CONWAY, 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.
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.
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 www.hendrix.edu.