Medieval Approaches to Mental Health

By Emma Louise Barlow (University of Technology Sydney)

At the end of 2013, Rebecca McNamara, former researcher at the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (at The University of Sydney) and now Assistant Professor of English at Westmont, sat down with me for a chat over coffee. I had just finished my Honours thesis, the first iteration of my research into medieval Florentine poet Dante and the depictions of suicide in his renowned work the Commedia, and she was working on a project about representations of suicide in medieval English legal documents. Needless to say, the conversation flowed easily. Amongst other things, we bonded over our shared amusement and frustration at the reactions we received most frequently – from family, friends, and fellow academics alike – when we told them about our subject of research: “Ooh, that’s a bit depressing, why would you want to study that?”

Why indeed. Rebecca herself gives a great answer to this question in a 2012 article in The Conversation, in which she defends the necessity of funding projects such as the CHE:

Though I research people who killed themselves hundreds of years ago, there are continuities in the ways that humans deal with struggle and change. A person who drowns him or herself after suffering from disease […], a widow who hangs herself in her bakery after working to support herself and her children, a suspected criminal who kills himself in fear that he will be shackled with torture, imprisonment, and shame: these scenarios are lifted directly from medieval coroners’ rolls, but they could equally be used to explain suicide today. How were people’s emotions in the past understood to lead to these self-destructive situations, and how did family, community, and the state respond to their suicides? Though the cultural settings, geography, and time period are different, we are asking the same questions now in Australia.

And this is precisely the point: the questions are the same, because the taboo that surrounded suicide in the medieval period is the very same that plagues suicide today. Our perspective on suicide has barely changed in a millennium because of this very taboo, and the medieval conception of suicide (i.e. “if we do not speak its name, it cannot haunt us”) is still very much a part of the way that society views suicide today.

This taboo even found its way into my own research about suicide. In my doctoral thesis, which I completed at The University of Sydney in 2019, I looked at the ways in which medieval Italian poet Dante depicts suicide in his works (primarily the Commedia, or Divine Comedy as it is better known in English, but also the Monarchia and the Convivio). I found that Dante’s suicides were presented as hybrid figures who had lost aspects of their humanity through their suicides, and who were placed in liminal spaces within the geography of Dante’s otherworld, physically set apart because of their manner of death. Pier della Vigna, for example, secretary to Emperor Frederick II and one of the more famous characters of Dante’s Commedia, appears in the text of Inferno 13 as a ‘uomo-pianta’, a plant-man, doomed to produce words and blood together via his broken (tree) limbs, and relegated to a pathless forest sandwiched between a boiling river of blood and an arid desert where it rains fire. This hybrid and liminal framing of suicide in Dante’s works led me to a discussion of how these tropes reflected different medieval understandings of suicide: as an act that is self-centred, that makes of a person an outsider and alienates them from their community, but also as an act that can arise due to a lack of emotional health and self-care on an individual level.

Image by Gustove Dore from Dante's Inferno
Gustave Doré, Inferno canto XIII, 1861–1868. Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, approach Pier della Vigna in the wood of the suicides (Inferno 13). Dante hears groans of pain within the forest but does not understand where they are coming from, so Virgil encourages Dante to break off a branch, allowing Piero to ‘speak’. Wikimedia Commons.

I have heard very similar opinions about suicide shared in contemporary circles: the former by those who are unfamiliar with the world of mental health and who do not understand the complex set of conditions that can lead a person to such an end, and the latter by those who are familiar with mental health discourses through learning or through experience. Yet despite these clear parallels, I was nonetheless frequently warned away from introducing into my research, or even mentioning in my research, modern concepts like mental health, in order to avoid the introduction of unwelcome anachronisms and the distortion of my analysis. So for a long time, I studiously avoided talking about mental health, feeling that this would benefit my research.

My doctoral work has value as a literary study, and I am very proud of that work. But after submission, my silence on the subject of mental health continued to haunt me, and eventually my own personal Grady twins emerged to convince me to act, in the form of the Call for Papers for the ‘Mental Health: Medieval and Early Modern World’ conference at The University of Western Australia in October 2019, and the ‘Emotions and Mental Health: Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ conference at The University of Adelaide in November 2019. These conferences gave me the opportunity to present my initial ideas about this corollary between conceptions of suicide in Dante’s works and in the modern world. I subsequently turned these ideas into an article, titled ‘Emotional Minds and Bodies in the Suicide Narratives of Dante’s Inferno’, which was published in the journal Ceræ, volume 7 (2020) (published online in May 2021). In this article, I analyse the emotive language that is used in Dante’s poems in the narratives of some of the suicides, as well as the hybrid way that those suicides are embodied in the text. Through these analyses, I explore the ways that Dante reflects on how the suicides are distanced from their communities, their own physical bodies, and their human minds, and I investigate Dante’s (perhaps inadvertent) acknowledgment of the ways in which a lack of emotional wellbeing can force a person to the edge of both society and sanity.

Returning again to the question of why one may wish to study a topic like self-murder in distant times, Rebecca McNamara’s discussion of the usefulness of studying suicide in the medieval period points to this type of work as a potential catalyst for change:

My research project on emotions related to suicide in medieval Europe is historical, but it has impact on Australia today. If hearing about this project causes one person to reassess their suicidal thoughts, or prompts someone to ask a loved one or colleague how they are doing, if it piques the interest of policy makers and furthers the work of those in organisations who help suicidal people, then it has done something incredible.

My article is an acknowledgment of the clear relationship between medieval conceptions and representations of suicide and modern mental health discourses. I hope that this research can begin a similarly useful and impactful conversation.

Dr Emma Louise Barlow is a Lecturer in the School of International Studies and Education at the University of Technology Sydney for 2021. She is the Italian Language and Culture Program Coordinator and teaches on a wide variety of topics related to Italian language, literature and culture. In 2020 she received her PhD in Italian Studies from The University of Sydney. Her thesis examined the intersection of narratives of self-destruction and the notion of the in-between in the works of Dante and of the later medieval and early modern Italian literary tradition. She has recently published an article on emotional language in Dante’s infernal suicide narratives and co-authored a chapter on alternative and inclusive pedagogies in the Harry Potter series with Dr Alice Loda (UTS). Her research interests include medieval and early modern Italian literature, the history of emotions, palaeography and codicology, the history of the book, digital humanities and language pedagogy.

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