Remedies for Despair: Considering Mental Health in Late Medieval England
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.
- Bonde, William. 1534. A deuote treatyse for them that ben tymorouse and fearefull in conscience. London: M. Fawkes. STC 3275 and STC 3276.Google Scholar
- Flete, William. 1968. In Remedies Against Temptation: The Third English Version of William Flete, Archivo italiano per la storia della pietà, ed. Edmund Colledge and Noel Chadwick, vol. 5. Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura.Google Scholar
- Hilton, Walter. 1986. In Mixed Life Edited from Lambeth Palace MS 472, ed. S.J. Ogilvie-Thomson. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik.Google Scholar
- Whitford, Richard. 1537. A Dayly Exercise and Experience of Dethe. London: Johan Waylande. STC 25414.Google Scholar
- Babb, Lawrence. 1951. The Elizabethan Malady: A Study of Melancholia in English Literature from 1580 to 1642. East Lansing: Michigan State College Press.Google Scholar
- Bose, Mishtooni. 2005. Vernacular Philosophy and the Making of Orthodoxy in the Fifteenth Century. In New Medieval Literatures, ed. Wendy Scase, Rita Copeland, and David Lawton, vol. 7, 73–99. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Colledge, Edmund, and Noel Chadwick. 1968. Introduction. In Remedies Against Temptation: The Third English Version of William Flete, Archivo italiano per la storia della pietà, ed. Edmund Colledge and Noel Chadwick, vol. 5, 199–240. Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura.Google Scholar
- Gillespie, Vincent. 2001. Syon Abbey, Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues. Vol. 9. London: British Library.Google Scholar
- ———. 2005. Syon and the English Market for Continental Printed Books: The Incunable Phase. Religion and Literature 37: 27–49.Google Scholar
- Hackett, Benedict. 1992. In William Flete, O. S. A., and Catherine of Siena: Masters of Fourteenth Century Spirituality, The Augustinian Series, ed. John E. Rotelle, vol. 15. Villanova: Augustinian Press.Google Scholar
- Hellinga, Lotte. 2010. William Caxton and Early Printing in England. London: British Library.Google Scholar
- Jones, Michael K., and Malcolm G. Underwood. 2004. Beaufort, Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby (1443–1509), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1863. Accessed 1 Oct 2016.
- Jones, E.A., and Alexandra Walsham. 2010. Introduction: Syon Abbey and Its Books: Origins, Influences and Transitions. In Syon Abbey and Its Books: Reading, Writing and Religion, c.1400–1700, ed. E.A. Jones and Alexandra Walsham, 1–38. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.Google Scholar
- Kolnai, Aurel. 1957–58. Erroneous Conscience, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 58, 171–198.Google Scholar
- Middle English Dictionary. University of Michigan, 2014. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=byte&byte=117233968&egdisplay=open&egs=117252023. Accessed 31 July 2017.
- Powell, Susan, 2010. Syon Abbey as a Centre for Text Production, In Saint Birgitta, Syon and Vadstena, ed. Claes Gerjrot, Sara Risberg, and Mia Åkestam, 50–70. Konferenser: 73. Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhetsakademien och antikvitets akademien.Google Scholar
- ———. 1993b. Prayers of the Passion: From Jordanus of Quedlinberg to John Fewterer of Syon. Durham University Journal 85: 27–38.Google Scholar
- Taylor, Scott L. 2014. Affectus secundam scientiam: Cognitio experimentalis and Jean Gerson’s Psychology of the Whole Person. In Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture: Mental Health, Spirituality, and Religion in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age, ed. Albrecht Classen, 406–423. Berlin: De Gruyter.Google Scholar
- Webb, Diana. 2004. Flete, William, (fl. 1352–1380), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/53636. Accessed 14 Sept 2016.