Conference Agenda

2A: Managing Melancholy: Dynamics of Medicine and Religion in the Eighteenth Century
Wednesday, 08/Sept/2021:
10:45am - 12:00pm

Session Chair: Dr. Catherine Beck, University of Plymouth


Managing Melancholy: Dynamics of Medicine and Religion in the Eighteenth Century

Chair(s): Beck, Catherine (University of Plymouth, United Kingdom)

This panel explores the entanglement of medicine and religion in psychiatric and lay understandings of mental difference and distress. Each paper approaches melancholy in the different confessional contexts of eighteenth-century Denmark and Britain from the respective angles of theology, forensic psychiatry and social history. Considering the (self-)management and identification of melancholy in the context of Pietistic introspection in Lutheran Denmark in contrast to the varied religious practice of sailors within the highly medicalised space of the eighteenth-century naval ship, the papers interrogate the role of secularization in the evolution of melancholy as a psychopathology and legal impaired mental state.


Presentations of the Symposium


On the road to salvation or sickness? Introspection and theological diagnostics regarding melancholy

Reeh, Tine
University of Copenhagen

The phenomenon of melancholy was considered of an ambiguous character in Pietistic thought. On the one hand, melancholy could be considered a state on the way to conversion or rebirth and, hence, have a constructive potential. Yet, dwelling or staying in a melancholic state could be considered not only sinful but extremely dangerous and deadly. The Pietists’ occupation with the (constructive) use of melancholy gave rise to criticism by proponents of the Enlightenment, and research has pointed to a connection between melancholy diagnosis and criticism of religion in the second half of the 18th century. At the same time, one could say that the pietists occupation with melancholy paved the way for empirical studies of the self in order to diagnose the sound as well as impaired mental states.

One of the tools to diagnose the inner person was self-observation, self-examination or introspection. It occurred in Puritan traditions and became a common element in Hallensian Pietism. Using some of the popular and wide spread pamphlets from Denmark-Norway, this paper outlines signs and symptoms used to identify the constructive religious melancholy, and what warning signs and complaints could point to an unsound and perilous condition. It then examines some of the tangible consequences of this classification in how The Faculty of Copenhagen used them to assess criminals when the absolutistic kings of Denmark-Norway requested assistance in their final decisions regarding critical cases involving melancholy.


“Melancholic Murder” in Copenhagen – on forensic pychiatry in statu nascendi

Hemmingsen, Ralf
University of Copenhagen

Before the 18th century, legal practice in Denmark-Norway limited its conception of disordered mental states to only externalized, aggressive or antisocial behaviors such as madness, fury, or mania (e.g. Danish Code 6-6-17). However, in 1765 the King mitigated death penalty to imprisonment for life of a melancholic woman, who declared to be weary of her life and therefore killed a two-year old girl to lose it. In 1767, a decree on “melancholic murderers” decisively acknowledged attention to melancholic states in the legal process, although not an insanity defense but rather as a factor when securing a functional and just punishment.

So-called "melancholic murders", also labelled suicide murders, suicide by proxy or judicial suicide, have raised debate in research regarding the connection between religious ideas and reactions of distress on different levels. The court records reflect officials’ attempts to establish facts as well as the murderers’ intention, premeditation, sanity and motive.

Based on data from an in-depth study of 64 cases of murder in Copenhagen during the period 1697-1777, this paper explores religious and mental components at the individual case level.

What was the pre-medical nomenclature, used by the perpetrator, the witness statements and the judicial experts? How did it develop, and can we identify a plausible relation to contemporary pietist vocabulary? Can the material on melancholic murder in Copenhagen elucidate interactions between religious perceptions and forensic pychiatry in statu nascendi?


Contagious Melancholy, Cheerfulness and (Ir)religiosity: responses to mental difference and distress at sea

Beck, Catherine
University of Plymouth

The depressing action of the sea occupied the attention of many ships’ surgeons in the eighteenth century. The fatigues of sea-service, rigid discipline, and the boredom posed by the unvaried prospect of the sea itself, all seemed to make sailors peculiarly vulnerable to 'dejection of spirits'. Within the 'gloomy walls' of the ship, melancholy also appeared to be 'contagious' and could take hold of a crew just as readily as the scurvy and typhus it so frequently seemed to usher in. Surgeons recommended the careful maintenance of 'chearfulness' as a valuable prophylactic measure on a level with cleanliness and ventilation. Conversely, religious provision was perceived as important on board ship, but for maintaining order, rather than providing spiritual care to those suffering from low spirits and melancholy. Sailors were often thought of as 'unthinking' and lacking in the refined feeling required for introspection. By reputation, they ranged from naïve, superstitious and god-fearing, to irreverent, hard-hearted, 'sabbath breakers'. Consequently, many officers and surgeons regarded religious intervention in the mental health of a ship as detrimental. However, sailors seemed to have treated the administrations of the ship's chaplain similar to those of the ship's surgeon: as high-handed, formal and something sought only when self-treatment failed. This paper investigates the range of approaches sailors employed in their self-management of melancholy and low spirits, which blended medical intervention with emotional tools and understandings including the use of religious practice to self-sooth.