The natural and the supernatural in melancholic genius. A debate in sixteenth century Spanish medicine and its antecedents.


Departments of Neurology and History of Medicine, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Schleusenweg 2-16, 60528 Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany
Tel. 069-63016677, Fax. 069-63016872


Since the time of Aristotle and Theophrastus, those burdened with a melancholic disposition have had opportunity to take comfort in the widely held view that many if not all eminent statesmen, philosophers, and poets have shared their condition. This theory, which provided a physiological correlate of intellectual and artistic excellence, was discussed in the ancient and mediaeval medical literature, but never fully accepted by Christian authors, until it was incorporated into Marsilio Ficino's influential theory of the relationship between melancholy and intellectual activity. On the other hand, the demonological account of melancholic genius, which was proposed by the 10th century Spanish-Arabic physician Abulcasis, was further developed by Avicenna in his Canon of Medicine. Following the Aristotelian tradition, Renaissance medical writers discussed both aspects of melancholic genius, the melancholy of eminent men and the transient enhancements of intellectual capacities during periods of mental alteration.

We will present and discuss the contribution of 16th century Spanish humanists and physicians to the scholarship of melancholy, which has hitherto been neglected by the majority of historians of psychiatry and neuroscience. Juan Huarte de San Juan, in his Examen de ingenios para las ciencias (1575), developed a theory of the intellectual enhancement during states of mental alteration that was based on the principles of humoral physiology. His colleague Andrès Velazquez defended the demonological account of melancholic genius in his Libro de la melancolia (1585). But not the disease itself, only the otherwise inexplicable intellectual achievements are attributed to the demon. This separation of effects would still be compatible with a purely "natural" therapy, aimed at the underlying humoral pathology. Whilst a monistic supernatural theory would have required supernatural "therapies" and practitioners like the medici spirituales mentioned in Pieter van Foreest's Observationes, the position of Velazquez and those who took a similar view allowed the physician to pursue his medical cures and leave the rest to the priest and exorcist. It is therefore not as surprising as it might seem at first that even physicians who assumed a supernatural contribution to melancholic genius rarely advocated "spiritual" therapies.


Panel 1A   (Body-Mind)
Tuesday, 14 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999