Remember when I mentioned drunken Aquinas?
My comment on the scholarly value of a drunken Aquinas came about as a result of the roundtable discussion on medieval disability in a
My MA thesis looks at mental illness in Plantagenet
One of the leading historians of the insanity defence, Daniel Robinson, blames the Church for its negative impact on how modern scholars – and modern people in general – perceive the insanity defence and its application in the medieval period. He writes that medieval Christianity’s obsession with sin saw a “voluntarist theory of criminal liability” adopted by the courts, which assumed “mental disturbance … to be of the sinner’s own making.”As a result, a jury, according to Robinson, could not possibly declare a person “not guilty by reason of insanity” because the “not guilty” are still guilty.2 His argument relies upon the fact that it does jive with some ecclesiastical sources, such as Aquinas’ Summa. (For the pertinent passage, scroll down to the paragraph beginning with "Accordingly therefore we must make a distinction:...".)
Now, scholars are breaking out of the ‘disability as sin’ model, but this is not to say that medieval thinkers never equated disability with sin; some certainly did.3 My interest with this particular analogy from Aquinas is perhaps unanswerable, but I think it’s an important question worth asking.
How exactly did Aquinas come to the conclusion that the state of drunkenness was akin to being insane? Put bluntly, did he wake up one morning, decide that he was going to get absolutely smashed, see what happened, and stop by the nearest church for confession afterwards if necessary to confess his sins?
This is one of the reasons why I’m so fascinated by this field, medieval disability history. We don’t necessarily have numerically comparable sources if we were to compare this field with that of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American disability history, nor can we (fairly) easily discern what the disabled actually thought about their experiences and the times they lived in, because not many disabled people produced sources directly.4
Our sources are inherently of the top-down variety as a result: anyone who’s worked with medieval English legal records – as I do – can tell you they never ever end, which is both a blessing (so much source material!) and a curse (they never end, which means you’re never done, either). There aren’t many bottom-up records in the sense of truly being ‘bottom-up’: even parish records, for instance, are still produced by someone who’s literate and who works within a particular theoretical and ideological framework. We do get glimpses of what life must have been like for the disabled and those who cared for them and interacted with them on a regular, day-to-day basis, but it’s still not the same as reading the moving essay by Ferdinand Berthier, a deaf Frenchman, in honour of the abbé Sicard at the National Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Paris in the early nineteenth century.5 Such a source is virtually impossible for the medieval period: I certainly wouldn’t be able to “read ’n ’rite” if I had been born in 1350. (Might have been carried off by la moria grande, but that’s another post.6)
To come back to Aquinas (hope you weren’t hitting the screech, Tom – that’s for Eaquae Legit and me), medieval disability scholars don’t have the luxury of an (over)abundance of sources that allow us to see how knowledge about various disabilities was acquired by those who weren’t disabled. As far as I can tell, we have to take Aquinas’ comparison of drunkenness with insanity on its own merits without really being able to understand just how Aquinas arrived at his conclusion that the two could be equated.
It would be a fair point to say that any reasonable person who’s tied on one too many (okay, maybe a few) could reasonably make this link between drunkenness and insanity. Yes, you could, now that I’ve told you that Aquinas did it.
How many of us have actually equated the two without being told that Aquinas did? That is the crux of the issue for me: how is it possible to equate two seemingly similar ‘experiences’?7 What exactly brought Aquinas to such a conclusion? Did he meet someone who was mentally ill who, to Aquinas, appeared to act as if he or she was drunk? Did he determine that someone who’s completely drunk is out of his or her wits, just as a mentally ill person is, ergo being drunk must be the closest ‘normal’, sane people can get in terms of experiencing the state of being insane?
Come on. You all know that it’d be funny if we suddenly discovered in some previously undiscovered or unread manuscript that medieval physicians and jurists were required to get sloshed at some point during their training in order to simulate the sense of being insane. A lot more fun than stuffing one’s ears with cotton to simulate being hard of hearing or deaf. Yes, you know it!
"Class, today we'll be simulating what it probably feels like to be insane. Please be sure to fill up your mugs or steins most liberally with some oak-aged Domesday ale or metheglin, kindly provied by the Medieval Brewers Guild of Kalamazoo fame. When we're all sufficiently sober, probably some time next week, we'll meet and compare notes."
Come to think of it, that could be a good paper proposal for the Pseudo-Society at
Reading the Beer-soaked Summa Theologica: Proof that Aquinas Wrote it While Drunk
Or something like that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I should go have a shot or two of screech before Tom gets to the point of offering it to the angels in an attempt to prove to me that (a) angels exist and (b) that he really is the Angelic Doctor, even though he already knows I’m a practising Catholic.
Although it’d be pretty cool to see an angel up close, I have to admit.
1 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q77, A7. Cited in Penelope B.R. Doob, Nebuchadnezzar's Children: Conventions of Madness in Middle English Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 34-35.
2 Daniel N. Robinson, Wild Beasts and Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 57.
3 Another example of the ‘disability as sin’ model, well-known to scholars who work with the mentally ill, is The Mirror of Justices, attributed to Andrew Horne. The Mirror notes that only those who were born “fools” were exempt from the taint of sin. The Mirror of Justices, ed. W.J. Whitaker (London: B. Quaritch, 1893), I.16.139. F.W. Maitland writes that this is not a trustworthy source of English law, however: as an “interesting but dangerous” source, it was “written by one profoundly dissatisfied with the administration of the law by the king’s judges.” The Mirror draws on sources beyond legal practice, namely mythology, the Bible, and theology and fails to make any practical distinction between royal and ecclesiastical law, as other legal collections (as Bracton, Britton, and Fleta do). The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, ed. H.A.L. Fisher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), II.
4 This is why I don’t include Margery Kempe and her (auto)biography as a truly genuine source: she did not produce it herself, and her (auto)biography was constructed within a particular framework, namely that of (female) mystic literature. I’ll discuss my position in a later post, coming next week.
5 The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education, ed.
6 The only reason I know the Italian for ‘the great plague’ is because I recently read Ken Follett’s excellent novels detailing medieval life in a fictional medieval town, Kingsbridge, that's attempting to build a cathedral and transform itself into a proper cathedral town during the Anarchy (The Pillars of the Earth) and its attempt to repair the cathedral and survive the Hundred Years War and the Black Death (World Without End). I’m still working on taking up French. Italian might be down the road somewhere. Really down the road, that is.
7 One cannot be drunk forever, hence the act of being drunk is a very brief experience in and of itself, whereas being insane, either temporarily or permanently, is, to me, more of a state than an experience. Please feel free to disagree – leave a post here, or if you would rather discuss this with me privately, you may contact me at [greg . carrier @ gmail . com]. (Please remember to omit the spaces in between the periods and ‘at’ sign.)