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Madness: between medieval Islamic and contemporary perspectives

December 15, 2010

By Daniel Nicolae

Competing ways of understanding madness are not a recent phenomenon but are evident throughout history. One interesting example is the writings of the Jewish physicians who worked at the court of Saladin, the famous Muslim war hero of the Crusades period. How did they understand and treat madness at one of the apogees of medieval science? How did their interpretation compare with those of other people living in the Islamic world? What can poems, the history of hospitals, or medieval discussions of lovesickness tell us about how madness was understood?

To explore these questions, a workshop in March 2010 at St Cross College, Oxford brought together historians, Arabists, psychiatrists, philosophers and neuroscientists. Never before have scholars of the medieval period discussed and compared their ideas regarding madness with scholars that are either practising psychiatrists or concerned with contemporary issues. To facilitate the dialogue, the workshop centred on historical lectures given by historians, which were then evaluated by respondents from different disciplines, including Muslim psychiatrists, in order to find out whether historical debates have any relevance to present-day debates.

The workshop started with introductory remarks on the history of madness by Emilie Savage-Smith, Professor of the History of Islamic Science at the University of Oxford, and a presentation on the significance of this work for research and practice in current mental health, presented by Bill Fulford, Professor of Psychiatry and Philosophy at the University of Warwick. The workshop took the court of Saladin and its physicians as a starting-point to throw more light on a rather neglected field of the history of medicine, madness and psychiatry. As part of my doctoral research at Oxford, I explored how Saladin’s Jewish physicians understood madness, how they treated it, and how effective their therapies may have been in the light of contemporary research.

This was followed by four historical lectures given by established historians and linguists. First, Carole Hillenbrand (Professor of Islamic History, University of Edinburgh) gave a presentation on Saladin and the historical as well as political setting in which his physicians were active. Second, Hinrich Biesterfeldt (Professor of Islamic Studies, Ruhr-Universität Bochum) delivered a lecture on lovesickness in medieval Islamic medicine, philosophy and theology, and stimulated an interesting discussion about the classification of lovesickness as a disease or mental disorder. Third, Gerard van Gelder (Laudian Professor of Arabic, Oxford) presented in his paper ‘Foul Whisperings’ a selection of poems written by allegedly mad poets. He discussed not only terminological difficulties surrounding the description of the mad, but also the crucial question of whether the contents of a poem reflect madness or sanity. This was followed by an interesting dialogue that centred on the issue of madness as a creative but also destructive part of being human. Finally, Peregrine Horden (Professor of Medieval History, Royal Holloway, University of London) gave a lecture on medieval hospitals and the mad. He questioned the extent to which the mad were confined to hospitals and suggested that only a very small percentage of mad people were actually treated in hospitals. The ensuing dialogue between psychiatrists and historians focused on risk management and what role the family and institutions play in the treatment of madness.

The workshop was a full success, as it was the beginning of a fruitful dialogue. Modern psychiatrists, neuroscientists and philosophers contributed to interpretations of historical material and historians of the medieval period were able to deepen the perspectives of modern science. As the workshop and its approach proved to be immensely popular, the organising committee hopes to continue the dialogue between mediaeval Islamic and contemporary perspectives in another philosophy of psychiatry workshop.

The workshop was generously funded by the Wellcome Trust and academically supported by the Philosophy and Humanities Section of the World Psychiatric Association and St Cross College, Oxford. The workshop was recorded and will become available as a podcast on iTunes free of charge. For more details, please contact me.

Daniel Nicolae is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford.

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