You are here: Home / Newsflash / The link between witches and psychiatry: Johann Weyer

The link between witches and psychiatry: Johann Weyer

The Dutch doctor Johann Weyer (Jan Wier in Dutch - pictured right) (1515-1588) is well-known as an early opponent of the persecution of witches and is one of the fathers of psychiatry. But this interesting historic figure is also contested: did he not (unintentionally) stimulate witch hunts and are his contributions to psychiatry not too negligible?

The Dutch doctor Johann Weyer (Jan Wier in Dutch - pictured right) (1515-1588) is well-known as an early opponent of the persecution of witches and is one of the fathers of psychiatry. But this interesting historic figure is also contested: did he not (unintentionally) stimulate witch hunts and are his contributions to psychiatry not too negligible?

Vera Hoorens, Professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences became so intrigued by Johann Weyer that she decided to write a scientific biography of him. It resulted in a doctoral dissertation at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, which she defended at the beginning of this month. “I lived in Tilburg years ago and I once came across a book about Johann Weyer on display in the entrance hall of the Jan Wier Hospital. It provided some information about the figure of Johann Weyer and I became interested,” Hoorens tells us.

 
In her free time and during holidays, she began a project that would eventually take fifteen years: “There were enormous contradictions in books about Wier. After a while I got the idea of writing a biography myself, but I needed some help and scientific guidance to do it. The best way to get this seemed to be by doing a doctorate.” A second doctorate in her case, since she had already graduated from the doctoral programme in Leuven as a psychologist. Her doctoral studies on Wier led her to Hans Renders, Director of the Biographical Institute, and Catrien Santing, Professor of Medieval Medical History at Groningen.
Witches’ Sabbath 
In his books De praestigiis daemonum (On Demonic Illusions) of 1563 and De Lamiis (On Witches) of 1577, Johann Weyer stated that it is nonsense that old women make pacts with the devil, fly to witches’ Sabbaths and possessed magic powers through which they caused harm to other people. He considered witch trials to be illegal because they prosecuting non-existent crimes and because the suspects were tortured. He also advocated for the humane treatment of subjects.
 
Was it Johann Weyer’s goal to save alleged witches through his books? Hoorens’ answer is a yes, but one with a but: “His main aim was to criticise the Catholic Church. He lived in the age of Luther and Calvin, and he had already used a number of other themes to criticise the church, such as the sale of indulgences. He wanted a new tool to combat the church and decided to use the witch hunts. In fact, there had not been any large-scale witch hunts yet in his time and the small-scale prosecutions that had taken place until the early sixteenth century had all but ended. It was only after he published his first book that witch hunts broke out afresh and with greater vigour. Initially, his books dealt with historical facts. Historians have always mistaken the timing because Weyer published various editions of his book. That is why people criticise him for enflaming the persecution of witches.”
Hysteria 
Weyer is considered the father of modern psychiatry because he described some purported witches as mentally ill. Weyer used many psychiatric concepts, Hoorens explains: “He describes a contagious form of possession in monasteries – what we would now call ‘mass psychogenic illness’ – and questions whether a psychologically unbalanced person can really be held fully accountable for his or her actions – a foreshadowing of the modern concept of being of unsound mind. He did not invent these ideas, however, they predate him. But in one of his other books – De ira morbo (On the Disease of Wrath) – he did make an original contribution to psychiatry: he describes the importance of an early treatment of pathological rage.”
 
Johann Weyer’s work is by no means dull reading about witch trials and diagnoses. His books are full of juicy stories, Hoorens tells us. “That was normal in those days: works that were intended to be scientific were usually interrupted now and then for gossip or mud-slinging. For example, Weyer describes doctors who molested their patients, beggars who played all kinds of tricks to feign possession and a monk who had himself castrated so as not to have to leave the monastery – his relationship with a woman had become known and he risked being thrown out.”
 
Despite his criticisms of the church, Weyer was simply left to do what he wanted. Hoorens explains: “Weyer was the court physician to a German duke and thus enjoyed great freedom. He was ridiculed for his books, but never prosecuted. His later years must have been very bitter through. Witch trials were on the rise again, but he never commented on them anymore. From his correspondence it appears that he had other worries: the Eighty Years’ War between the Netherlands and Spain was still raging and Weyer owned a few leased farms that were regularly plundered by soldiers. In 1588 he died while visiting a patient. He is buried in a church in Tecklenburg in Germany.”
 
Vera Hoorens’ dissertation ‘Een ketterse arts voor de heksen - Jan Wier (1515-1588)’ (A Heretical Doctor for Witches – Jan Wier (1515-1588), will also be published in book form (in Dutch) by Promotheus/Bert Bakker Publishers.