Insanity from a Historical Perspective: The Holy Fool in Late Antiquity
Against a backdrop of the nascent Christian empire in sixth-century Byzantium,1 we find the emergence of an unusual group of ascetics. Commonly known as holy fools, they displayed anti-social behaviour such as walking around naked in the markets, defecating in public and generally indulging in socially unacceptable behaviour. Accordingly, the Byzantine citizens scorned them as madmen. Taking the opposite perspective, Christian writers promoted holy fools as exemplars of high spiritual devotion who avoided the sin of pride through the practice of self-humiliation and that beneath their pretence of madness, they continued to work for God in saving souls.
A question of ambiguity thus arises. Were holy fools sane individuals, consciously feigning insanity as a form of devotion, or had hagiographers selected individuals as religious symbols regardless of mental status? When there was potential for any mad person to be a saint in disguise, the beholder’s appraisal of an insane individual became confused. This ambiguity allowed hagiographers an opportunity to deliver an edifying message to the faithful. Abuse of a mad person could be an abuse of an exalted servant of God, thus requiring repentance and contemplation of one’s own devotion. Although the primary goal was to create religious impact, scholars have argued that holy fools could cause social change. This study explores how the Byzantine understanding of madness facilitated holy foolery to emerge and flourish. Then, using Symeon2 of Emesa as an exemplar of holy fools,3 this thesis analyses the ambiguity presented by their feigned insanity before investigating the holy fool’s social impact in seventh-century Byzantium.