Home » Library » Historical Library » Andrew White Chapter15

Historical Library Disclaimer

The Historical Library contains writings written before 1970, only. For material written during or after 1970, please refer to the Modern Documents section of the Secular Web Library.

This Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. Those looking for modern critiques of theism should go to the Modern Documents section of the Secular Web Library.

All of the Historical Library authors are dead--and in many cases have been so for several decades. We will not reply to email addressed to dead authors, and therefore any email addressed to these authors will be ignored. Similarly, we do not reply to feedback regarding faulty scholarship on the part of dead authors, nor do we correct spelling errors and/or typographical errors (most of which result from the scanning and OCR process) in their articles.

Andrew White Chapter15

The Warfare of Science With Theology

Chapter XV

From “Demoniacal Possession” To Insanity

by Andrew Dickson White


  • The struggle for the scientific treatment of the insane
  • The primitive ascription of insanity to evil spirits
  • Better Greek and Roman theories–madness a disease
  • The Christian Church accepts the demoniacal theory of insanity
  • Yet for a time uses mild methods for the insane
  • Growth of the practice of punishing the indwelling demon
  • Two sources whence better things might have been hoped.–The reasons of their futility
  • The growth of exorcism
  • Use of whipping and torture
  • The part of art and literature in making vivid to the common mind the idea of diabolic activity
  • The effects of religious processions as a cure for mental disease
  • Exorcism of animals possessed of demons
  • Belief in the transformation of human beings into animals
  • The doctrine of demoniacal possession in the Reformed Church



  • Rivalry between Catholics and Protestants in the casting out of devils
  • Increased belief in witchcraft during the period following the
  • Reformation
  • Increase of insanity during the witch persecutions
  • Attitude of physicians toward witchcraft
  • Religious hallucinations of the insane
  • Theories as to the modes of diabolic entrance into the possessed
  • Influence of monastic life on the development of insanity
  • Protests against the theological view of insanity–Wier, Montaigue
  • Bekker
  • Last struggles of the old superstition



  • Influence of French philosophy on the belief in demoniacal possession
  • Reactionary influence of John Wesley
  • Progress of scientific ideas in Prussia
  • In Austria
  • In America
  • In South Germany
  • General indifference toward the sufferings of madmen
  • The beginnings of a more humane treatment
  • Jean Baptiste Pinel
  • Improvement in the treatment of the insane in England.–William Tuke
  • The place of Pinel and Tuke in history


OF all the triumphs won by science for humanity, few have been farther-reaching in good effects than the modern treatment of the insane. But this is the result of a struggle long and severe between two great forces. On one side have stood the survivals of various superstitions, the metaphysics of various philosophies, the dogmatism of various theologies, the literal interpretation of various sacred books, and especially of our own–all compacted into a creed that insanity is mainly or largely demoniacal possession; on the other side has stood science, gradually accumulating proofs that insanity is always the result of physical disease.

I purpose in this chapter to sketch, as briefly as I may, the history of this warfare, or rather of this evolution of truth out of error.

Nothing is more simple and natural, in the early stages of civilization, than belief in occult, self-conscious powers of evil. Troubles and calamities come upon man; his ignorance of physical laws forbids him to attribute them to physical causes; he therefore attributes them sometimes to the wrath of a good being, but more frequently to the malice of an evil being.

Especially is this the case with diseases. The real causes of disease are so intricate that they are reached only after ages of scientific labour; hence they, above all, have been attributed to the influence of evil spirits.[[97]]

But, if ordinary diseases were likely to be attributed to diabolical agency, how much more diseases of the brain, and especially the more obscure of these! These, indeed, seemed to the vast majority of mankind possible only on the theory of Satanic intervention: any approach to a true theory of the connection between physical causes and mental results is one of the highest acquisitions of science.

Here and there, during the whole historic period, keen men had obtained an inkling of the truth; but to the vast multitude, down to the end of the seventeenth century, nothing was more clear than that insanity is, in many if not in most cases, demoniacal possession.

Yet at a very early date, in Greece and Rome, science had asserted itself, and a beginning had been made which seemed destined to bring a large fruitage of blessings.[98] In the fifth century before the Christian era, Hippocrates of Cos asserted the great truth that all madness is simply disease of the brain, thereby beginning a development of truth and mercy which lasted nearly a thousand years. In the first century after Christ, Aretaeus carried these ideas yet further, observed the phenomena of insanity with great acuteness, and reached yet more valuable results. Near the beginning of the following century, Soranus went still further in the same path, giving new results of research, and strengthening scientific truth. Toward the end of the same century a new epoch was ushered in by Galen, under whom the same truth was developed yet further, and the path toward merciful treatment of the insane made yet more clear. In the third century Celius Aurelianus received this deposit of precious truth, elaborated it, and brought forth the great idea which, had theology, citing biblical texts, not banished it, would have saved fifteen centuries of cruelty–an idea not fully recognised again till near the beginning of the present century–the idea that insanity is brain disease, and that the treatment of it must be gentle and kind. In the sixth century Alexander of Tralles presented still more fruitful researches, and taught the world how to deal with _melancholia_; and, finally, in the seventh century, this great line of scientific men, working mainly under pagan auspices, was closed by Paul of AEgina, who under the protection of Caliph Omar made still further observations, but, above all, laid stress on the cure of madness as a disease, and on the absolute necessity of mild treatment.

Such was this great succession in the apostolate of science: evidently no other has ever shown itself more directly under Divine grace, illumination, and guidance. It had given to the world what might have been one of its greatest blessings.[99]

This evolution of divine truth was interrupted by theology. There set into the early Church a current of belief which was destined to bring all these noble acquisitions of science and religion to naught, and, during centuries, to inflict tortures, physical and mental, upon hundreds of thousands of innocent men and women–a belief which held its cruel sway for nearly eighteen centuries; and this belief was that madness was mainly or largely possession by the devil.

This idea of diabolic agency in mental disease had grown luxuriantly in all the Oriental sacred literatures. In the series of Assyrian mythological tablets in which we find those legends of the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and other early conceptions from which the Hebrews so largely drew the accounts wrought into the book of Genesis, have been discovered the formulas for driving out the evil spirits which cause disease. In the Persian theology regarding the struggle of the great powers of good and evil this idea was developed to its highest point. From these and other ancient sources the Jews naturally received this addition to their earlier view: the Mocker of the Garden of Eden became Satan, with legions of evil angels at his command; and the theory of diabolic causes of mental disease took a firm place in our sacred books. Such cases in the Old Testament as the evil spirit in Saul, which we now see to have been simply melancholy–and, in the New Testament, the various accounts of the casting out of devils, through which is refracted the beautiful and simple story of that power by which Jesus of Nazareth soothed perturbed minds by his presence or quelled outbursts of madness by his words, give examples of this. In Greece, too, an idea akin to this found lodgment both in the popular belief and in the philosophy of Plato and Socrates; and though, as we have seen, the great leaders in medical science had taught with more or less distinctness that insanity is the result of physical disease, there was a strong popular tendency to attribute the more troublesome cases of it to hostile spiritual influence.[100]

From all these sources, but especially from our sacred books and the writings of Plato, this theory that mental disease is caused largely or mainly by Satanic influence passed on into the early Church. In the apostolic times no belief seems to have been more firmly settled. The early fathers and doctors in the following age universally accepted it, and the apologists generally spoke of the power of casting out devils as a leading proof of the divine origin of the Christian religion.

This belief took firm hold upon the strongest men. The case of St. Gregory the Great is typical. He was a pope of exceedingly broad mind for his time, and no one will think him unjustly reckoned one of the four Doctors of the Western Church. Yet he solemnly relates that a nun, having eaten some lettuce without making the sign of the cross, swallowed a devil, and that, when commanded by a holy man to come forth, the devil replied: “How am I to blame? I was sitting on the lettuce, and this woman, not having made the sign of the cross, ate me along with it.”[101]

As a result of this idea, the Christian Church at an early period in its existence virtually gave up the noble conquests of Greek and Roman science in this field, and originated, for persons supposed to be possessed, a regular discipline, developed out of dogmatic theology. But during the centuries before theology and ecclesiasticism had become fully dominant this discipline was, as a rule, gentle and useful. The afflicted, when not too violent, were generally admitted to the exercises of public worship, and a kindly system of cure was attempted, in which prominence was given to holy water, sanctified ointments, the breath or spittle of the priest, the touching of relics, visits to holy places, and submission to mild forms of exorcism. There can be no doubt that many of these things, when judiciously used in that spirit of love and gentleness and devotion inherited by the earlier disciples from “the Master,” produced good effects in soothing disturbed minds and in aiding their cure.

Among the thousands of fetiches of various sorts then resorted to may be named, as typical, the Holy Handkerchief of Besancon. During many centuries multitudes came from far and near to touch it; for, it was argued, if touching the garments of St. Paul at Ephesus had cured the diseased, how much more might be expected of a handkerchief of the Lord himself!

With ideas of this sort was mingled a vague belief in medical treatment, and out of this mixture were evolved such prescriptions as the following:

“If an elf or a goblin come, smear his forehead with this salve, put it on his eyes, cense him with incense, and sign him frequently with the sign of the cross.”

“For a fiend-sick man: When a devil possesses a man, or controls him from within with disease, a spew-drink of lupin, bishopswort, henbane, garlic. Pound these together, add ale and holy water.”

And again: “A drink for a fiend-sick man, to be drunk out of a church bell: Githrife, cynoglossum, yarrow, lupin, flower-de-luce, fennel, lichen, lovage. Work up to a drink with clear ale, sing seven masses over it, add garlic and holy water, and let the possessed sing the _Beati Immaculati_; then let him drink the dose out of a church bell, and let the priest sing over him the _Domine Sancte Pater Omnipotens_.”[102]

Had this been the worst treatment of lunatics developed in the theological atmosphere of the Middle Ages, the world would have been spared some of the most terrible chapters in its history; but, unfortunately, the idea of the Satanic possession of lunatics led to attempts to punish the indwelling demon. As this theological theory and practice became more fully developed, and ecclesiasticism more powerful to enforce it, all mildness began to disappear; the admonitions to gentle treatment by the great pagan and Moslem physicians were forgotten, and the treatment of lunatics tended more and more toward severity: more and more generally it was felt that cruelty to madmen was punishment of the devil residing within or acting upon them.

A few strong churchmen and laymen made efforts to resist this tendency. As far back as the fourth century, Nemesius, Bishop of Emesa, accepted the truth as developed by pagan physicians, and aided them in strengthening it. In the seventh century, a Lombard code embodied a similar effort. In the eighth century, one of Charlemagne’s capitularies seems to have had a like purpose. In the ninth century, that great churchman and statesman, Agobard, Archbishop of Lyons, superior to his time in this as in so many other things, tried to make right reason prevail in this field; and, near the beginning of the tenth century, Regino, Abbot of Prum, in the diocese of Treves, insisted on treating possession as disease. But all in vain; the current streaming most directly from sundry texts in the Christian sacred books, and swollen by theology, had become overwhelming.[103]

The first great tributary poured into this stream, as we approach the bloom of the Middle Ages, appears to have come from the brain of Michael Psellus. Mingling scriptural texts, Platonic philosophy, and theological statements by great doctors of the Church, with wild utterances obtained from lunatics, he gave forth, about the beginning of the twelfth century, a treatise on _The Work of Demons_. Sacred science was vastly enriched thereby in various ways; but two of his conclusions, the results of his most profound thought, enforced by theologians and popularized by preachers, Soon took special hold upon the thinking portion of the people at large. The first of these, which he easily based upon Scripture and St. Basil, was that, since all demons suffer by material fire and brimstone, they must have material bodies; the second was that, since all demons are by nature cold, they gladly seek a genial warmth by entering the bodies of men and beasts.[104]

Fed by this stream of thought, and developed in the warm atmosphere of medieval devotion, the idea of demoniacal possession as the main source of lunacy grew and blossomed and bore fruit in noxious luxuriance.

There had, indeed, come into the Middle Ages an inheritance of scientific thought. The ideas of Hippocrates, Celius Aurelianus, Galen, and their followers, were from time to time revived; the Arabian physicians, the School of Salerno, such writers as Salicetus and Guy de Chauliac, and even some of the religious orders, did something to keep scientific doctrines alive; but the tide of theological thought was too strong; it became dangerous even to seem to name possible limits to diabolical power. To deny Satan was atheism; and perhaps nothing did so much to fasten the epithet “atheist” upon the medical profession as the suspicion that it did not fully acknowledge diabolical interference in mental disease. Following in the lines of the earlier fathers, St. Anselm, Abelard, St. Thomas Aquinas, Vincent of Beauvais, all the great doctors in the medieval Church, some of them in spite of occasional misgivings, upheld the idea that insanity is largely or mainly demoniacal possession, basing their belief steadily on the sacred Scriptures; and this belief was followed up in every quarter by more and more constant citation of the text “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” No other text of Scripture–save perhaps one–has caused the shedding of so much innocent blood.

As we look over the history of the Middle Ages, we do, indeed, see another growth from which one might hope much; for there were two great streams of influence in the Church, and never were two powers more unlike each other.

On one side was the spirit of Christianity, as it proceeded from the heart and mind of its blessed Founder, immensely powerful in aiding the evolution of religious thought and effort, and especially of provision for the relief of suffering by religious asylums and tender care. Nothing better expresses this than the touching words inscribed upon a great medieval hospital, “_Christo in pauperibus suis_.” But on the other side was the theological theory–proceeding, as we have seen, from the survival of ancient superstitions, and sustained by constant reference to the texts in our sacred books–that many, and probably most, of the insane were possessed by the devil or in league with him, and that the cruel treatment of lunatics was simply punishment of the devil and his minions. By this current of thought was gradually developed one of the greatest masses of superstitious cruelty that has ever afflicted humanity. At the same time the stream of Christian endeavour, so far as the insane were concerned, was almost entirely cut off. In all the beautiful provision during the Middle Ages for the alleviation of human suffering, there was for the insane almost no care. Some monasteries, indeed, gave them refuge. We hear of a charitable work done for them at the London Bethlehem Hospital in the thirteenth century, at Geneva in the fifteenth, at Marseilles in the sixteenth, by the Black Penitents in the south of France, by certain Franciscans in northern France, by the Alexian Brothers on the Rhine, and by various agencies in other parts of Europe; but, curiously enough, the only really important effort in the Christian Church was stimulated by the Mohammedans. Certain monks, who had much to do with them in redeeming Christian slaves, found in the fifteenth century what John Howard found in the eighteenth, that the Arabs and Turks made a large and merciful provision for lunatics, such as was not seen in Christian lands; and this example led to better establishments in Spain and Italy.

All honour to this work and to the men who engaged in it; but, as a rule, these establishments were few and poor, compared with those for other diseases, and they usually degenerated into “mad-houses,” where devils were cast out mainly by cruelty.[106]

The first main weapon against the indwelling Satan continued to be the exorcism; but under the influence of inferences from Scripture farther and farther fetched, and of theological reasoning more and more subtle, it became something very different from the gentle procedure of earlier times, and some description of this great weapon at the time of its highest development will throw light on the laws which govern the growth of theological reasoning, as well as upon the main subject in hand.

A fundamental premise in the fully developed exorcism was that, according to sacred Scripture, a main characteristic of Satan is pride. Pride led him to rebel; for pride he was cast down; therefore the first thing to do, in driving him out of a lunatic, was to strike a fatal blow at his pride,–to disgust him.

This theory was carried out logically, to the letter. The treatises on the subject simply astound one by their wealth of blasphemous and obscene epithets which it was allowable for the exorcist to use in casting out devils. The _Treasury of Exorcisms_ contains hundreds of pages packed with the vilest epithets which the worst imagination could invent for the purpose of overwhelming the indwelling Satan.[106b]

Some of those decent enough to be printed in these degenerate days ran as follows:

“Thou lustful and stupid one,… thou lean sow,

famine-stricken and most impure,… thou wrinkled beast, thou

mangy beast, thou beast of all beasts the most beastly,… thou

mad spirit,… thou bestial and foolish drunkard,… most greedy

wolf,… most abominable whisperer,… thou sooty spirit from

Tartarus!… I cast thee down, O Tartarean boor, into the

infernal kitchen!… Loathsome cobbler,… dingy collier,…

filthy sow (_scrofa stercorata_),… perfidious boar,… envious

crocodile,… malodorous drudge,… wounded basilisk,…

rust-coloured asp,… swollen toad,… entangled spider,… lousy

swine-herd (_porcarie pedicose_),… lowest of the low,… cudgelled

ass,” etc.

But, in addition to this attempt to disgust Satan’s pride with blackguardism, there was another to scare him with tremendous words. For this purpose, thunderous names, from Hebrew and Greek, were imported, such as Acharon, Eheye, Schemhamphora, Tetragrammaton, Homoousion, Athanatos, Ischiros, AEcodes, and the like.[107]

Efforts were also made to drive him out with filthy and rank-smelling drugs; and, among those which can be mentioned in a printed article, we may name asafoetida, sulphur, squills, etc., which were to be burned under his nose.

Still further to plague him, pictures of the devil were to be spat upon, trampled under foot by people of low condition, and sprinkled with foul compounds.

But these were merely preliminaries to the exorcism proper. In this the most profound theological thought and sacred science of the period culminated.

Most of its forms were childish, but some rise to almost Miltonic grandeur. As an example of the latter, we may take the following:

“By the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ, which God hath given to make known unto his servants those things which are shortly to be; and hath signified, sending by his angel,… I exorcise you, ye angels of untold perversity!

“By the seven golden candlesticks,… and by one like unto the Son of man, standing in the midst of the candlesticks; by his voice, as the voice of many waters;… by his words, `I am living, who was dead; and behold, I live forever and ever; and I have the keys of death and of hell,’ I say unto you, Depart, O angels that show the way to eternal perdition!”

Besides these, were long litanies of billingsgate, cursing, and threatening. One of these “scourging” exorcisms runs partly as follows:

“May Agyos strike thee, as he did Egypt, with frogs!… May all the devils that are thy foes rush forth upon thee, and drag thee down to hell!… May… Tetragrammaton… drive thee forth and stone thee, as Israel did to Achan!… May the Holy One trample on thee and hang thee up in an infernal fork, as was done to the five kings of the Amorites!… May God set a nail to your skull, and pound it in with a hammer, as Jael did unto Sisera!… May… Sother… break thy head and cut off thy hands, as was done to the cursed Dagon!… May God hang thee in a hellish yoke, as seven men were hanged by the sons of Saul!” And so on, through five pages of close-printed Latin curses.[108]

Occasionally the demon is reasoned with, as follows: “O obstinate, accursed, fly!… why do you stop and hold back, when you know that your strength is lost on Christ? For it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks; and, verily, the longer it takes you to go, the worse it will go with you. Begone, then: take flight, thou venomous hisser, thou lying worm, thou begetter of vipers!”[108b]

This procedure and its results were recognised as among the glories of the Church. As typical, we may mention an exorcism directed by a certain Bishop of Beauvais, which was so effective that five devils gave up possession of a sufferer and signed their names, each for himself and his subordinate imps, to an agreement that the possessed should be molested no more. So, too, the Jesuit fathers at Vienna, in 1583, gloried in the fact that in such a contest they had cast out twelve thousand six hundred and fifty-two living devils. The ecclesiastical annals of the Middle Ages, and, indeed, of a later period, abound in boasts of such “mighty works.”[109]

Such was the result of a thousand years of theological reasoning, by the strongest minds in Europe, upon data partly given in Scripture and partly inherited from paganism, regarding Satan and his work among men.

Under the guidance of theology, always so severe against “science falsely so called,” the world had come a long way indeed from the soothing treatment of the possessed by him who bore among the noblest of his titles that of “The Great Physician.” The result was natural: the treatment of the insane fell more and more into the hands of the jailer, the torturer, and the executioner.

To go back for a moment to the beginnings of this unfortunate development. In spite of the earlier and more kindly tendency in the Church, the Synod of Ancyra, as early as 314 A. D., commanded the expulsion of possessed persons from the Church; the Visigothic Christians whipped them; and Charlemagne, in spite of some good enactments, imprisoned them. Men and women, whose distempered minds might have been restored to health by gentleness and skill, were driven into hopeless madness by noxious medicines and brutality. Some few were saved as mere lunatics–they were surrendered to general carelessness, and became simply a prey to ridicule and aimless brutality; but vast numbers were punished as tabernacles of Satan.

One of the least terrible of these punishments, and perhaps the most common of all, was that of scourging demons out of the body of a lunatic. This method commended itself even to the judgment of so thoughtful and kindly a personage as Sir Thomas More, and as late as the sixteenth century. But if the disease continued, as it naturally would after such treatment, the authorities frequently felt justified in driving out the demons by torture.[110]

Interesting monuments of this idea, so fruitful in evil, still exist. In the great cities of central Europe, “witch towers,” where witches and demoniacs were tortured, and “fool towers,” where the more gentle lunatics were imprisoned, may still be seen.

In the cathedrals we still see this idea fossilized. Devils and imps, struck into stone, clamber upon towers, prowl under cornices, peer out from bosses of foliage, perch upon capitals, nestle under benches, flame in windows. Above the great main entrance, the most common of all representations still shows Satan and his imps scowling, jeering, grinning, while taking possession of the souls of men and scourging them with serpents, or driving them with tridents, or dragging them with chains into the flaming mouth of hell. Even in the most hidden and sacred places of the medieval cathedral we still find representations of Satanic power in which profanity and obscenity run riot. In these representations the painter and the glass-stainer vied with the sculptor. Among the early paintings on canvas a well-known example represents the devil in the shape of a dragon, perched near the head of a dying man, eager to seize his soul as it issues from his mouth, and only kept off by the efforts of the attendant priest. Typical are the colossal portrait of Satan, and the vivid picture of the devils cast out of the possessed and entering into the swine, as shown in the cathedral-windows of Strasburg. So, too, in the windows of Chartres Cathedral we see a saint healing a lunatic: the saint, with a long devil-scaring formula in Latin issuing from his mouth; and the lunatic, with a little detestable hobgoblin, horned, hoofed, and tailed, issuing from _his_ mouth. These examples are but typical of myriads in cathedrals and abbeys and parish churches throughout Europe; and all served to impress upon the popular mind a horror of everything called diabolic, and a hatred of those charged with it. These sermons in stones preceded the printed book; they were a sculptured Bible, which preceded Luther’s pictorial Bible.[111]

Satan and his imps were among the principal personages in every popular drama, and “Hell’s Mouth” was a piece of stage scenery constantly brought into requisition. A miracle-play without a full display of the diabolic element in it would have stood a fair chance of being pelted from the stage.[111b]

Not only the popular art but the popular legends embodied these ideas. The chroniclers delighted in them; the _Lives of the Saints_ abounded in them; sermons enforced them from every pulpit. What wonder, then, that men and women had vivid dreams of Satanic influence, that dread of it was like dread of the plague, and that this terror spread the disease enormously, until we hear of convents, villages, and even large districts, ravaged by epidemics of diabolical possession![112]

And this terror naturally bred not only active cruelty toward those supposed to be possessed, but indifference to the sufferings of those acknowledged to be lunatics. As we have already seen, while ample and beautiful provision was made for every other form of human suffering, for this there was comparatively little; and, indeed, even this little was generally worse than none. Of this indifference and cruelty we have a striking monument in a single English word–a word originally significant of gentleness and mercy, but which became significant of wild riot, brutality, and confusion– Bethlehem Hospital became “Bedlam.”

Modern art has also dwelt upon this theme, and perhaps the most touching of all its exhibitions is the picture by a great French master, representing a tender woman bound to a column and exposed to the jeers, insults, and missiles of street ruffians.[112b]

Here and there, even in the worst of times, men arose who attempted to promote a more humane view, but with little effect. One expositor of St. Matthew, having ventured to recall the fact that some of the insane were spoken of in the New Testament as lunatics and to suggest that their madness might be caused by the moon, was answered that their madness was not caused by the moon, but by the devil, who avails himself of the moonlight for his work.[112c]

One result of this idea was a mode of cure which especially aggravated and spread mental disease: the promotion of great religious processions. Troops of men and women, crying, howling, imploring saints, and beating themselves with whips, visited various sacred shrines, images, and places in the hope of driving off the powers of evil. The only result was an increase in the numbers of the diseased.

For hundreds of years this idea of diabolic possession was steadily developed. It was believed that devils entered into animals, and animals were accordingly exorcised, tried, tortured, convicted, and executed. The great St. Ambrose tells us that a priest, while saying mass, was troubled by the croaking of frogs in a neighbouring marsh; that he exorcised them, and so stopped their noise. St. Bernard, as the monkish chroniclers tell us, mounting the pulpit to preach in his abbey, was interrupted by a cloud of flies; straightway the saint uttered the sacred formula of excommunication, when the flies fell dead upon the pavement in heaps, and were cast out with shovels! A formula of exorcism attributed to a saint of the ninth century, which remained in use down to a recent period, especially declares insects injurious to crops to be possessed of evil spirits, and names, among the animals to be excommunicated or exorcised, mice, moles, and serpents. The use of exorcism against caterpillars and grasshoppers was also common. In the thirteenth century a Bishop of Lausanne, finding that the eels in Lake Leman troubled the fishermen, attempted to remove the difficulty by exorcism, and two centuries later one of his successors excommunicated all the May-bugs in the diocese. As late as 1731 there appears an entry on the Municipal Register of Thonon as follows: “_Resolved_, That this town join with other parishes of this province in obtaining from Rome an excommunication against the insects, and that it will contribute _pro rata_ to the expenses of the same.”

Did any one venture to deny that animals could be possessed by Satan, he was at once silenced by reference to the entrance of Satan into the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and to the casting of devils into swine by the Founder of Christianity himself.[113]

One part of this superstition most tenaciously held was the belief that a human being could be transformed into one of the lower animals. This became a fundamental point. The most dreaded of predatory animals in the Middle Ages were the wolves. Driven from the hills and forests in the winter by hunger, they not only devoured the flocks, but sometimes came into the villages and seized children. From time to time men and women whose brains were disordered dreamed that they had been changed into various animals, and especially into wolves. On their confessing this, and often implicating others, many executions of lunatics resulted; moreover, countless sane victims, suspected of the same impossible crime, were forced by torture to confess it, and sent unpitied to the stake. The belief in such a transformation pervaded all Europe, and lasted long even in Protestant countries. Probably no article in the witch creed had more adherents in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries than this. Nearly every parish in Europe had its resultant horrors.

The reformed Church in all its branches fully accepted the doctrines of witchcraft and diabolic possession, and developed them still further. No one urged their fundamental ideas more fully than Luther. He did, indeed, reject portions of the witchcraft folly; but to the influence of devils he not only attributed his maladies, but his dreams, and nearly everything that thwarted or disturbed him. The flies which lighted upon his book, the rats which kept him awake at night, he believed to be devils; the resistance of the Archbishop of Mayence to his ideas, he attributed to Satan literally working in that prelate’s heart; to his disciples he told stories of men who had been killed by rashly resisting the devil. Insanity, he was quite sure, was caused by Satan, and he exorcised sufferers. Against some he appears to have advised stronger remedies; and his horror of idiocy, as resulting from Satanic influence, was so great, that on one occasion he appears to have advised the killing of an idiot child, as being the direct offspring of Satan. Yet Luther was one of the most tender and loving of men; in the whole range of literature there is hardly anything more touching than his words and tributes to children. In enforcing his ideas regarding insanity, he laid stress especially upon the question of St. Paul as to the bewitching of the Galatians, and, regarding idiocy, on the account in Genesis of the birth of children whose fathers were “sons of God” and whose mothers were “daughters of men.”

One idea of his was especially characteristic. The descent of Christ into hell was a frequent topic of discussion in the Reformed Church. Melanchthon, with his love of Greek studies, held that the purpose of the Saviour in making such a descent was to make himself known to the great and noble men of antiquity–Plato, Socrates, and the rest; but Luther insisted that his purpose was to conquer Satan in a hand-to-hand struggle.

This idea of diabolic influence pervaded his conversation, his preaching, his writings, and spread thence to the Lutheran Church in general.

Calvin also held to the same theory, and, having more power with less kindness of heart than Luther, carried it out with yet greater harshness. Beza was especially severe against those who believed insanity to be a natural malady, and declared, “Such persons are refuted both by sacred and profane history.”

Under the influence, then, of such infallible teachings, in the older Church and in the new, this superstition was developed more and more into cruelty; and as the biblical texts, popularized in the sculptures and windows and mural decorations of the great medieval cathedrals, had done much to develop it among the people, so Luther’s translation of the Bible, especially in the numerous editions of it illustrated with engravings, wrought with enormous power to spread and deepen it. In every peasant’s cottage some one could spell out the story of the devil bearing Christ through the air and placing him upon the pinnacle of the Temple–of the woman with seven devils–of the devils cast into the swine. Every peasant’s child could be made to understand the quaint pictures in the family Bible or the catechism which illustrated vividly all those texts. In the ideas thus deeply implanted, the men who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries struggled against this mass of folly and cruelty found the worst barrier to right reason.[115]

Such was the treatment of demoniacs developed by theology, and such the practice enforced by ecclesiasticism for more than a thousand years.

How an atmosphere was spread in which this belief began to dissolve away, how its main foundations were undermined by science, and how there came in gradually a reign of humanity, will now be related.


We have now seen the culmination of the old procedure regarding insanity, as it was developed under theology and enforced by ecclesiasticism; and we have noted how, under the influence of Luther and Calvin, the Reformation rather deepened than weakened the faith in the malice and power of a personal devil. Nor was this, in the Reformed churches any more than in the old, mere matter of theory. As in the early ages of Christianity, its priests especially appealed, in proof of the divine mission, to their power over the enemy of mankind in the bodies of men, so now the clergy of the rival creeds eagerly sought opportunities to establish the truth of their own and the falsehood of their opponents’ doctrines by the visible casting out of devils. True, their methods differed somewhat: where the Catholic used holy water and consecrated wax, the Protestant was content with texts of Scripture and importunate prayer; but the supplementary physical annoyance of the indwelling demon did not greatly vary. Sharp was the competition for the unhappy objects of treatment. Each side, of course, stoutly denied all efficacy to its adversaries’ efforts, urging that any seeming victory over Satan was due not to the defeat but to the collusion of the fiend. As, according to the Master himself, “no man can by Beelzebub cast out devils,” the patient was now in greater need of relief than before; and more than one poor victim had to bear alternately Lutheran, Roman, and perhaps Calvinistic exorcism.[117]

But far more serious in its consequences was another rivalry to which in the sixteenth century the clergy of all creeds found themselves subject. The revival of the science of medicine, under the impulse of the new study of antiquity, suddenly bade fair to take out of the hands of the Church the profession of which she had enjoyed so long and so profitable a monopoly. Only one class of diseases remained unquestionably hers–those which were still admitted to be due to the direct personal interference of Satan–and foremost among these was insanity.[117b] It was surely no wonder that an age of religious controversy and excitement should be exceptionally prolific in ailments of the mind; and, to men who mutually taught the utter futility of that baptismal exorcism by which the babes of their misguided neighbours were made to renounce the devil and his works, it ought not to have seemed strange that his victims now became more numerous.[117c] But so simple an explanation did not satisfy these physicians of souls; they therefore devised a simpler one: their patients, they alleged, were bewitched, and their increase was due to the growing numbers of those human allies of Satan known as witches.

Already, before the close of the fifteenth century, Pope innocent VIII had issued the startling bull by which he called on the archbishops, bishops, and other clergy of Germany to join hands with his inquisitors in rooting out these willing bond-servants of Satan, who were said to swarm throughout all that country and to revel in the blackest crimes. Other popes had since reiterated the appeal; and, though none of these documents touched on the blame of witchcraft for diabolic possession, the inquisitors charged with their execution pointed it out most clearly in their fearful handbook, the _Witch-Hammer_, and prescribed the special means by which possession thus caused should be met. These teachings took firm root in religious minds everywhere; and during the great age of witch-burning that followed the Reformation it may well be doubted whether any single cause so often gave rise to an outbreak of the persecution as the alleged bewitchment of some poor mad or foolish or hysterical creature. The persecution, thus once under way, fed itself; for, under the terrible doctrine of “excepted cases,” by which in the religious crimes of heresy and witchcraft there was no limit to the use of torture, the witch was forced to confess to accomplices, who in turn accused others, and so on to the end of the chapter.[118]

The horrors of such a persecution, with the consciousness of an ever-present devil it breathed and the panic terror of him it inspired, could not but aggravate the insanity it claimed to cure. Well-authenticated, though rarer than is often believed, were the cases where crazed women voluntarily accused themselves of this impossible crime. One of the most eminent authorities on diseases of the mind declares that among the unfortunate beings who were put to death for witchcraft he recognises well-marked victims of cerebral disorders; while an equally eminent authority in Germany tells us that, in a most careful study of the original records of their trials by torture, he has often found their answers and recorded conversations exactly like those familiar to him in our modern lunatic asylums, and names some forms of insanity which constantly and un mistakably appear among those who suffered for criminal dealings with the devil.[119]

The result of this widespread terror was naturally, therefore, a steady increase in mental disorders. A great modern authority tells us that, although modern civilization tends to increase insanity, the number of lunatics at present is far less than in the ages of faith and in the Reformation period. The treatment of the “possessed,” as we find it laid down in standard treatises, sanctioned by orthodox churchmen and jurists, accounts for this abundantly. One sort of treatment used for those accused of witchcraft will also serve to show this–the “_tortura insomniae_.” Of all things in brain-disease, calm and regular sleep is most certainly beneficial; yet, under this practice, these half-crazed creatures were prevented, night after night and day after day, from sleeping or even resting. In this way temporary delusion became chronic insanity, mild cases became violent, torture and death ensued, and the “ways of God to man” were justified.[119b]

But the most contemptible creatures in all those centuries were the physicians who took sides with religious orthodoxy. While we have, on the side of truth, Flade sacrificing his life, Cornelius Agrippa his liberty, Wier and Loos their hopes of preferment, Bekker his position, and Thomasius his ease, reputation, and friends, we find, as allies of the other side, a troop of eminently respectable doctors mixing Scripture, metaphysics, and pretended observations to support the “safe side” and to deprecate interference with the existing superstition, which seemed to them “a very safe belief to be held by the common people.”[119c]

Against one form of insanity both Catholics and Protestants were especially cruel. Nothing is more common in all times of religious excitement than strange personal hallucinations, involving the belief, by the insane patient, that he is a divine person. In the most striking representation of insanity that has ever been made, Kaulbach shows, at the centre of his wonderful group, a patient drawing attention to himself as the Saviour of the world.

Sometimes, when this form of disease took a milder hysterical character, the subject of it was treated with reverence, and even elevated to sainthood: such examples as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena in Italy, St. Bridget in Sweden, St. Theresa in Spain, St. Mary Alacoque in France, and Louise Lateau in Belgium, are typical. But more frequently such cases shocked public feeling, and were treated with especial rigour: typical of this is the case of Simon Marin, who in his insanity believed himself to be the Son of God, and was on that account burned alive at Paris and his ashes scattered to the winds.[120]

The profundity of theologians and jurists constantly developed new theories as to the modes of diabolic entrance into the “possessed.” One such theory was that Satan could be taken into the mouth with one’s food–perhaps in the form of an insect swallowed on a leaf of salad, and this was sanctioned, as we have seen, by no less infallible an authority than Gregory the Great, Pope and Saint–Another theory was that Satan entered the body when the mouth was opened to breathe, and there are well-authenticated cases of doctors and divines who, when casting out evil spirits, took especial care lest the imp might jump into their own mouths from the mouth of the patient. Another theory was that the devil entered human beings during sleep; and at a comparatively recent period a King of Spain was wont to sleep between two monks, to keep off the devil.[121]

The monasteries were frequent sources of that form of mental disease which was supposed to be caused by bewitchment. From the earliest period it is evident that monastic life tended to develop insanity. Such cases as that of St. Anthony are typical of its effects upon the strongest minds; but it was especially the convents for women that became the great breeding-beds of this disease. Among the large numbers of women and girls thus assembled–many of them forced into monastic seclusion against their will, for the reason that their families could give them no dower–subjected to the unsatisfied longings, suspicions, bickerings, petty jealousies, envies, and hatreds, so inevitable in convent life–mental disease was not unlikely to be developed at any moment. Hysterical excitement in nunneries took shapes sometimes comical, but more generally tragical. Noteworthy is it that the last places where executions for witchcraft took place were mainly in the neighbourhood of great nunneries; and the last famous victim, of the myriads executed in Germany for this imaginary crime, was Sister Anna Renata Singer, sub-prioress of a nunnery near Wurzburg.[121b]

The same thing was seen among young women exposed to sundry fanatical Protestant preachers. Insanity, both temporary and permanent, was thus frequently developed among the Huguenots of France, and has been thus produced in America, from the days of the Salem persecution down to the “camp meetings” of the present time.[121c]

At various times, from the days of St. Agobard of Lyons in the ninth century to Pomponatius in the sixteenth, protests or suggestions, more or less timid, had been made by thoughtful men against this system. Medicine had made some advance toward a better view, but the theological torrent had generally overwhelmed all who supported a scientific treatment. At last, toward the end of the sixteenth century, two men made a beginning of a much more serious attack upon this venerable superstition. The revival of learning, and the impulse to thought on material matters given during the “age of discovery,” undoubtedly produced an atmosphere which made the work of these men possible. In the year 1563, in the midst of demonstrations of demoniacal possession by the most eminent theologians and judges, who sat in their robes and looked wise, while women, shrieking, praying, and blaspheming, were put to the torture, a man arose who dared to protest effectively that some of the persons thus charged might be simply insane; and this man was John Wier, of Cleves.

His protest does not at this day strike us as particularly bold. In his books, _De Praestigiis Daemonum_ and _De Lamiis_, he did his best not to offend religious or theological susceptibilities; but he felt obliged to call attention to the mingled fraud and delusion of those who claimed to be bewitched, and to point out that it was often not their accusers, but the alleged witches themselves, who were really ailing, and to urge that these be brought first of all to a physician.

His book was at once attacked by the most eminent theologians. One of the greatest laymen of his time, Jean Bodin, also wrote with especial power against it, and by a plentiful use of scriptural texts gained to all appearance a complete victory: this superstition seemed thus fastened upon Europe for a thousand years more. But doubt was in the air, and, about a quarter of a century after the publication of Wier’s book there were published in France the essays of a man by no means so noble, but of far greater genius–Michel de Montaigne. The general scepticism which his work promoted among the French people did much to produce an atmosphere in which the belief in witchcraft and demoniacal possession must inevitably wither. But this process, though real, was hidden, and the victory still seemed on the theological side.

The development of the new truth and its struggle against the old error still went on. In Holland, Balthazar Bekker wrote his book against the worst forms of the superstition, and attempted to help the scientific side by a text from the Second Epistle of St. Peter, showing that the devils had been confined by the Almighty, and therefore could not be doing on earth the work which was imputed to them. But Bekker’s Protestant brethren drove him from his pulpit, and he narrowly escaped with his life.

The last struggles of a great superstition are very frequently the worst. So it proved in this case. In the first half of the seventeenth century the cruelties arising from the old doctrine were more numerous and severe than ever before. In Spain, Sweden, Italy, and, above all, in Germany, we see constant efforts to suppress the evolution of the new truth.

But in the midst of all this reactionary rage glimpses of right reason began to appear. It is significant that at this very time, when the old superstition was apparently everywhere triumphant, the declaration by Poulet that he and his brother and his cousin had, by smearing themselves with ointment, changed themselves into wolves and devoured children, brought no severe punishment upon them. The judges sent him to a mad-house. More and more, in spite of frantic efforts from the pulpit to save the superstition, great writers and jurists, especially in France, began to have glimpses of the truth and courage to uphold it. Malebranche spoke against the delusion; Seguier led the French courts to annul several decrees condemning sorcerers; the great chancellor, D’Aguesseau, declared to the Parliament of Paris that, if they wished to stop sorcery, they must stop talking about it–that sorcerers are more to be pitied than blamed.[123]

But just at this time, as the eighteenth century was approaching, the theological current was strengthened by a great ecclesiastic–the greatest theologian that France has produced, whose influence upon religion and upon the mind of Louis XIV was enormous–Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux. There had been reason to expect that Bossuet would at least do something to mitigate the superstition; for his writings show that, in much which before his day had been ascribed to diabolic possession, he saw simple lunacy. Unfortunately, the same adherence to the literal interpretation of Scripture which led him to oppose every other scientific truth developed in his time, led him also to attack this: he delivered and published two great sermons, which, while showing some progress in the form of his belief, showed none the less that the fundamental idea of diabolic possession was still to be tenaciously held. What this idea was may be seen in one typical statement: he declared that “a single devil could turn the earth round as easily as we turn a marble.”[124]


The theological current, thus re-enforced, seemed to become again irresistible; but it was only so in appearance. In spite of it, French scepticism continued to develop; signs of quiet change among the mass of thinking men were appearing more and more; and in 1672 came one of great significance, for, the Parliament of Rouen having doomed fourteen sorcerers to be burned, their execution was delayed for two years, evidently on account of scepticism among officials; and at length the great minister of Louis XIV, Colbert, issued an edict checking such trials, and ordering the convicted to be treated for madness.

Victory seemed now to incline to the standard of science, and in 1725 no less a personage than St. Andre, a court physician, dared to publish a work virtually showing “demoniacal possession” to be lunacy.

The French philosophy, from the time of its early development in the eighteenth century under Montesquieu and Voltaire, naturally strengthened the movement; the results of _post-mortem_ examinations of the brains of the “possessed” confirmed it; and in 1768 we see it take form in a declaration by the Parliament of Paris, that possessed persons were to be considered as simply diseased. Still, the old belief lingered on, its life flickering up from time to time in those parts of France most under ecclesiastical control, until in these last years of the nineteenth century a blow has been given it by the researches of Charcot and his compeers which will probably soon extinguish it. One evidence of Satanic intercourse with mankind especially, on which for many generations theologians had laid peculiar stress, and for which they had condemned scores of little girls and hundreds of old women to a most cruel death, was found to be nothing more than one of the many results of hysteria.[125]

In England the same warfare went on. John Locke had asserted the truth, but the theological view continued to control public opinion. Most prominent among those who exercised great power in its behalf was John Wesley, and the strength and beauty of his character made his influence in this respect all the more unfortunate. The same servitude to the mere letter of Scripture which led him to declare that “to give up witchcraft is to give up the Bible,” controlled him in regard to insanity. He insisted, on the authority of the Old Testament, that bodily diseases are sometimes caused by devils, and, upon the authority of the New Testament, that the gods of the heathen are demons; he believed that dreams, while in some cases caused by bodily conditions and passions, are shown by Scripture to be also caused by occult powers of evil; he cites a physician to prove that “most lunatics are really demoniacs.” In his great sermon on _Evil Angels_, he dwells upon this point especially; resists the idea that “possession” may be epilepsy, even though ordinary symptoms of epilepsy be present; protests against “giving up to infidels such proofs of an invisible world as are to be found in diabolic possession”; and evidently believes that some who have been made hysterical by his own preaching are “possessed of Satan.” On all this, and much more to the same effect, he insisted with all the power given to him by his deep religious nature, his wonderful familiarity with the Scriptures, his natural acumen, and his eloquence.

But here, too, science continued its work. The old belief was steadily undermined, an atmosphere favourable to the truth was more and more developed, and the act of Parliament, in 1735, which banished the crime of witchcraft from the statute book, was the beginning of the end.

In Germany we see the beginnings of a similar triumph for science. In Prussia, that sturdy old monarch, Frederick William I, nullified the efforts of the more zealous clergy and orthodox jurists to keep up the old doctrine in his dominions; throughout Protestant Germany, where it had raged most severely, it was, as a rule, cast out of the Church formulas, catechisms, and hymns, and became more and more a subject for jocose allusion. From force of habit, and for the sake of consistency, some of the more conservative theologians continued to repeat the old arguments, and there were many who insisted upon the belief as absolutely necessary to ordinary orthodoxy; but it is evident that it had become a mere conventionality, that men only believed that they believed it, and now a reform seemed possible in the treatment of the insane.[126]

In Austria, the government set Dr. Antonio Haen at making careful researches into the causes of diabolic possession. He did not think it best, in view of the power of the Church, to dispute the possibility or probability of such cases, but simply decided, after thorough investigation, that out of the many cases which had been brought to him, not one supported the belief in demoniacal influence. An attempt was made to follow up this examination, and much was done by men like Francke and Van Swieten, and especially by the reforming emperor, Joseph II, to rescue men and women who would otherwise have fallen victims to the prevalent superstition. Unfortunately, Joseph had arrayed against himself the whole power of the Church, and most of his good efforts seemed brought to naught. But what the noblest of the old race of German emperors could not do suddenly, the German men of science did gradually. Quietly and thoroughly, by proofs that could not be gainsaid, they recovered the old scientific fact established in pagan Greece and Rome, that madness is simply physical disease. But they now established it on a basis that can never again be shaken; for, in _post-mortem_ examinations of large numbers of “possessed” persons, they found evidence of brain-disease. Typical is a case at Hamburg in 1729. An afflicted woman showed in a high degree all the recognised characteristics of diabolic possession: exorcisms, preachings, and sanctified remedies of every sort were tried in vain; milder medical means were then tried, and she so far recovered that she was allowed to take the communion before she died: the autopsy, held in the presence of fifteen physicians and a public notary, showed it to be simply a case of chronic meningitis. The work of German men of science in this field is noble indeed; a great succession, from Wier to Virchow, have erected a barrier against which all the efforts of reactionists beat in vain.[127]

In America, the belief in diabolic influence had, in the early colonial period, full control. The Mathers, so superior to their time in many things, were children of their time in this: they supported the belief fully, and the Salem witchcraft horrors were among its results; but the discussion of that folly by Calef struck it a severe blow, and a better influence spread rapidly throughout the colonies.

By the middle of the eighteenth century belief in diabolic possession had practically disappeared from all enlightened countries, and during the nineteenth century it has lost its hold even in regions where the medieval spirit continues strongest. Throughout the Middle Ages, as we have seen, Satan was a leading personage in the miracle-plays, but in 1810 the Bavarian Government refused to allow the Passion Play at Ober-Ammergau if Satan was permitted to take any part in it; in spite of heroic efforts to maintain the old belief, even the childlike faith of the Tyrolese had arrived at a point which made a representation of Satan simply a thing to provoke laughter.

Very significant also was the trial which took place at Wemding, in southern Germany, in 1892. A boy had become hysterical, and the Capuchin Father Aurelian tried to exorcise him, and charged a peasant’s wife, Frau Herz, with bewitching him, on evidence that would have cost the woman her life at any time during the seventeenth century. Thereupon the woman’s husband brought suit against Father Aurelian for slander. The latter urged in his defence that the boy was possessed of an evil spirit, if anybody ever was; that what had been said and done was in accordance with the rules and regulations of the Church, as laid down in decrees, formulas, and rituals sanctioned by popes, councils, and innumerable bishops during ages. All in vain. The court condemned the good father to fine and imprisonment. As in a famous English case, “hell was dismissed, with costs.” Even more significant is the fact that recently a boy declared by two Bavarian priests to be possessed by the devil, was taken, after all Church exorcisms had failed, to Father Kneipp’s hydropathic establishment and was there speedily cured.[128]

But, although the old superstition had been discarded, the inevitable conservatism in theology and medicine caused many old abuses to be continued for years after the theological basis for them had really disappeared. There still lingered also a feeling of dislike toward madmen, engendered by the early feeling of hostility toward them, which sufficed to prevent for many years any practical reforms.

What that old theory had been, even under the most favourable circumstances and among the best of men, we have seen in the fact that Sir Thomas More ordered acknowledged lunatics to be publicly flogged; and it will be remembered that Shakespeare makes one of his characters refer to madmen as deserving “a dark house and a whip.” What the old practice was and continued to be we know but too well. Taking Protestant England as an example–and it was probably the most humane–we have a chain of testimony. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, Bethlehem Hospital was reported too loathsome for any man to enter; in the seventeenth century, John Evelyn found it no better; in the eighteenth, Hogarth’s pictures and contemporary reports show it to be essentially what it had been in those previous centuries.[129]

The first humane impulse of any considerable importance in this field seems to have been aroused in America. In the year 1751 certain members of the Society of Friends founded a small hospital for the insane, on better principles, in Pennsylvania. To use the language of its founders, it was intended “as a good work, acceptable to God.” Twenty years later Virginia established a similar asylum, and gradually others appeared in other colonies.

But it was in France that mercy was to be put upon a scientific basis, and was to lead to practical results which were to convert the world to humanity. In this case, as in so many others, from France was spread and popularized not only the scepticism which destroyed the theological theory, but also the devotion which built up the new scientific theory and endowed the world with a new treasure of civilization.

In 1756 some physicians of the great hospital at Paris known as the Hotel-Dieu protested that the cruelties prevailing in the treatment of the insane were aggravating the disease; and some protests followed from other quarters. Little effect was produced at first; but just before the French Revolution, Tenon, La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, and others took up the subject, and in 1791 a commission was appointed to undertake a reform.

By great good fortune, the man selected to lead in the movement was one who had already thrown his heart into it–Jean Baptiste Pinel. In 1792 Pinel was made physician at Bicetre, one of the most extensive lunatic asylums in France, and to the work there imposed upon him he gave all his powers. Little was heard of him at first. The most terrible scenes of the French Revolution were drawing nigh; but he laboured on, modestly and devotedly–apparently without a thought of the great political storm raging about him.

His first step was to discard utterly the whole theological doctrine of “possession,” and especially the idea that insanity is the result of any subtle spiritual influence. He simply put in practice the theory that lunacy is the result of bodily disease.

It is a curious matter for reflection, that but for this sway of the destructive philosophy of the eighteenth century, and of the Terrorists during the French Revolution, Pinel’s blessed work would in all probability have been thwarted, and he himself excommunicated for heresy and driven from his position. Doubtless the same efforts would have been put forth against him which the Church, a little earlier, had put forth against inoculation as a remedy for smallpox; but just at that time the great churchmen had other things to think of besides crushing this particular heretic: they were too much occupied in keeping their own heads from the guillotine to give attention to what was passing in the head of Pinel. He was allowed to work in peace, and in a short time the reign of diabolism at Bicetre was ended. What the exorcisms and fetiches and prayers and processions, and drinking of holy water, and ringing of bells, had been unable to accomplish during eighteen hundred years, he achieved in a few months. His method was simple: for the brutality and cruelty which had prevailed up to that time, he substituted kindness and gentleness. The possessed were taken out of their dungeons, given sunny rooms, and allowed the liberty of pleasant ground for exercise; chains were thrown aside. At the same time, the mental power of each patient was developed by its fitting exercise, and disease was met with remedies sanctioned by experiment, observation, and reason. Thus was gained one of the greatest, though one of the least known, triumphs of modern science and humanity.

The results obtained by Pinel had an instant effect, not only in France but throughout Europe: the news spread from hospital to hospital. At his death, Esquirol took up his work; and, in the place of the old training of judges, torturers, and executioners by theology to carry out its ideas in cruelty, there was now trained a school of physicians to develop science in this field and carry out its decrees in mercy.[132]

A similar evolution of better science and practice took place in England. In spite of the coldness, and even hostility, of the greater men in the Established Church, and notwithstanding the scriptural demonstrations of Wesley that the majority of the insane were possessed of devils, the scientific method steadily gathered strength. In 1750 the condition of the insane began to attract especial attention; it was found that mad-houses were swayed by ideas utterly indefensible, and that the practices engendered by these ideas were monstrous. As a rule, the patients were immured in cells, and in many cases were chained to the walls; in others, flogging and starvation played leading parts, and in some cases the patients were killed. Naturally enough, John Howard declared, in 1789, that he found in Constantinople a better insane asylum than the great St. Luke’s Hospital in London. Well might he do so; for, ever since Caliph Omar had protected and encouraged the scientific investigation of insanity by Paul of AEgina, the Moslem treatment of the insane had been far more merciful than the system prevailing throughout Christendom.[132b]

In 1792–the same year in which Pinel began his great work in France–William Tuke began a similar work in England. There seems to have been no connection between these two reformers; each wrought independently of the other, but the results arrived at were the same. So, too, in the main, were their methods; and in the little house of William Tuke, at York, began a better era for England.

The name which this little asylum received is a monument both of the old reign of cruelty and of the new reign of humanity. Every old name for such an asylum had been made odious and repulsive by ages of misery; in a happy moment of inspiration Tuke’s gentle Quaker wife suggested a new name; and, in accordance with this suggestion, the place became known as a “Retreat.”

From the great body of influential classes in church and state Tuke received little aid. The influence of the theological spirit was shown when, in that same year, Dr. Pangster published his _Observations on Mental Disorders_, and, after displaying much ignorance as to the causes and nature of insanity, summed up by saying piously, “Here our researches must stop, and we must declare that `wonderful are the works of the Lord, and his ways past finding out.'” Such seemed to be the view of the Church at large: though the new “Retreat” was at one of the two great ecclesiastical centres of England, we hear of no aid or encouragement from the Archbishop of York or from his clergy. Nor was this the worst: the indirect influence of the theological habit of thought and ecclesiastical prestige was displayed in the _Edinburgh Review_. That great organ of opinion, not content with attacking Tuke, poured contempt upon his work, as well as on that of Pinel. A few of Tuke’s brother and sister Quakers seem to have been his only reliance; and in a letter regarding his efforts at that time he says, “All men seem to desert me.”[133]

In this atmosphere of English conservative opposition or indifference the work could not grow rapidly. As late as 1815, a member of Parliament stigmatized the insane asylums of England as the shame of the nation; and even as late as 1827, and in a few cases as late as 1850, there were revivals of the old absurdity and brutality. Down to a late period, in the hospitals of St. Luke and Bedlam, long rows of the insane were chained to the walls of the corridors. But Gardner at Lincoln, Donnelly at Hanwell, and a new school of practitioners in mental disease, took up the work of Tuke, and the victory in England was gained in practice as it had been previously gained in theory.

There need be no controversy regarding the comparative merits of these two benefactors of our race, Pinel and Tuke. They clearly did their thinking and their work independently of each other, and thereby each strengthened the other and benefited mankind. All that remains to be said is, that while France has paid high honours to Pinel, as to one who did much to free the world from one of its most cruel superstitions and to bring in a reign of humanity over a wide empire, England has as yet made no fitting commemoration of her great benefactor in this field. York Minster holds many tombs of men, of whom some were blessings to their fellow-beings, while some were but “solemnly constituted impostors” and parasites upon the body politic; yet, to this hour, that great temple has received no consecration by a monument to the man who did more to alleviate human misery than any other who has ever entered it.

But the place of these two men in history is secure. They stand with Grotius, Thomasius, and Beccaria–the men who in modern times have done most to prevent unmerited sorrow. They were not, indeed, called to suffer like their great compeers; they were not obliged to see their writings–among the most blessed gifts of God to man–condemned, as were those of Grotius and Beccaria by the Catholic Church, and those of Thomasius by a large section of the Protestant Church; they were not obliged to flee for their lives, as were Grotius and Thomasius; but their effort is none the less worthy. The French Revolution, indeed, saved Pinel, and the decay of English ecclesiasticism gave Tuke his opportunity; but their triumphs are none the less among the glories of our race; for they were the first acknowledged victors in a struggle of science for humanity which had lasted nearly two thousand years.


all rights reserved