Remedies for Despair: Considering Mental Health in Late Medieval England
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The fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in England saw an outpouring of vernacular religious texts that instructed an increasingly lay audience on methods of contemplation. Providing instruction on how to achieve a ‘mixed life’—a spiritually advanced life from without the confines of monastic orders—such texts demanded of their readers an intensity in meditation and self-examination that was potentially difficult to control or manage without a dedicated spiritual advisor. The challenges of such exposure to complex questions of belief, coupled with the intense self-interrogation that many advanced contemplative texts demanded, often resulted in extreme spiritual despair or ‘wanhope’, an ailment that traditionally is suffered by monastic readers but, through the vernacular book trade in late medieval England, found articulations in increasingly lay audiences. Such despair was entangled with the conviction that salvation was unachievable, and denied the grace and benevolence of God.
This chapter, within the context laid out above, explores Syon Abbey’s influence on this religio-literary culture of complex vernacular theology in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In particular, the chapter focuses on one of three prolific brothers of Syon who were active in the early years of Henry VIII’s reign—William Bonde and his A deuote treatyse for them that ben tymorous and fearefull in conscience. Bonde’s Treatyse—initially written at the personal request of a sister of Syon—entered lay circulation of print books twice, in 1527 and 1534 in two editions. The text seeks to provide a remedy for the ‘scrupulosity’ of readers and practitioners of complex meditative exercises, outlining specifically how such contemplation can cause a deterioration in mental faculties and health in general. Perhaps most interestingly, Bonde draws upon a fourteenth-century writer for the basis of his remedies. William Flete’s Remediis contra temptaciones was written, like Bonde’s later text, at the behest of a nun who was under Flete’s spiritual guidance. Flete’s text was then translated multiple times, finding traction among vernacular audiences throughout the fifteenth century. Through these writers, the chapter traces the sustained and continued concern over the mental health of readers who were exposed to the complexities of late medieval vernacular theology.
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