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'Mad for Him'. Women, Religion and Mental Illness in the Late Middle Ages and in the Early Modern Age

Project description

Religious relations or mental illness?

What do we know about the women deemed to be mystics, blessed or saints during the late Middle Ages and modern era? Is it possible that unexplainable relations with the Godhead and religious experiences like ecstasies and visions were actually explainable medical causes? The EU-funded WoMent project will answer these questions by exploring the boundaries between alleged miracles and mental illnesses. Specifically, it will study biographical texts of six religious women: Saint Lutgardis of Aywières, Saint Angela of Foligno, the Blessed Giustina of Arezzo, Saint Margareta Ebner, Margery Kempe and Blessed Colomba of Rieti. The study will shed new light on how women saints lived their daily lives.


This research will analyse the biographical and autobiographical texts of late-medieval and early modern women who were deemed to be mystics, blessed, or saints. The main objective is to determine to what extent extreme religious experiences (ecstasies, visions, physical sensations) might be attributable not to unexplainable relations with the Godhead, but to very explainable medical causes. What their contemporaries saw as mystical experiences can, from our modern perspective, be characterized in medical terms. Questions at the basis of the project are, therefore: what is the boundary between illness and sanctity? Is it possible to draw a demarcation line between alleged miracles and mental illness? What do biographical texts tell us about this? Where, how, and when have these texts come down to us and who has transmitted them? This research will consider five cases of mental illnessess (anorexia, visions, hysterical pregnancies, folie à deux and post-partum depression) in biographical texts of six religious women: St.Lutgardis of Aywières †1246, St.Angela of Foligno †1309, the Bl.Giustina of Arezzo †1319, St.Margareta Ebner †1351, Margery Kempe †1438, Bl.Colomba of Rieti †1501. These six women may well illustrate a broad spectrum of diseases. This research is important because: a) biographical texts that reveal how women saints lived their daily lives marked by ecstasies and mental alterations, that have not yet been fully investigated; b) similar studies exist, but they focused only on a single nervous disease and were limited mostly to Italian women saints; c) current studies have not taken into account the fundamental iconographic sources.


Net EU contribution
€ 237 768,00
30123 Venezia

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Nord-Est Veneto Venezia
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 242 920,48

Partners (2)