Psychology in the Middle Ages

Medieval PsychologyThe Middle Ages has had a poor reputation among twentieth-century psychologists. Edwin Boring, in A History of Experimental Psychology (New York, 1929), held that late medieval thinking was based largely on theology and hence tended to be opposed to science. Gregory Zilboorg, in his History of Medical Psychology (New York, 1941), claimed that medieval medical practitioners were afraid to look into either normal or abnormal psychology and that the mentally ill were frequently regarded either as possessed by a devil or as witches. Introductory texts have occasionally taken this argument several stages further, claiming that the mentally ill in the Middle Ages were liable to be tortured or burnt at the stake as a consequence of the belief that they were possessed by a devil.

Historians of psychology in the later twentieth century did not substantiate claims that the mentally ill were routinely treated with cruelty in the Middle Ages. Moreover, they generally took a more sympathetic view of the period, finding that medieval philosophers, physicians, and even theologians produced and debated interesting theories of human behavior, although they seem to have done little to test them experimentally.

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages are reckoned to run from the fourth or fifth century CE to the middle or end of the fifteenth century CE. A period of nearly 1.000 years naturally saw a great deal of change, not only politically, but also intellectually. In Western and Central Europe at least, the first part of the Middle Ages (until the eleventh century), is known as the Dark Ages, when the relative political and economic backwardness of society, which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west and the breakdown of the Mediterranean world, was reflected in an apparently impoverished intellectual culture. Few writings of any kind survived from this period, and ancient writers like Plato and Aristotle seem to have been little read. Read more about The Middle Ages.

Medieval Psychology

There was no formal discipline called psychology in the Middle Ages, but a number of medieval writers, particularly those from the thirteenth century, discussed concerns similar to those of present-day psychologists. More important, at least a few, for example, Avicenna and Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), seem to have been genuinely interested in psychological theory It is possible to discern at least two important psychological traditions in the writing of this period: a medical and a philosophical one, both stemming from ancient predecessors. Read more about Medieval Psychology.

Medieval Cognitive Psychology

Medieval ideas about cognitive psychology derive from two major sources, the writings of Aristotle and especially his work on the soul, the De Anima, and the theory of the inner senses, which was laid down in late antiquity. Aristotle’s De Anima may be the most popular psychological text of all time: It was prescribed reading for Bachelor of Arts degrees throughout Europe until the end of the Middle Ages. The book is short and at times obscure, but it offers a systematic account of psychology with Aristotle’s ideas about other disciplines. Because of its obscurity, a number of medieval scholars wrote books or commentaries in which they set out what they thought Aristotle meant. Those by Averroes and Aquinas are probably the best known. Read more about Medieval Cognitive Psychology.

Mental Illness in the Middle Ages

Medieval ideas about mental illness were almost as bewildering an assortment as our own, but a unifying theme was supplied by the cognitive theory outlined here. It was generally believed that the normal waking person’s activities were under the control of the mind. In cases of insanity this control was disrupted or corrupted and behavior would then, like an animal’s, be simply determined by the inner senses and the appetites. Consequently, in later medieval legal theory and practice, and in the writings of theologians, the insane were not held accountable for their actions. Read more about Mental Illness in the Middle Ages.


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