A type of mental alteration based on the delusional idea that the body itself is made of glass.
Throughout history there have been a large number of diseases that have caused great harm and damage to humanity and with the passage of time they have ended up disappearing. This is the case of the black plague or the so-called Spanish flu. But it has not only occurred with medical illnesses, but there have also been typical mental illnesses of a specific historical period or stage. An example of this is the so-called crystal delusion or crystal illusion, an alteration that we are going to talk about throughout this article.
Delusion or crystal illusion: symptoms
It receives the name of delusion or crystal illusion, a typical and highly frequent mental disorder of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance which is characterized by the presence of the delusional belief of being made of glass, the body itself having the properties of this and especially its fragility.
In this sense, it remained fixed, persistent, unchangeable despite the presence of contrary evidence and without any social consensus that the body itself was glass, extremely fragile and easily broken.
This belief went hand in hand with a high level of panic and fear, practically phobic, to the idea of breaking or breaking at the slightest blow, being frequent the adoption of attitudes such as avoiding all physical contact with others, moving away from furniture and corners, defecate standing up to avoid breaking or tying cushions and wearing reinforced garments with them to avoid possible damage when sitting or moving.
The disorder in question may include the sensation that the whole body is made of glass or it may include only specific parts, such as the extremities. In some cases it was even considered that the internal organs were made of glass, the psychic suffering and fear of these people being very high.
A common phenomenon in the Middle Ages
As we have said, this disorder appeared in the Middle Ages, a historical stage in which glass began to be used in elements such as stained glass or the first lenses.
One of the oldest and best known cases is that of the French monarch Carlos VI, nicknamed “the beloved” (since he apparently fought against the corruption introduced by his regents) but also “the madman” because he ended up suffering from various psychiatric problems, among those who have psychotic episodes (ending the life of one of his courtiers) and being among them the delusion of crystal. The monarch dressed in a lined garment to avoid damage from possible falls and remained motionless for long hours.
It was also the upheaval of Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria, and of many other nobles and citizens (usually of upper classes). The composer Tchaikovsky also manifested symptoms that suggest this disorder, fearing that his head would fall to the ground while conducting the orchestra and break, and even physically holding it to prevent it.
In fact it was such a frequent condition that even René Descartes made mention of it in one of his works and it is even the condition suffered by one of Miguel de Cervantes’s characters in his “El Licenciado Vidriera”.
Records indicate a high prevalence of this disorder especially during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, especially between the 14th and 17th centuries. However, with the passage of time and as glass became more and more frequent and less mythologized (initially it was seen as something exclusive and even magical), this disorder would decrease in frequency until practically disappearing after 1830.
Cases still exist today
The crystal delusion was a delusion, as we have said, that had its maximum expansion throughout the Middle Ages and that apparently ceased to exist around 1830.
However, a Dutch psychiatrist named Andy Lameijin found a report of a patient from the 1930s who presented a delusional belief that her legs were made of glass and that the slightest blow could break them, generating any approach or possibility of blow a great anxiety or even self harm
After reading this case, whose symptoms clearly resemble those of a medieval disorder, the psychiatrist proceeded to investigate similar symptoms and discovered different isolated cases of people with a similar delusion.
However, he also found a living and current case in the very center where he worked, in the Endegeest Psychiatric Hospital in Leiden: a man who said he felt made of glass or crystal after having suffered an accident.
However, in this case there were differential characteristics with respect to others, more focused on the quality of transparency of the glass than on fragility : the patient claimed to be able to appear and disappear from the sight of others, making him feel according to the patient’s own words that “I am here, but I am not, like crystal.”
It must be taken into account, however, that the crystal illusion or delusion is still considered a historical mental problem and that it can be considered an effect or part of other disorders, such as schizophrenia.
Theories about its causes
Explaining a mental disorder that is practically non-existent today is extremely complex, but through the symptoms, some experts have been offering hypotheses in this regard.
In general, it could be thought that this disorder could originate as a defense mechanism in people with a high level of pressure and the need to show a certain social image, being a response to the fear of showing fragility.
Its emergence and disappearance of the disorder is also associated with the evolution of the consideration of the material, being frequent that the themes on which the delusions and different mental problems deal are linked to the evolution and elements of each era.
In the most recent case attended by Lameijin, the psychiatrist considered that a possible explanation for the disorder in this specific case was the need to search for privacy and personal space in the face of excessive care by the patient’s environment, the symptom being in the form of belief in being able to be transparent like glass a way of trying to separate and maintain individuality.
This conception of the current version of the disorder stems from the anxiety generated by today’s extremely individualistic and appearance-focused society with a high level of personal isolation despite the existence of large communication systems.
- Cervantes, M. (2003). The lawyer Vidriera. Salamanca University Editions.
- Speak, G. (1990) An odd kind of melancholy: reflections on the glass delusion in Europe (1440-1680) History of Psychiatry; 1: 191-206.
- Speak, G. (1990) “El Licenciado Vidriera” and the Glass Men of Early Modern Europe. The Modern Language Review; 85 (4): 850-865.