2: The place and the fantasy
Half of Geel is entirely crazy, the other half is telling urban legends as if they're true
This is the second part of a series. You can find part one here.
When I stepped off the train from Antwerp, I was surprised by how modern Geel is. Reading dozens of articles about the city’s ancient traditions left me expecting a medieval village. Instead, I found a city where just about all of the buildings are younger than I am. The center is full of charming upscale boutiques and cafes.
If I were to look for something strange, the best I could come up with is that there seem to be a lot of employment offices for a city full of tidy new homes and nice restaurants. Unlike Brussels, no one walking around seemed obviously disturbed or to be behaving oddly. Things are spread out, though, so there were far more people on bikes than walking. It was August, so perhaps the city center was quieter than normal.
Geel isn’t exactly a tourist hotspot, even if it’s famous among WW2 buffs, enthusiasts of the antipsychiatry movement, and devout Catholics with particular sorts of struggles. While Geel boasts a clock museum, a lamp museum, a bakery museum, a psychiatric museum, a hospital museum, and a tourist information office, only the hospital museum and tourist office are open to the public without an appointment. The hospital museum has translated some of their audio tour into English.
I started at the psychiatric museum, on the grounds of the mental health center, OPZ Geel. A retired psychiatrist and a former patient gave me a tour. They patiently translated the wall cards into English for me and shared their personal experiences with the OPZ. I liked the grounds, which had a charming cafe, gardens, and a petting zoo. Much like Glenora Farm — where intellectually disabled adults live with foster families on Vancouver Island — it was bustling and everyone seemed happy to be there.
I was trying to take it all in and listen to what they felt was important for me to know. When I did ask questions it was frustrating. When I tried to ask about the history they just kept referring back to Dymphna, the saint who is said to have inspired it all. I assumed it was the language barrier, since people are typically happy to indulge my questions about bureaucracy or point me in the right direction.
Back in 1962, the American Journal of Psychiatry wrote about how family care had been going on in Geel for 1,000 years: “By 1250, the date of the earliest extant record, the tradition of family care had taken firm root in Geel.” So, there are historical documents to back up the myth. They’re just not at the OPZ museum and the people I spoke with didn’t seem familiar with them.
The next day I visited the Gasthuismuseum.1 Based on what I’d been told at the OPZ, I arrived under the impression that the hospital was the predecessor to the current mental health center.2 As I walked through, listening to the English audio tour and using Google Translate to read the wall cards, I realized I was mistaken. The museum displays made it clear that it was intended to treat all the sick of the region, not just the mad.
The hospital was founded by the nobility sometime in the 1200s and became a convent in the 1500s. The displays showed the pharmacy, with all sorts of herbal remedies that seemed like the sort of thing that would get someone accused of witchcraft if it wasn’t in a nunnery, and the hospital wards, with a plague doctor in costume and a patient dressed in rags and covered in sores.
One room of the hospital museum is devoted to Saint Dymphna, the saint whose life is said to have inspired the foster care program in Geel. Having read the story, I could not fathom how she was connected to foster care. An Irish princess flees to Belgium to escape her incestuous father. He tracks her down and beheads her. Then…adult foster care for the mad and intellectually disabled? Everyone I asked waved away my questions, as if it was silly that I didn’t see how things were connected.
I’d come to the hospital museum hoping for answers, but the docent once again acted like I was asking her serious questions about the Easter Bunny. Miracles happened, pilgrims came, there were so many pilgrims the locals started taking them in, and voila.3 The details are lost to history.
I’d been so focused on trying to politely inquire into how things got started that I hadn’t paid much attention to some of the other odd details. I’m among the many people who find cathedrals and the history of Catholicism incredibly boring and use my full brain power to filter that stuff out before it reaches my consciousness. Plus, there were so many odd things it was impossible to know which of them to focus on. It was in the hospital museum where some of those odd details became impossible to ignore. There was a large photograph of a carving showing a woman with a demon flying out of her head and another man in shackles, seemingly awaiting his turn.
I didn’t need Google Translate for this one: “Exorcisme Sint-Dimpnaretabel.”
It was time to go to the church and go see Dymphna’s shrine for myself.
The saint who inspired it all
When I arrived at Sint-Dimpnakerk, the guide said he’d seen me going everywhere else in town and had been wondering when I’d finally show up. He confirmed that no, the pilgrims to the shrine of Saint Dymphna weren’t coming here to light a candle and pray. He couldn’t say when the exorcisms stopped. Today, though, he’ll show people to the shrine and they’ll pray for a while and leave.
Finally, I had someone who was responding to my questions in a way I expected. Like I was an eager PhD student or a history buff rather than a kindergartner. When I asked about dates, finances, rituals, and reasons, he gave me plausible answers or said he wasn’t sure. Of course, this first reasonable seeming conversation since I’d arrived in Geel was a discussion of exorcisms.
Our tour started in the hostel, which I’d been told had been added onto the church to house the many pilgrims. I assumed it would look like…a hostel. Nope. It's a room with a big cell, about the size of a twin mattress, with a barred and shuttered window. It also has three small cells. I’d say they’re the size of a closet, but I’m not sure they’re deep enough for a clothes hanger. Think: enough room for a single person to stand and no more. The 1889 report mentions iron rings in the walls to secure unruly pilgrims. I didn’t think to ask how many people were put in each cell, since it was only later that I realized they might be shared in an era when people at the hospital across the street were sharing beds. Presumably not everyone was bound or locked in cells. Before the hostel was built, pilgrims slept in out of the way spots in the church.
The exorcism consisted of a noventa, a nine day ceremony. During this time, the pilgrims couldn’t leave the church. They couldn’t bathe or change their clothes. I didn’t think to ask how they relieved themselves. I assume there were chamberpots.
In Sint-Dimpnakerk I got to see the carving of the exorcism in person. You can’t miss it, since it’s part of a majestic altarpiece in the center of the church. I was starting to find it difficult to believe other people came and stood in this spot and walked away thinking there was no stigma against disabilities in Geel. I find it a little implausable that a town specializing in demon removal doesn’t stigmatize people with demons who refuse to vacate their brains.
The relics are in a shrine behind the altar. The altar dates from 1515, so it hasn’t changed since this description in The Insane in Foreign Countries from 1889:
“The altar of white marble has sculptured representations of insane persons with manacled limbs in the act of supplicating St Dymphna. The silver shrine believed to contain her relics is elaborately wrought and is preserved with religious care The tomb of the saint is elevated on short pillars but sufficiently high to admit of persons passing under it upon their knees. The stone pavement about it is much worn by the feet of weary pilgrims who through many generations have here sought relief from their afflictions On the walls nearby are legendary inscriptions relating to her romantic life.”
The best photos I’ve found are in an article discussing the dating of the relics.
Every day, or maybe three times a day, pilgrims circled the church on their knees and crawled under the little house that contains Saint Dymphna’s relics.4 This was done barefoot. The bottom of the case holding the relics would be kissed and touched. The shrine is not the sarcophagus made by angels, although it is said to contain two pieces of it.
When I toured Sint-Dimpnakerk, I was told that the bones had been carbon dated and the findings confirmed the legend. An article I read later that night claims the shrine was found to contain animal bones. Neither is true.
The shrine does contain human bones: two thigh bones (said to be Dymphna’s), a third thigh bone (said to be from Gerebernus), a jawbone, and pieces of two stone coffins. The thigh bones are dated 684-770. The stone pieces have a similar age range. Prior to the dating in 2002, the legend was usually placed in the 600s. Afterwards it was shifted to match the findings. They do not give the age or sex of the people the bones came from.
Each day during the noventa, the priest would read prayers over the sick and give communion. Those who were allowed would give their confession in the church itself and take communion at the altar. This was the only food and drink they were given, making my toileting question feel less relevant.
Various prayers were performed for the sick by nine children, who were paid a penny a day. I got excited when I came across Kuyl’s “From an old manuscript of the abbot of Gembloux. Prayers which were used in ancient times in the reading of the senseless.”
Alas, the prayers are not the tantalizing incantations I was hoping for:
“WE PRAY. Eternal God, who hast redeemed the human race from the captivity of the devil, free this your servant from all the power of unclean spirits. to your holy and only-begotten Son and your Life-giving Spirit from the figment of your hands, so that, redeemed from all the wiles of the devil, he may live in holiness, chastity and piety. Moreover, we implore you, that by your powerful power, through the passion of your own Son, you will deign to dissolve all evils, bonds and incantations, prestige and witchcraft and bindings, if they have been made to this servant by your diabolical art, just as you destroyed the magical devices of the Egyptian magicians; and do not allow him to do any more harm, but deliver him from all evils, enchantments, fascinations, bindings, signatures and deeds and evil shadows, and dissolve all prestige and all evil work done to him by Satan.
Open to him, Lord, the door of your mercy, restore to him health of mind and body; and deliver him through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, through all the holy Angels and Archangels, Thrones and Dominions and Powers of Heaven, through the holy Apostles and Evangelists, through all the holy Innocents, Martyrs and Confessors and Doctors, through holy Dympna, Virgin and Martyr, our Patroness , and all the holy Virgins, Widows and Continuum; and as you delivered Susanna from false accusation, Judith and your people from the hand of Holofernes, so do you deign to deliver this servant of yours from every assault of the devil, his servants, and the weakness of the senses, and break all the bonds of evil, charms, fascinations, bindings, signatures and all the work of the devil and his devices, if they are ingested into his body.
By him who is about to come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire. Amen.”
At the end of the noventa the priest would either declare the pilgrim healed or require they stay another nine days. Those who were cured were made members in the Brotherhood of Saint Dymphna and given a medal depicting Dymphna flanked by the coat of arms of the Merode family and the town of Geel.
Exorcisms aren’t free. Pilgrims needed to provide payment upfront. There was a special chair the “senseless” needed to sit in to ensure that they paid their weight in grain. I went into the grain storeroom in the church, which was large enough to now serve as a small art gallery. A shrine was great for the economy. Besides bringing money to the church (and the family that owned it, and their lackeys, and the inns along the way), the family and friends who brought the pilgrim needed to be fed and housed while they waited nine or eighteen days for the ritual to finish.
I was confused about how the people being cared for had shifted from the mad to the intellectually disabled. The media emphasizes that people in Geel are “crazy”, with specific mentions of schizophrenia. Sure, I’d assumed that historically the mad included people with dementia caused by anything from syphilis to malnutrition, as well as people with TBIs and epilepsy. I didn’t realize people born with intellectual disabilities would qualify. Were the so-called simple-minded believed to be possessed by the devil? Was anyone’s autism or Alzheimer’s being cured by this ceremony?
I left the church with the impression that the story of Saint Dymphna had been made up in the Middle Ages as a way to make money. My guide suggested that the pilgrims had brought a lot of money to the local nobility as he told me about the fancy tombs they have in front of the altar and the castle that still stands in Westerlo. Why someone would make up a story about incest and somehow connect that to the mad remained a mystery.
The unsettling city of Geel
I meandered around the churchyard in an attempt to gather my thoughts. It was a large and peaceful space with a bike path running through it. I noticed how many of the gravestones note the place of birth and death. Almost all of them list Geel for both. Men who died in the 1960s, of which there are not many, are noted to have been born in Geel and died in the Congo. Only a handful of gravestones are in French.
I’d planned on spending my week in Geel chatting with the locals to get a feel for the town. While not exactly an extrovert, I can hold my own. Soon, though, things in Geel just felt too…off.
People in Geel were eager to chat and assumed I was here for Saint Dymphna. Person after person told me the same anecdote about a foster parent sewing the buttons onto a boarders shirt, only for them to anxiously pull them all off during the day. They all acted like this had happened in their family. I’d also read it in several newspaper articles, as proof of how Geel accepts people as they are. You see, in the anecdote an Outsider Who Does Not Get It suggests they sew the buttons on with fishing line and the foster parent is like ‘oh no, they need to tear off the buttons because it soothes them and we completely accept this about them because we are Good People.’ It seems like a lot of buttons are getting pulled off in Geel.
Yes, there is more than one shop in Geel that sells fidget spinners, which were invented in 1993 and became ubiquitous in 2016.
In addition to having everyone pass off the same anecdote as their own personal experience, people kept using the same phrases. It was as if they’d learned their English at the tourism office. It was frustrating, since it felt like everyone was lying to me. It was also unsettling. Soon I did not want to go to the coffee shop and the cafe to chat people up, even though the cafe at the OPZ Geel is quite cute and has a lovely outdoor area. I wanted to cook dinner in the house, which had a fantastic kitchen and no one making up weird stories full of bizarre details.
Supposedly there is the saying that “Half Geel is entirely crazy and all of Geel is half crazy.” The thing where everyone talks about fairy princesses who were brutally murdered and tells their town’s urban legends as if they’re real things that happened to them contributed to that feeling for me. It also made me feel like I was losing my grip on reality. My social interactions were profoundly unsettling and every night as I typed up my notes it all made less and less sense.
One of the things that irked me during my time in Geel was how often I heard the term “myth based stigma” to describe negative attitudes about mental illness – from people who had just referenced an actual myth about a man beheading his daughter for refusing to have sex with him that inspired hundreds of years of exorcisms to profit the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy.
I knew I was overreacting and it was all just people trying to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. Unfortunately, that didn’t alter my visceral reaction to having an entire town striking up conversations with me just to tell me things that weren’t true. The vibe was Get Out meets The Truman Show.
“Villagers are painfully aware that it is their “quaintness” which attracts tourists and their money. Hence, during July and August the pubs and the main street are fairly buzzing with “fairy stories,” old piseogas (superstitions), and homely, devout expressions…and villagers go out of their way to be chatty, sociable, and far more robust in their manner than usual.”
Looking back, I realized that most accounts of Geel were by journalists who had visited for an afternoon. I, too, had a lovely first day in Geel. It was as the days passed that odd little details accumulated. It was a relief to get on the train back to Antwerp.
Everyone in Geel seemed kind and eager to create a world where the disabled were accepted and supported, so why was everyone putting on a show for me? And why did none of the scarce bits of historic information people gave me add up?
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“The early modern hospitals (Gasthuizen, literal translation: guest houses) were an important part of the system of care in the cities and had existed from the Middle Ages onwards. Before becoming an institution for the poor (and) sick, these hospitals housed many different types of people; for example, travellers, vagabonds, proveniers, invalids and the needy.106 Hospitals were institutions of charity in which the primary criteria of admission were as likely to be economic and social as they were medical.” https://pure.uva.nl/ws/files/39144263/Thesis_complete_.pdf
Several versions of the story claim Dymphna founded the gasthuis, or a hospital in town without specifying which (of course, there was somewhere between zero and one hospitals in town, depending on the time period), or a hospital specifically for the mentally ill. One example: https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/inspired-dymphna-belgium-town-welcomes-mentally-ill
Later, when I read about the Miracle of Amsterdam, I started to understand why people kept acting as if that should have been a satisfactory answer. Religion is not about coherent narratives supported by historical evidence.
Once I looked, I found a bunch of crawling altars. A magic travel site explains that in addition to healing physical ailments, they’re often known for curing lust, diarrhea, and improving fertility.
She’s writing about a village in Ireland, not Geel.