The Cruel Way People With Mental Illnesses Were Treated in the Middle Ages Will Make Your Stomach Turn

A mental illness can be caused by a lot of factors, be it environmental, psychological, or genetic. These disorders influence the cognitive ability of the one who is affected, and in dangerous cases they know how to take over. It is no secret that these illnesses test the foundation, and the core of the family that is affected, and that it can bring out the best from it, as well as the worst.

In this article we want to give you an idea of what it would be like to be the host of such a illness. In this article there are going to be cruel acts that you may not agree with, but before any negative feeling starts building up do understand that those were different times, and people were doing what we are trying to do today… Survive.

Underneath these negative remarks do know that there were also acts of good deed, after all one is capable of doing as much good as he did bad. To help you digest the information that is to come understand that people in these times were massively influenced by religion, which more times than not saw mental Illnesses as a punishment by god.

To give you the full picture of why people were doing what they were doing, we are going to need to start from the very “beginning”, which is the Ancient period.

Ancient Times

The first evidence of people attempting to treat mental illness dates back as far as 5000 BCE. Evidence which includes trephined skulls which were found near the regions where the ancient civilizations were located. In those times there were a lot of things that the people did not understand, and why somebody is behaving differently then everybody else is one of them. With not enough knowledge on human health they demonized the mentally ill claiming that they were possessed and/or cursed. Mystic treatments where used to aid the “cursed” but most of the time these treatments were brutal.

One of those brutal procedures was called “Trephining”, where one would be treated by receiving a hole in their skull (or trephine) so that the evil spirits can leave their head. This was done with stone tools. The skulls that have shown us this have also shown us that the patients healed from these. Later on down the road of time these trephining methods were used to relieve migraines as well as skull fractures.

Trephining in the middle ages as depicted in the painting Cutting the Stone by Hieronymus Bosch

In ancient Mesopotamia more non skull fracturing methods were used. What would happen was priests would perform rituals and exorcisms to make the evil spirits leave. On some occasions the priest-doctors would treat the “evil spirit” as a human being and attempt to bribe it, threaten it, punish it, and even put it into submission, and yes you guessed it, all of this was done to the ill patient, not the “spirit”.

The Hebrews as well as the ancient Persians believed that illnesses were inflicted by God as a punishment, a punishment for your or your ancestor’s sins. The Persians in particular thought that the way to cure these illnesses was to have a pure mind, body and soul. To do that you would need to commit good deeds and have good thoughts all the while you keep your hygiene adequate.

The ancient Egyptians were the ones with the best treatments for this given time period. They attempted to aid the mentally ill by engaging them in society. This includes dances, concerts, and other various social activities that might end up “normalizing” them. This civilization was truly ahead of it’s time, an argument for this would be the medical breakthroughs that they had. They treated wounds, performed surgical operations effectively, and they also assumed that the brain was the source of all mental functions. All of this can be found on the Edwin Smith papyrus and the Ebers papyrus.

But no matter how good their treatments were they also assumed spirits and unearthly forces to be the culprits behind the mental illnesses. Music, chants, and songs were sang in an attempt to ease the patient’s brain, but we can all take a guess on how that worked out.

We can say that in terms of challenging the belief system of the time the ancient Greeks were doing a fairly good job. Famous physician Hippocrates denied the belief that mental illnesses were caused by supernatural forces. Instead he stated that they came from natural occurrences within the human body. The Roman physician Galen later  claimed that there were four essential fluids of which the human body was composed. The fluids being: blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile, where the different combinations of these fluids would bring out the personality of an individual.

Trephining was used to cure multiple things, in most cases it was to let the evil spirits out of your head

Now you might be saying to yourself that all of this is informative stuff, but how were the mentally ill treated in this time period? To be honest, it depended on the illness. There are different types of illnesses and in those days (as well as in the medieval ages) people did not have a name for them so we can’t really know how people specifically reacted to each illness. But what they did have were supervisors.

Depending on how harmful you were to yourself and to the ones around you, you would have divergent supervisors (family pride comes into play as well). If you could not function in society, but not cause damage to yourself or the ones around you, you would most likely be supervised by a family member, a maid, or a close friend at home. But if you had destructive tendencies or your family was too ashamed of you, you would be left in the supervision of God, alone to wander the world.


During the ancient times people had a lack of knowledge in the field of mental health, and most assumed that it was the work of a being of higher power. We can’t judge them for that because they were trying to help by using the information presented to them at that time. If it wasn’t for these attempts we would not be where we are today, both medically and technologically.

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  1. Your generalisations are rather sweeping, The implication that people accused of witchcraft were mentally ill is dubious, some may have been, but many seem to have been perfectly rational, moreover, the witch hunts were not ‘medieval’, they went on into the 18th century, with the 1580s-1620s being the peak period. Nor do you make any attempt to distinguish between mental handicaps and mental illness – these are not the same thing at all.

    1. Excuse our writing, our mother tongue is not English, but that is no excuse. We fixed the text where it said “Handicapped” rather than “ill”. We don’t claim the witch hunts stopped in the medieval period, and we don’t claim that everyone who was labeled as a witch was mentally ill. These are your personal assumptions.

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