The Medieval Review 12.10.16

Haskell, Yasmin. Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period. Early European Research 1200-1650, 2. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011. Pp. xxvi, 424. 95.00 EUR. ISBN: 978-2-503-52796-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Nicole Archambeau
California Institute of Technology

Books of collected essays are at their best when they allow readers to enter into the conversation of specialists and see how they develop both broad themes and specific issues. Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period brings together excellent essays on a long list of diseases, including madness, melancholy, possession, hypochondria, lycanthropy, vampirism, and fatigue. These are diseases, as the title suggests, of the imagination, but which also could be dismissed as imaginary. Because of this diversity, the book has something for those interested in emotion, magic, witchcraft, and medical practice. And the essays often cross the boundaries of these topics in useful ways.

What links these diverse diseases in the broadest sense is the imagination. For the early modern period (as well as much of the medieval), the imagination was a rational faculty located in the brain and responsible for making sense of sensory information. This faculty could become diseased when the bodily organs produced too much mist and vapor. The obscuring vapor rose to the head and could create the diverse false imaginings. This simple definition belies the complexity of how theologians, natural philosophers, physicians, and sufferers used the imagination to understand behavior and thought, however. The introductory apparatus (preface, introduction, and envoi--which one can usefully read before as well as after the essays) starts the conversation about who defines imagination at various historical moments and how it appears in diverse genres. The essays then dig deep into particular sources to look at imagination through the words of healing practitioners, theologians, sufferers, family, and legal officials from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries.

The preface and envoi place the book squarely in the history of psychology, though they use different methods. The preface by German Berrios provides a historical long durée for the concept of imagination, emphasizing that "its definition was changing all the time" (xix). He highlights the culturally specific nature of psychology, the fact that "mental symptoms and disorders are constructs" of their time and place with little or no "genetic origin" (xxii). For Berrios, therefore, the collected essays reveal the process of disease creation. They can and should inform modern psychologists and others about the cultural and social processes by which healing practitioners, sufferers, and others create disease, as seen in the ongoing revision of the DSM IV. The envoi by George Rousseau sketches a quick ethnography of hypochondria and the malades imaginaires on the cusp of the modern era to highlight changes in terminology and lived experience. In many ways, this moment is where disease of the imagination become imaginary disease.

Yasmin Haskell's introduction argues that the book allows the reader to explore the wide range of "learned and lay discourses, as well as international, national, local, and personal perspectives" on the changing ideas about imagination (7). As she points out important themes that emerge in each essay, two themes emerge as important unifying threads. First, the essays explore "the nexus between diseases of the imagination and social and personal morality" (15). This theme helps the reader follow changing cultural perceptions about links among body, soul, mind, and spirit. Second, for Haskell, the essays also explore mechanisms by which imagination can become diseased or deranged, including the transmission of diseases of the imagination from one person to another.

Like the authors of the preface and envoi, Haskell remarks on the surprising robustness of categories like delirium, melancholy, and madness in their relationship to imagination. And the first three essays delve directly into changing definitions of imagination and melancholy in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. Guido Guglioni builds on the work of Michael Allen to argue that Marsilio Ficino, using neoplatonic ideas of Iamblichus and Plotinus, emphasized spiritual medicine for physical health because of how the body and soul interact through imaginatio and phantasia. Guglioni builds a nuanced structure of terms for imagination and imaginary as they appear Ficino's work. He emphasizes, as do many authors in this collection, how changes in terminology reflected theologians' adoption of increasingly medical views of demonic influence on man.

Angus Gowland's essay explores Renaissance ideas about melancholy, primarily through discussions of dreaming. He grounds arguments about dreaming in medieval medicine and argues for a strong continuity of these ideas into the seventeenth century. His useful and thorough essay first sets the groundwork for the ways Renaissance scholars brought together Aristotelian and Galenic ideas about imagination, melancholy, and dreams. The bulk of the essay then describes how scholars merged a Christian theological component into the Aristotelian and Galenic discussion of divinatory dreams. Ideas here were far more heterodox, including explanatory schema of melancholic imagination that rejected Aristotelian theory, modified it, or used it novel ways.

Donald Beecher also analyzes a wide array of theological and medical texts to view changing ideas about the imagination as the entry point of demonic influence on the body. For Beecher, the distinction between theology and medicine blurs as theological treatises on heresy, witchcraft, and possession increasingly incorporated medical views in an attempt to empiricize the demonic, as he put it. At the same time, scholars of medicine attempted to assimilate demonic influence (which could cause both physical disease and delusions) into discourses of melancholy and mania. Beecher's wide-ranging perspective shows how even though competing diagnoses of possession, witchcraft, or madness could require different kinds of healing practitioners with different methods, the medical emphasis of theological texts and the orthodoxy of medical practitioners could remove some of the tension.

Word count limitations mean I cannot address all thirteen essays, nor all of the intriguing themes that develop. One of the most interesting themes, however, is who gets to decide what a group of symptoms reveals. Sharon Strocchia's essay explores competing diagnoses of possession and melancholy from the view of the sufferers and their care-givers--in this case, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian nuns. She deftly weaves individual stories to reveal the flexibility of both medicalized melancholy and demonic possession to describe the emotional struggles of cloistered nuns, many of whom did not chose the vocation but were placed in convents by their families. Stroccia highlights the moment of diagnosis (always difficult between possession and madness) as a place where nuns and their abbesses actively asserted their authority within the cloister and against outside authority figures. Strocchia paints a vivid picture of abbesses and nuns struggling with the gamut of melancholic behavior, which could include fever, sadness, and frenzy, trying to determine if the sufferer needed severe penitence, an exorcist, or medical care, and attempting to keep the behavior from spreading to others. At the same time, these women used their suffering and their ability to identify and treat disease as moments to negotiate with the world outside the cloister.

Thomas Rütten also looks at this issue of who has the ability and expertise to understand a sufferer's symptoms. Rütten provides a close analysis of a medical observatio by the sixteenth-century Dutch physician, Pieter van Foreest. The highly narrative observatio concerned two young men--one melancholic in temperament, one melancholic due to lifestyle. While both men die, the one who developed melancholy through his lifestyle as an over-studious and underfed student appeared to commit suicide and was denied Christian burial. Foreest, however, through both local knowledge and medical training correctly diagnosed the young man's melancholy, which made him mad in the eyes of the law, not responsible for his actions, and therefore a candidate for Christian burial. In the observatio, Foreest emphasizes his knowledge as a doctor qualifies him to make the proper diagnosis that restores order and dignity to disordered situation.

Several of the essays locate ideas of diseased imagination firmly in their historical contexts. Hans de Waardt does this to great effect as he carefully positions the work of another sixteenth-century physician, Johan Weir's De ira morbo, as "a medical ethical discourse, and...a barely disguised anti-Spanish pamphlet" (273). Like Foreest, Weir's causes of ire are both internal and external--in a person's temperament, diet, and behavior. Weir's text posits cures and remedies through many classical examples of the proper way for a ruler to live to avoid falling into destructive tyranny brought on by deranged anger. Analysis of Wier's dedication to Count Hermann of Neuenahr reveals that Wier wrote in response to Spanish attacks of the 1560s and 1570s, which he described as an epidemic that had caused more devastation than any other pestilence. And analysis of quotations in the text show Wier's indebtedness to Sebastian Castellio, a famous sixteenth-century spokesman for religious tolerance.

Koen Vermeir's lively look at seventeenth- and eighteenth-century vampire tracts bring the reader into early modern debates between imagination and imaginary and into different kinds of questions about magic, witchcraft, demons, and the occult. Vermeir reveals early attempts to understand the vampire not simply as the disordered imagination of people who believe in them, but as something that could exist in nature, explained in part through an alternative metaphysics inspired by Paracelsus. Vermeir's analysis of Michael Ranft's De Masticatione mortuorum in tumulis explores an imagination that can live on after death and can affect other bodies.

One leaves this conversation among experts with the sense that imagination in the early modern period was not just a flexible catch-all, but a concept subject to strenuous pressures of co-construction by diverse scholars and sufferers. Its use in medical, literary, and chronicle sources reveal the need for a way to understand relationships between the natural and supernatural, the body and soul, and the living and the dead. The imagination, when it became diseased or disordered, could be a path for demons, a producer of vapors, or source of hysteria--or all three at once.