The Lost Millennium: Psychology during the Middle Ages

By Henley, Tracy B.; Thorne, B. Michael | The Psychological Record, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Lost Millennium: Psychology during the Middle Ages


Henley, Tracy B., Thorne, B. Michael, The Psychological Record


Most history of psychology textbooks cover the Ancient World in some detail. For example, such books often discuss the importance of rational medicine, the contributions of Plato to all subsequent conceptions of mind, and Aristotle's thoughts on many topics covered in an introductory psychology course (associative learning, the causes of behavior, dreams, emotions, free will, language, memory, motivation, perception, reasoning, etc.).

As far as we know, all the history of psychology texts that begin with the "modern period" still cover the principal figures of the 16th and 17th centuries (e.g., Descartes, Leibniz, Locke). Understanding Wundt requires at least a cursory consideration of the various empirical, associative, faculty, and rational traditions that preceded him.

Nevertheless, many history of psychology texts neglect the millennium that exists between Aristotle and Descartes (or more narrowly for this paper, from Rome until the Renaissance). Even the texts that cover this span in the greatest detail (Hergenhahn, 2001; Thorne & Henley, 2005; Watson & Evans, 1991) confine their discussions to a relatively small number of pages, with many of the pages focused on major social and scientific changes (e.g., the rise and subsequent reformation of Christianity, the development of universities, developments in physics) rather than on matters of psychology per se.

If you move beyond the textbooks and explore the general academic literature on the history of psychology, you will find that the situation is even more limited. With few exceptions (e.g., Gerard, 1966; Kemp, 1996, 1997, 1998), most of what exists concerns medieval views of mental illness. It is as if questions of "experimental" psychology--thoughts about behavior, development, motivation, mind, memory, perception, learning, reasoning--simply did not exist from the close of the Ancient World until the Modern Age.

As Kemp's (1996, 1997, 1998) articles attest, perhaps no one deeply invested in the history of psychology actually believes that. But, as extant scholarship indicates, either little appears to have been said about psychological matters during the Middle Ages, or what was said is of little interest. Widely held, this latter thesis is often fleshed out by pointing to the overpowering role that the Church played upon philosophical speculations during this period and the relative scarcity of nontheological scholarship produced during these "Dark Ages." Classic texts (e.g., Boring, 1950) explain that this span of more than 1,000 years was dominated by the slavish acceptance of Aristotle on all matters of science, including psychology.

In this paper we will question this negative conception of the Middle Ages and psychology by exploring a number of issues that have served as obstacles to inquiry. Thus, our principle mission will be to challenge a variety of misconceptions about this period in the hope of sparking a new interest for this period in the history of psychology. We will also mention some of the more colorful and important contributors of the Middle Ages in order to further develop that interest. We will begin with the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?

Historians suggest that the Middle Ages arose from the fusion of three very different traditions--the Roman Empire, Christianity, and the German "barbarians." The very idea of a "middle age" was the creation of Renaissance thinkers such as Giovanni Andrea (who coined the phrase in 1469) and Georg Horn (whose 1666 work, Arca Noe, established the idea of three historical "ages"). These writers were eager to distinguish their "Modern World" from the recent past (e.g., the Middle Age), as well as to compare it with antiquity (e.g., the Ancient World or Age of Antiquity).

Gibbon's classic treatise of Rome's decline and fall was no friend to the Middle Ages, and as Tierney and Painter (1992) suggested, his was among the widely read historical texts that popularized the medieval period as either an age of decay and degeneration after the glory that had been Rome, or as an unfortunate aberration between the Ancient World and modern times. …

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