I'd very much like to look deep into the history of mental ilnesses and the surrounding mentalities - i.e. how did the sane people interpret, treat, approach and deal with the mentally insane?

To be more specific, my focus period is the pre-elightenment early modern era (lets put that on a timeline ranging from 1526 to 1713, to enclose the era with some quite important years), and the focus location is Europe, Habsburg monarchy in the central Europe (i.e. Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, The Holy Roman Empire).

Yes indeed, there is a book by Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization. I have not read the book yet, I'll do that in the near future. But still, the the key focus of the book is the enlightenment era and I'd like to go a bit farther into the earlier years, as already specified.

To pinpoint some specifics of the question:

  • Were there any institutions for the mentally insane, or just elimination?
  • What about the emergence of some buildings taking on the functions of the first mental asylums in the early modern era?
  • How many categories for the mentally insane (schizophrenic, depressed, etc.) were there?
  • What is the co-rellation in between witchery accusations and mentally ill?
  • Who did treat the mentally insane? What were the treatment procedures like?
  • What were the differences of the reception of the sane people when faced with the insane from different social groups (villagers, citizens, the nobility)?

Be a nice historian - provide some literature and primary sources on the subject - that's, what I'm ultimately looking for (a starting point).

  • Although this book deals with a period slightly more recent than the one you're after, I can only recommend the paperback "George III and the Mad-business". Using King George's condition, it comprehensively addresses the economical, medical and political aspects of how madness was dealt with at the turn of the 19th century. I'm not too sure how easy it is to get hold of a copy 20+ years after its publication though. Sep 13 '12 at 21:29
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    Also cited in the book I refer to in my previous comment, and by the same authors (mother and son, both psychiatrists) the sourcebook "Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry (1535-1860)". Sep 13 '12 at 22:15

On the subject of schizophrenia in history specifically, I happen to be working my way through Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind which I'm finding to be a simply fascinating take on the role of (in)sanity with the origin of civilization. It speaks extensively about schizophrenia and discusses how it was viewed through history.

Essentially, he makes the claim that early on in our civilization the prevalence of schizophrenia may have been higher, and the "voices" were interpreted to be the animal spirits, angels, gods, and ancestors. IOW early on (bronze age) schizophrenia was not insanity, it was normality. He theorizes that a decrease in the prevalence of schizophrenia led to or played into the bronze age collapse. Not sure I buy into it but I'm only a third of the way through the book so far. Regardless it's a fascinatingly different way to look at these topics.

Through the Iron Age up to the Christian Era, schizophrenia would have been treated as perhaps evidence of being touched by the gods, and individuals with these afflictions might be venerated as shamans, priests or oracles and safely sequestered away in temples and shrines. Schizophrenics unfortunately tend to end in suicide at a significantly higher rate than the general population; I must imagine before modern medicines and psychology this would have been even more severe. The madman in the dungeon is a classic trope, and I can easily imagine the more troublesome schizophrenics were handled this way (if not slain outright), but don't know of a source to give you there. I would not be surprised if many were handled as possessed or practitioners of witchcraft, but if this is discussed in the book I haven't gotten to it yet. :-)

It was not really until the 19th century that this received ample study. In fact as a general rule most all psychological diseases were poorly recognized until this point in time.

Anyway, Jaynes' book is quite thick with references and IMHO well worth the read. Despite the obtuse title and hefty theory, it seems to be an easy read and would serve as a good starting point for a study of mental health through history.

  • A model answer.+1
    – Russell
    Sep 14 '12 at 6:57
  • A very good topic IMHO. Both Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman followed voices in their heads which they took be be God, and both to great effect. In Tubman's case, the voices started after severe head trauma.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 14 '12 at 13:14
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    A huge amount of study has been done on the topic of causes of schizophrenia. Jaynes references a number of studies, and the Wikipedia page has tons more, and head trauma or extreme stress has been correlated to the cause in many instances. Intriguingly, psychologists have also found a very strong correlation between urban living, but don't understand why. It seems to lends weight to Jaynes theory; maybe as people started gathering into urban groups, they just started making each other crazy. Like rats packed too closely. ;-)
    – Bryce
    Sep 15 '12 at 0:55

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