Windows Onto the Past III

Here we resume a series commenced in January and February of this year. The stories of two people who were brought to the shrine of the twelfth-century martyr Thomas á Becket, and the stained glass windows in Canterbury Cathedral that commemorate their respective recoveries, were then the subject of our attention. Our point of departure this time is not a window as such but what in 1875 a New York Times journalist called “a remarkable work of…carved wood” in which “a demon leaves the head of a lunatic woman cured by prayer” and “a lunatic in chains [is] waiting his turn for deliverance”.1 The journalist identified the location of this woodcut as a twelfth-century chapel dedicated to another martyr, St Dymphna, in the Belgian town of Gheel. To our chagrin, we do not have a picture of it; maybe it no longer survives?

The precise contours of Dymphna’s life are contested, her story having been carried by oral tradition for centuries prior to being written down. Yet in Western Christian tradition, she is venerated as a saint and a martyr for having fled her native Ireland to avoid an incestuous marriage, and for preferring a violent death at the hands of her father (who chased her to Gheel) over capitulation to his plans. There are distinctive features to her story that led to her becoming known as one of the patron saints of ‘the mad’. Gheel was apparently home to a colony of ‘lunatics’, ‘raving and possessed’, and Dymphna may have settled there with the intent of doing ‘good works’ among them. In the event, according to the narrative anyway, she did more for them in death than she did in life.

‘…[W]hen Dymphna still refused to go home with her father, he took his dagger and beheaded her. As her head rolled down the path to the chapel, “five lunatics” watched. The following morning, they awoke with their minds “lucid and balanced”…’2

Presumably the sight of Dymphna’s courage in the face of death was thought to have (miraculously) fortified these sufferers, however much it might seem to us that events such as these would be more likely to intensify mental distress than to relieve it.

The story does not end there. The return of the “five lunatics” to their senses in the wake of Dymphna’s martytrdom was but the first of many mental recoveries attributed to her miraculous (and posthumous) intervention. As is well-known, Gheel developed into (and remains to this day) a centre for the care and treatment of mental ill-health in the community settings offered by the town itself, its residents acting as foster-carers. The characteristics of this mode of treatment have been read back (on rather slight evidence) into Dymphna’s biography, as well as forward to critique other contemporary models, the psychoanalyst Bernard Rubin writing that “the effectiveness of moral community therapy that began in Gheel in the seventh century has been largely forgotten today and supplanted by less compassionate methods”.3

1 cited by Bernard Rubin, ‘St. Dymphna and the Lunatics: Moral Psychiatry’, in Meltzer, F. and Elsner, J. (eds.), Saints: Faith without Borders (University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 196.

2 ibid., p. 195.

3 ibid., p. 197.

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2 Responses to “Windows Onto the Past III”


  1. 1 Ed Brandon June 8, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Very interesting. I stayed in Gheel last year but did not have time to explore it further as I wanted to – I could perhaps have found out if the chapel was still there! Knowing Belgium’s tendency to act as a time capsule, it wouldn’t be wholly surprising. Gheel was known as the “town of the lunatics” for hundreds of years, with the central church of St Dymphna’s taking in “lunatics” and gaining a reputation as the best place to take those suffering from mental health problems (or possession!) just as Bethlem did in England during the same period. Unlike Bethlem, when the church and attached accommodation became overwhelmed, they started boarding the patients out to local families, with some spending the day with the families and returning to the church area to sleep, and others staying with the families on a long-term basis, with support from the church. Remarkably, the traditional continues to this day, with up to 500 patients still living with families in Gheel.

    • 2 bethlemheritage June 8, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      Thanks Ed, that’s really interesting. When did the boarding out begin, do you know? I know this was a common element of the Scottish psychiatric system (from the early 1800s I think), but Gheel is probably much earlier. I wonder if there’s any crossover.


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