Category Archives: health

How to deal with a mentally ill bishop

A post by Rachel Stone

In the early 850s, the clergy and people of Nevers, a small city in central France, had a problem: their bishop, called Herimann, was behaving strangely. There were complaints of his “excesses” and the “persistence of his frivolity” (perseverantia levitatum). He had been frequently corrected for this behaviour and rebuked by other bishops “moderately and sharply” (modeste et acriter), but the problems had persisted.

But the unsuitable behaviour of this turbulent bishop was not solely due to Herimann’s character flaws. The first account we have, from the Council of Soissons in April 853, also reports that he had some “bodily trouble” and talks of his “infirmity”. Later reports describe him as having “lost the soundness of his understanding” (sensus integritate privatus) and “similar to the insane” (insano similis). How did the Carolingian church respond to a bishop with what sounds like serious mental health problems? And what can this case tell us about the role of bishops in the early Middle Ages?

The response of the Council of Soissons in the spring of 853 to the problem of Herimann was a pragmatic and temporary one, with the main responsibility falling on Herimann’s metropolitan, Archbishop Wenilo of Sens. He was to send a bishop to Nevers to administer the see; he was also to take Herimann back with him to Sens for the summer, a season which worsened Herimann’s condition (aestivum tempus, quod valde contrarium infirmitati illius ferebatur). After the summer, and once Herimann had, the council hoped, been “accustomed to suitable abstinence, instructed in episcopal gravity, informed about apostolic behaviour”, the clergy and people of Nevers could recall him to his see.

These measures appear to have worked: the Council of Verberie in August of the same year reported that Herimann had been restored to his see and it stressed that he had been removed only because of his illness and not because of any “faults of character or public sins”. Unfortunately, this recovery was not permanent: around five years later the problem recurred.

We have three sources for the second part of this episcopal drama. One is a letter from Lupus of Ferrières (presumably on behalf of Wenilo) to an unnamed pope, asking for permission to depose Herimann, who, “frequently admonished and long expected to grow well again, is not able to fulfil his office, his mind not being whole (mente non integra)”. The second is a letter from Pope Nicholas to Archbishop Wenilo, replying either to Lupus’ letter or a similar one. Finally, there is the fragment of a letter from Charles the Bald to Wenilo (Tessier no. 224) which announces that the royal ministers Liudo and Geilo will take over the administration of the diocese. By 862, the bishop of Nevers is recorded as being Liudo, probably the same person, which has normally been taken to imply that Herimann was dead by that point.

The dating of all these letters is uncertain, although Lupus’ letter is probably from 858 and the reply by Nicholas has thus been dated to 858-860. Nicholas’ reply cannot have been welcomed by Wenilo. After praise of Wenilo for respecting papal authority, Nicholas then goes on to criticise him for summoning Herimann to synods when he was ill. Nicholas also comments that he cannot judge about Herimann’s “excesses” in his absence and without more details about whether he was of sound mind when he committed them. He states that Herimann should be consoled and his infirmity sympathised with rather than punished, although Nicholas approves of Wenilo admonishing Herimann if this is done from true charity.

Nicholas, in other words, was probably trying to take over the judgement of the case himself in order to assert his papal authority. We have no further record of papal involvement, however, and the letter by Charles the Bald may suggest that Wenilo took a different route. Although Charles’ ordering of administrators to be sent to the diocese could be dated at any period between 853 and 860 (and Charles was present at the Council of Soissons in 853), it is tempting to see this letter as a response to Wenilo’s inability to depose Herimann, reflecting a desire to put on a permanent footing alternative administrative arrangements that had already been used intermittently before.

Disciplining or deposing a bishop in the ninth century was normally a contentious matter, and therefore most sources discussing such matters reflect conflicts within the episcopate. Here, however, is a case where there was relative consensus, where we can see councils and the king working together effectively to solve a difficult problem. What made Herimann’s case so difficult was not a bishop being too ill or infirm to carry out his episcopal duties. The Council of Meaux-Paris 845-846 had already issued a canon (c. 47) on the topic, which envisaged the bishop handing over his power of ordination to his archbishop and the administration of the diocese to suitable subordinates. The problem with Herimann, I would argue, is that the probable nature of his mental illness caused specific administrative problems.

Retrospective diagnosis of any illness is always speculative and is particularly difficult when we have so few details. But are there are some revealing features in the sources on Herimann. Firstly, there is no mention of any head trauma or other injury (which Carolingian authors were aware could cause mental health problems). Secondly, the illness was long-lasting, but intermittent: Herimann had recovered sufficiently by August 853 to be re-entrusted with his see. That argues against degenerative brain disorders. Thirdly, there was a seasonal effect, with additional problems for Herimann in the summer. There have been a number of studies showing such a pattern for mania and schizophrenia, but not for other mental illnesses.

I think that Herimann was more likely to have had bipolar disorder with manic episodes than schizophrenic symptoms. There is no mention of possession (which might be used to explain hallucinations), and Herimann is described only as “similar to the insane”, suggesting that he may not have been obviously delusional. Instead, we have references to “excesses” and “frivolity” and an implied lack of episcopal gravity. Charles the Bald refers to complaints from Nevers of the “insolence” shown by Herimann. This all fits well with manic symptoms of heightened energy, euphoria and rapid speech, possibly in the milder form of hypomania.

We cannot know for certain whether Herimann experienced manic episodes, but such mania might have caused particular problems for the Carolingian church. To see this, it is useful to consider another aspect of Herimann’s life: his commissioning of manuscripts. The British Library today holds Harley 2790, a gospel book probably written in Tours and containing a short poem recording how it was donated by Herimann to the cathedral church of St Cyr, Nevers:

Harley 2790 folio 19v - Herimann poem

Me quicumque legis, Herimanni sis memor oro
Cuius me studio possidet iste locus
Obtulit eclesiae sibi commissae memorandus
Praesul me fateor, pro bonitatis ope
Me sancto Cyrico tali sub conditione
En dedit ut pereat qui cupit abstrahere (f. 19v)

I pray whoever reads me remember Herimann
By whose zeal this place possesses me
The memorable one offered it to the church committed to him
I acknowledge that the bishop on account of the riches of goodness
Gave me to St Cyr under such a condition
That he might perish who desires to take me away.

The gospel book has decorated canon tables, but is not a particularly ornate work otherwise. Nevertheless, any substantial manuscript like this (of around 270 leaves, each slightly bigger than A4) would have been expensive to produce in terms of paying for parchment and scribal labour. And the otherwise unremarkable poem suggests Herimann’s “zeal” (studium) to do good via generosity, at a time when he was presumably in better mental health.

It’s interesting to bring that together with some of the complaints about him in 853 and 858. In 853 there were complaints about his “excesses” and how these had caused “injury to the most sacred order”. Herimann “was accustomed to act strangely (ineptire)…and indiscreetly to do certain things that could have lead to the shipwreck of the powers (facultates) and matters/possessions (res) of the church”, as well as carrying out acts that were a danger to salvation. Charles the Bald talks of the “agitation” of the church’s res, with no stability, “either in the disposition of the demesnes (villas dominicas) or the arrangement of all business”.

This raising the intriguing possibility that serious alarms about Herimann were raised because of two common symptoms of hypomania: overspending and over-generosity. It is easy to imagine such recklessness with money and property as having the potential to cause severe damage to the diocese’s finances.

Yet people during hypomanic episodes are not delusional in the sense of having false beliefs, even if they recklessly overestimate their capabilities. The Council of Verberie mentions in passing that Wenilo had taken Herimann into his keeping in the summer of 858, because no-one in the church of Nevers had wanted to do so, “partly perhaps from undue piety, partly from reverence to a lord (reverentia seniorali)”.

A key issue is that early medieval bishops had a large amount of autonomy: there were, for example, no formal financial structures to check their spending. Suffragan bishops like Herimann might in theory be subject to their archbishop’s oversight, but the only archbishop we know regularly interfering with their suffragan’s activities was Hincmar of Rheims. The main check on a bishop’s behaviour was the informal one of his need to maintain his local reputation among his clerics and congregation. That may have been inadequate in this specific case. Was Herimann’s behaviour difficult to deal with because it was an exaggerated version of how a good Christian should deal with money? After all, appropriate spending and generosity by bishops was admirable behaviour.

The Council of Verberie stressed that Herimann had not committed any public sins, implying that any possible mania or hypomania had not led him to behave in a sexually inappropriate or aggressive way (two common symptoms of hypomania). If Herimann was behaving extravagantly with the diocese’s funds, but was not obviously “insane”, his damaging behaviour might have been peculiarly difficult for his subordinates to protest about or prevent.

Historical and cross-cultural studies have rightly stressed the variation in symptoms, diagnoses and responses to mental illness in different societies. Modern medical research has also been interested in how social class affects the prevalence and treatment of mental illness and whether particular occupations lead to higher risks of mental health problems. Herimann’s case tells us something else interesting about the connection between mental illness and social role: particular occupations and social organisations in any culture may be better able to cope with some forms of mental illness than others. A Carolingian lay nobleman, for example, described in the sources as very active, risk-taking, sociable, irritable, extravagant, self-confident and with strong sexual desires, would probably be regarded by most of as entirely typical, even though these are many of the symptoms of hypomania. In contrast, it’s easy to imagine the Carolingian episcopate as being reasonably well able to shelter a depressed bishop for some considerable period of time without him becoming controversial.

It is unlikely that Herimann was the only ninth-century bishop with mental health problems (especially since the office was normally held until death). His real difficulty was probably that his particular symptoms were ones that were unusually disruptive to his episcopal office.

Image credit: BL Harley ms 2790, now online