Dr. Jan Wier (1515-1588), considered founder of psychiatry

J.J. Cobben
Eindhoven, The Netherlands

Modern psychiatry as a medical profession starts with Pinel at the beginning of the 19th century. During that century attention arised for the works of Dr. Jan Wier. In the various discussions about mental diseases between theology and medicine he was considered as somebody subjected to the common errors of his time, as a free thinker and as the founder of psychiatry. Wier was an opponent to prosecution of witches in the 16th century. He considered them as victims of the devil. His concepts are based on the christian belief in the devil (conform medieval concept) as a fallen angel and adversary to God, who opposes mankind. By his nature the devil is allowed many actions. A common belief says, that the devil needs the help of witches to perform his deeds. Wier denies this. Some opponents of Wier are of opinion, that witches have to be punished, because of performing blasphemous acts, that in themselves are not effective. For the devil feigns this effect by starting or ending the torments at his own will. In Wier's conception the minds of witches (mostly elder woman) are spoiled by the devil. He poses false images in their minds, which they consider as being real. The victims are often sick and sometimes under influence of drugs. Wier believes in demonic possesions and opposes deceiving moncks and magicians, who use superstitious means to cure people. He opposes the use of clerical means as monotonous recited exorcisms, lustral water, paschal candle, stole, pilgrimages etc. and the use of magic conjurations, amulets, magic deeds and such. His therapy, showing protestant influence, is based on making a sick body healthy, instruction in the true christian belief, conscious prayer, charity, etc. In the 17th century he is less known. His adversaries are influential and found in the catholic and protestant world. Witchtrials florish. Via England and the Netherlands his ideas stay alive and have their influence later-on. In fact Wier claims a place for the doctor in legal and religious affairs to judge the imputability of an involved victim. In suspicion of demonic possession, or when somebody confesses impossible deeds in court a natural disease has to be excluded before a person is punished by law, or exorcised by a priest.


Poster Session I
Friday, 20 June 1997, 12.15 - 12.45

Second Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and 6th Meeting of the European Club on the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Leiden, The Netherlands