Thursday 28 September 2023

Review: Troubled by Faith - Insanity & the Supernatural

Is belief in witchcraft a sign of insanity? It was certainly sometimes thought to be during the 19th century, along with other beliefs about the supernatural. I've been reading Troubled by Faith: Insanity and the Supernatural in the Age of the Asylum by Professor Owen Davies. It's an academic of study of early psychiatry, religion, and the supernatural offering an new social history of the time from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, a time of innovation in science and the treatment of mental health problems. I found the book fascinating.

The first chapter is about how 19th century psychiatrists looked back at the historic witch trials and largely came to the conclusion that those accused of witchcraft actually suffering from mental health issues. Interestingly, while they deemed the poor victims of injustice (often women) as probably being mentally ill, they didn't so often view the witchfinders as suffering from delusions. 

Many of those early psychiatrists also believed that beliefs in the supernatural were going to die out due to advances in science. They couldn't have been more wrong. A look at the records kept on patients in mental instutitions shows that many of them still saw ghosts, had unusual religious beliefs, thought they were being tormented or possessed by demons, or were under the spells of witches.

The description of Troubled by Faith on publisher OUP's website says:

"The birth of psychiatry in the early nineteenth-century fundamentally changed how madness was categorised and understood. A century on, their conceptions of mental illness continue to influence our views today. Beliefs and behaviour were divided up into the pathological and the healthy. The influence of religion and the supernatural became significant measures of insanity in individuals, countries, and cultures. Psychiatrists not only thought they could transform society in the industrial age but also explain the many strange beliefs expressed in the distant past. Troubled by Faith explores these ideas about the supernatural across society through the prism of medical history. It is a story of how people continued to make sense of the world in supernatural terms, and how belief came to be a medical issue. This cannot be done without exploring the lives of those who found themselves in asylums because of their belief in ghosts, witches, angels, devils, and fairies, or because they though themselves in divine communication, or were haunted by modern technology. The beliefs expressed by asylum patients were not just an expression of their individual mental health, but also provide a unique reflection of society at the time - a world still steeped in the ideas and imagery of folklore and faith in a fast-changing world."

The first part of the book looks at how those in authority, including psychiatrists, doctors and the courts, viewed the situation. The second part looks at what the patients themselves believed, even though there are far fewer written records of that. It ends by asking readers to question who would be considered insane today under the criteria proposed by 19th century psychiatrists. I strongly suspect I might have been though a little mad.

Author Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire. He has written extensively on the history of magic, witchcraft, ghosts, religion, and popular medicine.

You can view Troubled by Faith on Amazon. (Note: I earn commission from advertisers for some links. This helps support my blog at no extra cost to those who read my posts.)

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