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

Medieval Times

Medieval Europe, along with it’s medicinal practices was overtaken by Christianity. That means more exorcisms, more chants, more torturing. During the Early Medieval Ages people still believed that the fluids (mentioned above) were the ones that caused mental illness, and in order to bring balance back to the body, patients were given laxatives, emetics, and were bled using cupping or leeches. A combination of black hellebore, clocynth and aloes was believed to cleanse one of melancholy, this concoction was called Hiera Logadii. Extracting blood was a common medical treatment, and any form of bleeding was used… this included extracting it from the forehead, tapping the hemorroidal veins or the head. The tobacco that was later imported from America was used to induce vomiting. A unique form of shock treatment was used during the medieval ages where the mentally ill would be thrown into cold waters so that the shock would “bring them to their senses”.

A look inside Bedlam asylum

Care of the mentally ill was generally left to the family of the individual, although some outside intervention occurred (Church). Interesting fact: Baghdad was the home of the first mental hospital which dates back to 792. Soon after Baghdad came the now ruined cities of Syria, Aleppo and Damascus.

Even though the mentally ill were left in the custody of their family, they were widely abused, particularly in the territories where Christianity ruled. Abuse such as beatings, torture and exile were common, this was due to the stigma and shame attached to these types of illnesses. Many locked away their struggling family members in cellars, or locked them away in a cage under the control of servants. Others were left to find their way in the world alone.

The way the ill were treated varied from place to place, but most would lean towards abusive behaviour, mostly because of family pride. We don’t expect you to agree with what the people were doing in this time period, but we want you to understand why they did it. Family marriages to create alliances and relieve families were heavily relied upon in this time period, and by one seeing a “dent” in the bloodline, one would back out of any agreement. In China it was believed that the affliction was the result of immoral behavior by the individual or by their relatives. It was also believed that the ill carried “bad fate” and that it was contagious the same way as most non mental illnesses are. Beatings were commonly administered in hopes that the physical punishment would “teach” one out of his illness.

The ones who were considered a nuisance were wiped out of town or pointed in the nearest neighboring village, but not everyone treated the ill this way. In Flanders, the citizens of Geel developed a shrine to Saint Dympha that became a hospice to house the mentally ill. Where the building was overcrowded, the villagers took the ill in. This formed a special family colony that exists to this day in Geel. Monasteries were also a welcome haven for the ill.

Some towns had madmen towers which were used to incarcerate the one who are “deprived of reason”. In those towers the ill would be placed in special chambers called “narrenturme”. Interesting fact: The word lunatic comes from the superstitious belief in medieval Europe that changes in the moon’s phases could cause madness or insanity in certain people.  The ill were deemed moon-sick, or lunatic (from Latin Luna for Moon).

Bloodletting being used as a cure for mental illness

One of the more infamous medieval mental hospitals is “Saint Mary of Bethlehem”. Later, this hospital would receive the name Bedlam and after receiving more and more people it became more and more notorious for it’s hellish conditions. Also during the period of the bubonic plague the Church was trying to find it’s scapegoat, and there was no better scapegoat than the ones who were possessed by the devil and the evil forces. In 1484 the then Pope Innocent VIII declared a massive witch hunt which reportedly led to the death and torture of 50,000 people (of whom were mostly female).

The eventual improvement in the field of mental illness eventually came in the nineteenth century, where doctors began to deny the belief that an individual could be ill because of a manifestation of evil spirits.


Inquiries Journal


  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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