Program of the 2013 Conference Mental Health

Concept of the Symposium



Ideally, this symposium will bring together medical researchers and scholars in the humanities focusing on the Middle Ages and the early modern period. The research presented will hopefully be of relevance both for scholarshi/research and the general public. The entire symposium will be made available, free of charge, for the general public.


Although the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had formulated that madness is a “disease of ill reason,” in the history of philosophy the debate about the true nature of rationality vs. irrationality has never been completely decided. Does madness not have something of divine prescience and awareness in it? Does not God, do not the gods represent a dimension far beyond human rationality? In other words, does not human existence deeply depend on an awareness or broad notion of the metaphysical realm? Can we easily determine whether a famous artist or composer, a writer or a sculptor was simply ‘mad’ or rather ‘inspired’? Would those who have experienced God, or the divine, if not simply the metaphysical sphere, in a highly personal and intimate manner, have any human means available to come to terms with that ‘maddening’ vision or revelation and express it in comprehensible fashion?
    Where would we have to place Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) with his incredible artistic skill, which yet seem to have been born, at least for some critics, from a deranged mind? How should we interpret the large number of medieval and early modern mystics and visionaries, such as Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Theresa of Avila (1515-1582)? Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) identified the dram as a short-term experience of madness, while a long-term suffering from madness would be a long dream. Plato (424/23-348/47 B.C.E.), to cite one of the earliest authorities, had explicitly correlated genius with madness, undermining the hope for a clear demarcation of both domains. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) emphasized that those who reject irrational people simply as mad in truth seek to maintain their power over those who do not fit into their episteme and threaten the traditional order as maintained by rationality.
    Both literature and music, if not all visual arts, know more about madness and loss of reason in favor of something else than most other human areas. The philosopher Andreas Brenner recently pointed out that the Italian poet Alda Merini (1931-2009), who is now counted among one of the best of her time in that tongue, had spent twenty years in an asylum before she was ‘discovered’ and recognized (Religion und Gesundheit, ed. Albrecht Classen, 2011). In 1996 she was one of the nominees for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Remarkably, she was deeply influenced by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), commonly regarded as one of the best poets of his time. But Rilke produced many sonnets and odes that might undermine his claim on a healthy mind, at least in the opinion of the uninformed. There are, in fact, many more examples, both medieval and modern, which all underscore how closely artistic, literary, musical, and other personal skills transgress the traditional binary of rational and irrational, sane and insane. Brenner identified both mystic and madness as some of the most intriguing vehicles for humans to overcome the constraints of material logic and to reach the other world, the ineffable and apophatic. After all, as the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) demonstrated, the history of human existence embraces both, the spiritual and the physical, and a truly holistic approach embraces the rational and the irrational as complimentary aspects of life in its totality. In this regard, the European history of spirituality and religion shares much with that of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, not to mention a variety of other religions all over the world.

Intriguingly, physical health is intimately connected with spiritual health, as alternative medicine, palliative medicine, but then also psychology, and religious studies have confirmed throughout the ages, and today, perhaps, more than ever before since the late twentieth century. Perhaps not quite surprisingly, medieval and early modern literature knows of many examples that confirm these general observations through unique lenses, especially mysticism. But medieval spiritualism, early modern theology, and late medieval art, for instance, also addressed the same issue, all powerfully framed by a vast corpus of secular and religious literature. One of the essential messages conveyed by the intellectuals and spiritual leaders from the premodern world certainly consists of the firm conviction that the health of the human body depends deeply on a well composed spirituality. For instance, medieval herbal medicine finds much new interest especially today because of it being an integral element of the binary framework of macrocosm and microcosm. In other words, the present and the future have much to learn from the past, especially in the areas of medical research, spirituality, and philosophy.

The examples from modern poetry, music, the visual arts, and literature at large underscore the enigmatic but significant connection with medieval and early modern mysticism and medical research (Paracelsus). However, the gulf between medical research and the humanities is still very wide, especially with regards to historical experiences. In order to address this desideratum, I propose to dedicate the 11th International Symposium on Medieval and Early Modern Studies here at the University of Arizona to the topic of “Mental Health, Spirituality, and Religion in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Time,” in April 2013. An intimate research colloquium, to be open both for scholars/researchers and the general public, promises to be the ideal avenue to achieve the desired goals. These are:

  • Colloquium at which researchers/scholars from the Humanities and from Medicine meet and exchange their experiences, research, and observations
  • The establishment of an open forum for the public to gain insights into the latest findings regarding mental health and spirituality both from a humanistic and a medical perspective
  • Open discussions on the meaning of mental health from a historical and a modern angle
  • Introduction of visual, musical, and literary examples from the Middle Ages and early modern period as mediums for the exploration of mental health and the significance of spirituality for bodily health
  • Initiation of interdisciplinary research bringing together medical researchers and scholars in the humanities and the fine arts
  • Translation of the presentations at that symposium/colloquium into publishable material, to continue with the book series “Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture” (De Gruyter, Berlin and New York)

I have organized comparable symposia here since 2003 every year, and I hope to set the stage for the 11th symposium in 2013. This one, however, will be unique because it will be more interdisciplinary than ever before, with very good reasons. As the topic illustrates, only when medical researchers and humanities scholars begin to talk with each other, will we be empowered to learn from each other for the true improvement of human life today. Premodern examples in the disciplines of literature, the arts, philosophy, and religion promise to shed old and new light on universal and perennial problems all humans have to cope with. These, however, can then also be studied more closely by medical researchers.

The conversations between both fields hence promise to yield many far-reaching new insights of deepest value both for members of the academia and the public. While modern medical research has often demonstrated in a variety of methods and approaches that the healing process is improved and accelerated if an artistic background is involved, or if the individual patient can rely on a strong spiritual background. In the premodern world the ideal aimed more for the salvation of the soul in the afterlife, but there are countless examples confirming the superseding relevance of spiritual health for physical health. Despite all differences, modern medical research and investigations in the field of the humanities share fundamental values and ideals. The symposium promises to bring the various voices, ideas, and concepts together, offering new avenues for achieving human health in the widest range of meanings.

Conceptually, we will pursue the ideal of sharing latest insights into alternative medicine combined with a critical examination of literary, artistic, philosophical, and religious documents from the premodern world both with our colleagues and with the public. Each presentation will be followed by an extra long period of discussions allowing good time both for the experts and the public.


Please contact the organizer regarding any further inquiries or information: Prof. Albrecht Classen,