|  | 


How Has History Treated Insanity?

insanityInsanity comes in many forms. In our modern day society, it seems that just about anything can be labeled as insanity. Not liking the social norm, going against common beliefs, or appearing to have some disorder. On the topic of mental health, we seem to have created a blending line between “difference” and “disorder”. However, when we reach the title of insanity, we reach the end-all for anything. Craziness, madness…these are the definitive synonyms we should hold accountable when it comes to insanity. But, today, we seem to somewhat associate words like stupidity, ignorance, and idiocy with the concept of mental health.

Insanity is a spectrum of behaviors, characterized by abnormal mental states or behavioral patterns. Insanity manifests itself in that of the loners, those who violate the average person’s viewpoints in society. Insanity is dangerous, leading people to become dangers to themselves or to others. But, not all acts are considered insanity, just like all acts showing indifference or disagreement towards societal concepts are not considered insanity.

But, we are seeming to evolve the word insanity to something new. In medical professions, the term is avoided in favor of diagnosing specific and more understandable mental disorders. Why label a patient as simply insane when we can label them with specific terms and signs to help them with what they need? A century ago, schizophrenia would be labeled as simple insanity. Multiple personality disorder would have been labeled as simple insanity. Nowadays, it seems as if stupidity qualifies for insanity. But, psychopathology — that of insanity — is considered a common and preferred descriptor in the diagnosing of individuals.

The informal ideology stemming from the word insanity is beginning to dominate our culture. We use the word to denote something unique or passionate as negative. To discredit or criticize perspectives — whether they be ideas, beliefs, principles, feelings, politics, or anything — is to claim insanity in current day opinionated debates.

So, how did three historical societies treat true and formal sanity?

Insanity in Ancient Greece

Citizens of Ancient Greece replaced supernatural beliefs with secular perspectives, claiming that afflictions of the mind did not differ from diseases of the body or soul. They saw mental illness as natural causes, much like some specific physical illnesses. Hippocrates — a commonly forgotten historical figure in terms of memory — frequently wrote that an excess of black bile in the mind resulted in irrational thinking and actions. Therefore, insanity wasn’t seen as individual problems. They were a matter of life, brought on by natural causes.

Insanity in Ancient Rome

The Ancient Romans had further opinionated claims towards psychiatry. Instead of believing that natural causes were perhaps irreversible and a lasting effect on the body, the Romans went with the primitive concepts of contemporary practice. The idea that emotions controlled the body, the fact that strong emotions could lead to bodily harm (psychosomatic illnesses in modern day theory), set the criteria of treatment. The Romans supported humane and dignified treatment of “mentally ill”, perhaps one of the earliest societies to code into law that insanity could get people out of criminal acts. Criteria for the Roman’s version of insanity labelled people as non compos mentis, or “not sound of  mind”.

Insanity in the Middle Ages

As the dark ages grew closer and religion played a huge staple in society, the progressive Greek and Roman platforms for insanity started to drift away. This is the period of time which can be seen as the lowest period of time for those with aforementioned “insanity”.

Needless to say, the Christian idealism which prominently founded itself in the politics and culture of Europe pushed mankind back hundreds of years. In this “battle of the cosmos”, our intellectual and independent mindsets collapsed into oblivion. Under Islam, the mentally ill were considered “incapable yet deserving of humane treatment and protection.” Under Christianity, the aspects of disagreeing with the authority in their societies oftentimes led to the incarceration under specific entries. People turned to spirits, with an idea of evil spirits taking control over our minds.

The first psychiatric hospital ward was founded in Baghdad in 705, and the very first insane asylums were built in Fes in the early 8th century, Cairo in 800 and in Damascus and Aleppo in 1270. Insane patients were treated using baths, drugs, music and activities. This Islamic ideology completely destroys the concepts created around Christian Europe, who focused more on religious cleansing and spiritual problems.

insanityOverall, one religious concept of insanity during this period of time managed to see insanity as a simple difference, while the other seemed difference as pure insanity.

Nowadays, we see problems in our state of “mental health”. It seems as if the definition of insanity just might be fading to the next generation’s eyes.

When you google “insanity”, you get a workout fitness advertisement. When you oftentimes hear the word “insanity”, its out of context. Insanity comes in many forms, but history has shown us different ways of perceiving it. Is it of genetics, of spirituality, or of difference?

Is insanity difference, or is difference insanity?



I’m a writer and historian. Simple enough, right? I enjoy philosophy, sociology, social psychology, politics, basic programming, statistics, and old books. Unlike the stereotypical leftist, I do not necessarily censor myself. I apologize in advance if you find yourself offended by something I’ve said; but I do enjoy hearing criticism and having debates.

Related Articles

  • Book Review: The Economy of Colonial America by Edwin J. Perkins

    Book Review: The Economy of Colonial America by Edwin J. Perkins

    Edwin J. Perkins, a leading figure in American economic history and one of the main three authors that depict the economic situations of the colonial era, is an emeritus professor at the University of Southern California. He currently resides in Laguana Woods in California, where he pursues his own research despite being “retired”, and spends

  • Book Review: The Elizabethan Renaissance by A. L. Rowse

    Book Review: The Elizabethan Renaissance by A. L. Rowse

    Alfred Leslie Rowse, oftentimes shortened to A. L. Rowse, is best known for his work on England under Queen Elizabeth I’s reign as monarch. He was born on December 4th, 1903, in Cornwall. Mr. Rowse is the perfect example of a man of greatness born against all odds, as both his mother and father lived

  • Women’s Roles in New England vs Women’s Roles in The South

    Women’s Roles in New England vs Women’s Roles in The South

    How could you compare and contrast women’s roles in New England with women’s roles in The South? Colonial America had a rather deep division between the north and south. As we know from generalized American history, the northern and southern traditions in America would eventually clash together to cause a great Civil War. But, as for

  • Professionalizing History 6: The Public History of Our Community

    Professionalizing History 6: The Public History of Our Community

    In the last installment of Professionalizing History, we talked about the new age question of whether or not it’s important to apologize for mistakes we’ve made in the past. I highly recommend reading this series in order by publish date in order to fully understand what it means to professionalize history. This time around, I’d like to


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *

Email *


Joseph Kaminski
I’m a writer and historian. Simple enough, right? I enjoy philosophy, sociology, social psychology, politics, basic programming, statistics, and old books.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this site and receive up-to-date notifications.

Join 348 other subscribers


Dear reader,

In September 2016, my website server crashed. I've been working on fixing everything since.

This site is currently in a beta state, meaning that design changes and the addition of new features will be frequent.