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Medieval Madness: History Professor Pfau Explores Crime and Mental Illness in New Book

Pfau_MedievalMadness_cvr_web.jpgCONWAY, Ark. (March 1, 2021) — The last year has been challenging from a mental health perspective as people have had to cope with a global pandemic on top of the usual stresses in their lives. These kinds of challenges were almost too familiar to people living in the 14th and 15th centuries, when plague regularly recurred. In one case from 1459, a man named Gouyn Cluchat living in the Auvergne region of France, chose to move his family to try to avoid the plague that was ravaging their village. In their new town, he was unable to access his usual sources of community aid, leading him to become so overwrought that, in a moment of frenzy, he killed his wife.

In her new book, Medieval Communities and the Mad: Narratives of Crime and Mental Illness in Late Medieval France (Amsterdam University Press, 2020), Hendrix College Professor of History Dr. Aleksandra “Sasha” Pfau examines how community networks of a particular locale and era responded to people who were considered “mad” — or mentally ill, in current terminology. 

It can be difficult to find historical records about people who were considered mentally ill by their community, because most of them never came to the attention of the literate elite. However, in rare cases crimes were committed either by or against these individuals, and the family or the community would seek the king’s mercy by petitioning for a pardon, or remission, as an alternative to local justice. The resulting written narratives about the mentally ill in late medieval France allow us to see how they constructed madness as an inability to live according to communal rules. 

“In these letters of remission, individuals who are characterized as mentally ill generally couldn’t recognize or appropriately conform to the written and unwritten expectations of community behavior and community support,” Pfau says. “While this often emerges in the crime itself, as with Gouyn Cluchat killing his wife, it could also emerge in actions taken before the crime, as is the case for another individual, Jehan de Moustier, who insisted on trying to bake bread in the communal oven after his village had decided not to run it.”

The texts Pfau examines defined madness through acts that threatened social bonds, but those ties were reaffirmed through the narratives in the remission letters. The composers of remission letters presented madness as a communal concern, situating the mad within the household, where care could be provided. Those considered mad were usually not expelled but integrated, often through pilgrimage, surveillance, or chains, into their kin and communal relationships.

Pfau, who received her Ph.D. in 2008 from the University of Michigan, has published several articles on crime in medieval France, so this new work stems from a years-long interest in this aspect of late medieval French society.

“These sources allow us to see intimate details about the lives of medieval people,” she says. “I particularly enjoy sharing these kinds of narratives with my students.”

Pfau uses her research in several of the classes she teaches at Hendrix, including courses on Medicine and Disease in Premodern Europe, Magic and Witchcraft in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, and Crime and Punishment in Medieval Europe. In Fall 2020, she shared unpublished remission letters that she had transcribed and translated with the students in her Crime and Punishment class; the letters became the basis for their final projects. 

“It was such a fantastic opportunity for students to work with medieval primary sources beyond the usual material available in English translation,” she said. “I am working on developing a collection of sources that students can draw from in future iterations of the class, and in the long term I’d like to make them available online with introductions from my students.”

About Hendrix College

A private liberal arts college in Conway, Arkansas, Hendrix College consistently earns recognition as one of the country’s leading liberal arts institutions, and is featured in Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. Its academic quality and rigor, innovation, and value have established Hendrix as a fixture in numerous college guides, lists, and rankings. Founded in 1876, Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. To learn more, visit