Comparisons between Hildegard of Bingen's paintings and more contemporary examples of migraine aura art:
Sunday, 13 May 2012
It is difficult to establish whether or not Joan of Arc or Hildegard of Bingen (or any other mystic displaying similar behaviour), suffered from such neurological ‘malfunctions’ as the above described illnesses. Even modern medicine does not always find it easy to diagnose temporal lobe epilepsy. The diagnosis is usually made clinically on the basis of reported or observed symptoms (although doctors rarely witness actual seizures, which are not always identified by EEGs either), and as hagiographical records provide the only evidence of the mystic’s behaviour, a clear and unbiased conclusion cannot be reached. The signs of an epileptic attack are unmistakable.
Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Anorexia nervosa and schizophrenia are not the only illnesses to have been attributed to medieval mystics. In fact, temporal lobe epilepsy, the ‘sacred disease’, has been profoundly intertwined with religious practices throughout the ages. Engel claims a number of men and women who attained religious prominence may have done so because of, or in spite of, their epileptic symptoms. One of the most prominent examples of this was Saint Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. He saw a bright light flashing around him and fell to the ground where he was left temporarily blinded by his vision and unable to eat or drink. Some contemporary physicians believe that Paul had facial motor and sensitive disturbances coming after ecstatic seizures, diagnosing him with temporal lobe epilepsy.
Monday, 7 May 2012
|'If you talk to God it's praying, |
if God talks to you it's
schizophrenia' - Szasz
Fourteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe experienced visions that she understood to be sent from God. Her records of these revelations expose certain likenesses between her own experiences and contemporary documentation of visions, despite coming from vastly different cultures and separated in time by almost four centuries. In this chapter I hope to clarify the similarities and differences between the two states with close reference to Margery Kempe. I will discuss whether it is possible, or indeed right, to diagnose her (or any medieval saints) as schizophrenic in the modern sense of the word, or whether it be erroneous to deny the fact that she had the transcendent relationship with God that she claimed to.
Anorexia is a disorder associated in the popular mind with a specific symptom. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, has a far more widely-ranging effect on human behaviour, and is generally much more closely associated with ‘madness’. Like anorexia, its definition and name are of relatively recent origin, although it has been known for centuries, and its association with mysticism has been investigated by scholars from many disciplines. The areas of overlap between mystical and schizophrenic behaviour has been the subject of intensive recent research by psychologists interested in the light which the latter can shed on the examples of mystical experience with psychotic episodes to discover the extent to which it would be legitimate to describe medieval mystics as ‘schizophrenic’ in the modern sense of the word.
Although much of the behaviour described above is characteristic of anorexia nervosa, the question arises, is holy anorexia the same illness? Jantzen asserts that, ‘there is no doubt that by modern standards Catherine of Siena would be classified as suffering from anorexia nervosa’. It is certainly clear that sacred and profane anorexia do share many fundamental similarities. Both are marked by abstinence from food, though the motive is sanctity in the former case, and fashionable thinness in the latter. To summarize, anorexics in the fourteenth century and those in the twenty-first century do not want to eat because they loathe the consequences, while they both take pleasure in the effects of starvation.
Catherine of Siena’s personality sprang from her familial background, and it was her personality that was almost wholly responsible for her religious self-discipline. Her ‘holy anorexia’ was the medium through which her asceticism was expressed, but it was only one factor in its development. As is commonly found with modern day anorexics, Catherine’s struggles for identity led to family conflict, which in turn often found expression in her ‘anorexia’.