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What Is Abnormal Psychology?

Lessons from the past

A new three-volume study, Abnormal Psychology Across the Ages, shows how far we have come in diagnosing and treating mental illness. In the Renaissance, the mentally ill were feared, shunned, and subjected to bizarre and often abusive treatments. People believed mental illness was caused by divine retribution, demonic possession, witchcraft, astrological influences, excessive passions, or imbalanced humors, and treatments included exorcisms and violent medical purges.

Catholic priests performed exorcisms and Puritan ministers employed ritual, prayer, and fasting, while astrologers and folk healers used herbs, charms and astrological talismans, engraved metal disks engraved that patients wore on ribbons around their necks. Some patients were left in darkness and solitary confinement. In London’s first mental institution, St. Mary of Bethlehem, known as “Bedlam,” patients were whipped, chained, bled, and subjected to a meager diet, a bed of straw, and exhibited like circus animals for curious onlookers.

Medical treatments were often extreme, painful, and brutal, subjecting the mentally ill to a debilitating course of emetics, laxatives, and bleeding to purge the offending humors. In 1628, English physician Daniel Oxenbridge treated a 24-year-old woman for madness by giving her laxatives, bleeding her arms, feet, forehead, and tongue, and making her drink fresh apple cider, tempered with herbs. Every three or four days he either bled her, or administered another course of laxatives or emetics. He shaved her head, applying cloths soaked with rosemary, sage, lavender, and mandrake oil. In the evenings, he bathed her feet with warm water, gave her laudanum with boiled lettuce, and applied the lungs of lambs or pigeons to her head. Another English physician, Thomas Willis, practiced trephination, drilling a hole in a patient’s skull to release the foul vapors and excessive humors.He treated one young woman for madness by throwing her naked into a river for a quarter of an hour. In 1667, when a young man was depressed by the end of a romantic relationship, a French doctor bled him, then gave him a transfusion of cow’s blood. Remarkably, the last two patients not only survived these treatments but even recovered their wits (Dreher, 2013).

What was considered abnormal psychology in the Renaissance? Medical records from the time describe disorders we would recognize today as depression, anxiety, senile dementia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Yet too often anyone who failed to conform to rigid patriarchal norms was considered mentally ill. Adolescent girls who refused to marry the men their parents had chosen for them, wives who disobeyed their husbands, and children who disobeyed their parents were diagnosed as mentally ill and treated accordingly—all of which makes me grateful for the “unconditional positive regard” (Rogers, 1989), compassion and respect for the client that characterize contemporary psychotherapy.



Dreher, D. E. (2013).Abnormal psychology in the Renaissance. In T. G. Plante (Ed.), Abnormal Psychology across the Ages, Vol. I: History and Conceptualizations, pp. 33-50. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Rogers, C. R. (1989). The Carl Rogers reader. H. Kirschenbaum and V. L. Henderson (Eds.). Boston, MA:Houghton Mifflin, 135-138. First published in Kutash, I. and Wolf, A. (Eds.), (1986) Psychotherapist's Casebook. Jossey-Bass, 197-



Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

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