually, socially, and geographically, Sarah Savage didn’t – and sometimes, deliberately chose not to – fit into the traditions and standards which governed her society.[1]

Sarah Savage - Wrenbury on Speed map of Cheshire

Sarah Savage’s hometown of Wrenbury in Cheshire on John Speed’s map of 1614

But Savage had one great friend: Jane Ward Hunt.  Hunt and Savage shared a social network, a common faith, a sense of family by fostering children at one another’s homes, and perhaps most importantly, their time: in Savage’s papers, she recorded that the women exchanged visits, walks, sermon-notes, meetings, and countless letters over the course of their friendship.  Savage and Hunt shared what I have termed a ‘queer intimacy’:  a relationship which distorted traditional gender roles and gendered writing practices, and which was imbued with love, longing, and same-sex desire, with its many nuances, silences, and degrees of feeling.  Savage’s and Hunt’s bond was particularly and peculiarly shaped by spiritual strangeness: religious dissent, and its concomitant refusal to conform, its celebration of difference.

When Jane Hunt died unexpectedly in early middle age, Savage was utterly bereft.  She wept constantly.  She suffered from insomnia and, when she did manage to sleep, endured troubled dreams about Hunt and their lost alliance.  She wrote guiltily in her diary that she felt she was mourning excessively, but could not control her emotions; although she believed that she ‘should lay aside every Weight that would hinder my joy’, Savage noted sadly, this was an impossible task, for ‘well may this world be stiled a vale of Tears’.[2]

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‘Here I lie as warm as they’: who was buried where in the early modern period?

Laura Sangha

kingsbridge

This spring I had the good fortune to visit Kingsbridge, a small market town in South Devon. The town sits on a steep hill overlooking the many-branched estuary, and it is home to The Shambles (or market arcade) with five Elizabethan granite piers, and a seventeenth-century grammar school (now an excellent little museum).

Of course I popped into the church – St Edmund King and Martyr on Fore Street was largely rebuilt in 1414, then restored and extended in 1849 and 1896. What caught my eye there was an inscription on a tablet just outside one of the doors of the church, which inspired a twitter thread which in turn has become the basis of this post.

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What does this rather colourful epitaph mean, and what can it tell us about the early modern world? Continue reading

A Page in the Life of Ralph Thoresby

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript.]

Laura Sangha

Ralph ThoresbyThe Leeds antiquarian and pious diarist Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) wrote a lot. An awful lot. Between the ages of nineteen and sixty-seven he kept a diary, often recording entries on most days of the week. Seven volumes of Thoresby’s life-writing survive, and at approximately 500 pages per volume that’s 3,500 pages of text. The page transcribed below is fairly typical at 550 words, so that makes close to two million words of Thoresby’s self-reflection out there. You don’t have to read them all though, because this page below provides a relatively good sense of the content and scope of Thoresby’s written self:


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Brotherton Library, Yorkshire Archaeological Society MS 24.

[22 May 1709][1]

afternoon Mr Pollard from 19 Math:28 proceeded to the Evidences & signs that we are followers of Christ in the Regeneration, 1 hatred of sin is a good signe of a renewed Soul, so 2 a fear to Sin, 3 carefulness to avoid all occasions and temptations to Sin 4 vigorous sinsere & resolute opposition of the whole man against Sin, & particularly 1 against sins of a spiritual nature, 2 Sins of the heart and tho’ts, & 3 Sins of Constitution & Custome, 5 inward love to God & Religion, & 6 due performance of secret Spiritual dutys, Application: 1 to the Regenerate, as they have rec’d the Grace of God to be truly renewed, so to labour to exceed others in holiness, 2 to the unregenerate, not to delude themselves with false hopes of heaven with out regeneration – afterwards catechised above 30 poor children, heard them the appointed psalms & distributed several Bibles – Read as at noon in Dr. Mantons Sermons in family & observed usual duties

23 morn: read Annotations in family & Mr Henry in secret, writ til 10 at Church, & after transcribing Topography of the Town til 4 at Church, after surprized with a visit from my Lord Irwin & some Relations, to see the Collections, Even: read as usually Continue reading

The Tenth Commandment: the Depth of Sin

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

JacketAfter a brief mid-term hiatus, in this last post marking the publication last month of my latest monograph, The Reformation of the Decalogue, I want to explore the Tenth Commandment.

Earlier in the series, I talked about the Reformed Protestant renumbering of the Commandments.  In brief, Reformers took the traditional Catholic list, made a separate precept out of the injunction not to make or worship graven images, and reduced the number back down to ten by folding the two forms of coveting in the Catholic Ninth and Tenth Commandments (of wives and goods) into a single precept.

Traditionally, historians have seen the changes at the start of the Decalogue as much more significant than the changes at the end of it.  The new Reformed Second Commandment spoke to important concerns surrounding idolatry and iconoclasm – the merging of two forms of covetousness into one commandment was just a case of tidying things up and making sure that there were still Ten Commandments.  The historian John Bossy, for example, judged that ‘the exposition of the second table was a less controversial matter than that of the first’.[1] Continue reading

The Ninth Commandment: Bridling the tongue

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

reputationAt first glance, the Ninth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’, was rather niche compared to the first four precepts of the second table: honouring parents, and not killing, committing adultery with, or stealing from other people.  However, as historians such as Alexandra Shepherd and Craig Muldrew have shown, credit and reputation were vital and powerful forces in early modern English society.[1]  Honest speech and truthful dealing were therefore essential for the proper functioning of personal and community relationships up and down the land.

This key social role of plain and open speaking was universally recognised by commentators on the Ninth Commandment, as well as humanity’s weakness for using a certain fleshy little member to the detriment of their neighbour.  Continue reading