Mental Illness and Mental Health in the Late Medieval English Monastery

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In part because of the large numbers of men and women who entered religion, but also as a result of the particular pressures of life in the cloister, late medieval English monasteries had frequently to deal with cases of mental illness. The provision of appropriate care and supervision for elderly sufferers from what we today would diagnose as dementia was incumbent upon all communities, although standards inevitably varied from one house to another. Support had also to be offered to those who succumbed to the demands of administrative office and, more often, to the tedium and sense of alienation occasioned by the relentless round of services, prayer and study that dominated the monastic timetable and so easily grew irksome. Known as accidie, this lethal combination of boredom, depression and acute anxiety was regarded as both a spiritual and a physiological condition, which might be overcome (or avoided) by adherence to a regimen of health. Drawing upon newly available Classical texts on the preservation of mental and physical wellbeing, religious orders took careful steps to reduce levels of stress by providing regular opportunities for exercise, resort to green space and ‘recreations’, when monks and nuns could take a welcome break from their regular duties. Complaints about the lack of such facilities, voiced repeatedly in monastic visitations, could expect a sympathetic response and reflect the extent to which medical ideas about mental as well as physical health had gained acceptance in late medieval society.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStudies in Medieval and Renaissance History
EditorsDeborah Thorpe
PublisherArizona State University
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 3 Feb 2017


  • medieval medicine
  • mental health
  • monasteries

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