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Windows onto the Past I

Reaching deep into the past for accounts of mental distress that were contemporary with Bethlem’s foundation for his published history of the Hospital, Bethlem’s early twentieth century chaplain Edward O’Donoghue discovered what he considered to be “two stories of acute mania” in Benedict of Peterborough’s account of miracles wrought at the tomb of Thomas á Becket in the years immediately following Becket’s 1170 martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral. Both of these stories were captured in stained glass as well as in narrative, and we have gained the Cathedral’s permission to highlight the first of them in this post, and the second in one to follow.

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Image used with the kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral

O’Donoghue reports the chronicler as recording that “the mad Henry of Fordwich was dragged by his friends to the tomb [of Thomas] with his hands tied behind him, struggling and shouting, and there remained all day, but began to recover as the sun went down, and after a night spent in the church went home, perfectly well in his mind”.1

There is a more economical, even poetic quality to the version of the story that adorns the stained glass version of this miracle: ‘Amens accedit; Orans sanusque recedit’ (‘He arrives out of his mind; he prays, and departs sane.’) There is nothing lyrical, however, about the scene these glass panels represent. The clubs wielded by Henry’s ‘friends’ tell their own story; not of punishment per se, but rather of an attempt to administer the kind of “sharp sudden shock” to the body which, it has often been thought, would prompt the sufferer to “snap out of it” and “somehow rearrange the disordered mental mechanism into order again”.2

O’Donoghue’s rationalising commentary on this miracle makes fascinating reading. “The treatment of patients in the Middle Ages was not quite as absurd or inhuman as it may appear on first sight”, he writes. “The ducking of maniacs, their confinement in a church all night, and the use of ligatures and whips were calculated to exhaust their fury, and instil in them that sense of terror which tames a wild beast. In that condition of mind they were, I take it, more sensitive to the associations of a miracle-working shrine, and more ready to profit by the healing ministrations of time and nature.”3 It is equally interesting that Benedict of Peterborough does not appear to regard Henry of Fordwich as demoniacally possessed. He is simply ‘mad’, and the miracle-working power of Thomas’ shrine was as efficacious for him as it was for those with physical complaints. In this perceived continuum between ailments and treatment of mind and body, is it too fanciful to detect a proto-medical mindset within which may have been the seeds of the first biological psychiatry?

To be continued.