The Holy Dymphna

patron saints 1400

In the Middle Ages it was common to fight insanity by worshipping patron saints. In Geel people went on a pilgrimage to the grave of Dymphna. She was the patron saint of the city as well as the patron saint against insanity.

To most people in the Middle Ages mental illness remained a punishment from God for sinful behaviour. The Church relied on the New Testament to explain mental illness, in which the devils were described as children of Satan, personifications of evil, and therefore not sent by God. In spite of the various visions of the causes of madness during the Middle Ages, people believed that a mentally ill person was possessed by one of Satan’s accomplices.

So, insanity became the legitimate domain of the church. The church provided two solutions: designated priests could  exorcise the devils, or patron saints could, as mediators, be worshipped in order to heal mental illness. The saint to whom one had to appeal varied from region to region. St Cornelius in Ninove, St Hermes in Ronse, Servatius in Maastricht or Dymphna in Geel.

The saint to whom one had to appeal changed from region to region.

Dymphna was an Irish princess who was murdered by her father because she refused to marry him. The religious mediaeval man or woman saw in such events the hand of the devil, which a possessed person would use in order to carry out his or her pernicious plans. It therefore comes as no surprise that the grave of Dymphna in Geel was a place of pilgrimage for curing insanity. A room was built near the church in the 15th century to help the sick. In this way, the sick individual could remain there for some time to do penance. The pilgrimages are now part of local folklore, but this form of hagiotherapy has developed further into a unique, still practised form of family nursing.