Geel, Belgium - The City of Saint Dymphna
There are many significant places that are really significant to disabilities’ history and Geel, Belgium is one of them. For example, It is known for being a safe place for those who have mental disabilities and also for being a place that Saint Dymphna has attracted many to come and seek healing from their impairments mainly one with mental impairments.
This place was the tragic place where Saint Dymphna lost her life to her father. Dymphna was a young princess who was placed in the care of a devoted Christian woman. Dymphna was described as a sweet child, the “face of beauty” and a bright and eager child. Sadly she lost her mom because her mom died. She sought comfort from her faith. The king, her father, was looking for someone to wed so that he could mend his broken heart but found no one’s beauty compared to the beauty of his daughter. The king told Dymphna that he wanted to marry her and Dymphna refused. Dymphna wanted to devote her life and her virginity to God. After telling Father Gerebran about her father’s proposal, he advised Dymphna to flee out of the continent. Accompanied by Father Gereban and his wife, she flees to a little village called Geel. (Booklet)
In Geel, Dymphna and her team started to settle and make plans for their future. Meanwhile, the king found out about her escape, he becomes very angry. He looks for towns that accepted any fugitives and found that they were located in Geel. The angry king goes to Geel, Belgium and tries to get Dymphna to accept his proposal. Father Gereban intervened in the situation and called out the wicked king for his intentions to marry his daughter. With this accusation, the king commands his followers to cut off the head of Father Gereban and they adhere to his commands. After that incident, the king still tries to persuade Dymphna to still marry him, but with courage, she rejects his promise and snubbed his threats. Taking his own sword, the king cuts off the head of his own daughter. While Dymphna is dying, she began to cry out for mercy from God and to save her soul from her deranged father. (Booklet)
Records of the past show that the bodies of Dymphna and Father Gereban were left to rot until the people of Geel took their bodies to a cave. After many years, after remembering their holy deaths, the people decided to grant them a proper burial. Dymphna became Saint Dymphna because of her good works in Geel before she died. Many miracles and cures began to occur spontaneously which raised the fame of Geel and caused many people to travel from afar. Those people include those with nervous disorders and mental disorders. It slowly became an asylum for those with mental disorders, People came in pilgrimage from country to country. Due to the fact that people were cured of their mental disorders, more and more people arrived in that little village. The church became so full to the point that the inhabitants of Geel had to set up another place for them to stay. So they started to send them to stay with families in the town of Geel(Thériault).
The reason why Geel was such a special place to be for those with mental disorders was that those with such impairments were socially accepted instead of being social outcasts which rehabilitates back in society. In medieval times, people with mental disabilities were treated horribly because society had accepted the myth that the mental disorders they had were seen as being insane, and being “mad”(Thériault). The term ‘mad’ or ‘madness’ had been derived from a psychiatric disorder, a mental illness that affects the way a person thinks. Society has placed mental disabilities without being fully educated. Not all mental disorders are the same, just like all disabilities are not the same. Each mental disorders are different in their own way. The residents in Geel, Belgium were the prime epitome for how ‘true Christians’ are supposed to treat the disability community. They welcomed pilgrims and visitors from far away places and welcomed their guests into their homes and hearts.
During Dymphna’s death, it was rumored that those underneath her care was miraculously ‘healed’ from any mental illness or ‘diseases’ they had(Thériault). This is truly what caused people to travel to Geel, Belgium. The pilgrims probably wanted to rid themselves of the “curse” they had so that they would be accepted back into society. With this kind of mental disabilities, it caused some families to disown or neglect their loved one with the disability. Sadly, that was not the case for everyone. People were not actually “healed” from their disabilities. It just got easier for them to actually make a better attempt in managing it.
In modern times, people still travel to Geel, Belgium for their mental impairment. Geel has become an asylum or the ‘headquarters’ of mental disabilities/disorders. There is no evidence of Dymphna’s body because one of the church workers decided to give away pieces of her skeleton without telling anyone. “The more the myth of Dymphna grew, the more the real Dymphna shrank”(Thériault).
Due to the fact that society has made those with mental disorders and mental disabilities pariah in their community, they have to flee to Geel because that is where they will be socially accepted. They were able to to a place where they will be treated as a proper human being or even as a family. Those other countries tried to copy Geel’s way of testing those with mental disabilities. Some places allowed people to reside in inhumane places and called those conditions humane. Abandoned places ”were transformed into “madhouses” that specialized in caring for the mad — if filthy conditions and brutal restraints can be called “care.”(Thériault). Luckily, Geel’s procedures are the most successful way to treat people with mental disabilities and disorders.
“The Meaning of Madness.” Psychology Today, 11 Sept. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201209/the-meaning-madness.
Thériault, Anne. “The City with a Radical Approach to Mental Illness.” Broadview Magazine, 17 Sept. 2019, https://broadview.org/geel-belgium-mental-health/.