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Observations placeholder

Goes, Hugo van der - The Adoration of the Magi



Type of Spiritual Experience


Music therapy in the Later Middle Ages:  The Case of Hugo van der Goes [in Music as Medicine]

Music was famously used in the case of Hugo van der Goes, who suffered an episode of mental disturbance some time after 1477, while he was a conversus brother in the house of the Red Cloister in the forest of Soignes near Brussels… His brethren, under the instructions of the prior of the time tried to treat him with music, but apparently without much success.

Gaspar Ofhuys (1456-1523), the chronicler of the community who recorded this episode more than thirty years later (c. 1509-13), has also left us some intriguing speculations on the nature of Hugo's illness. We can investigate the reasons why music was used in Hugo’s case, as well as alternative diagnoses of the disease which accounted for his symptoms, and the lessons that Ofhuys thought could be learnt.

Later historians, unsurprisingly, have devoted much effort to unravelling the complexities of this case, coming at it from the perspectives of art, history of madness, and the history of medicine- but I make no excuse for returning to it once more. It is the locus classicus for any discussion of the practice of music therapy in the later Middle Ages.

The communal life of the Red Cloister was not receptive to music, and it is significant that Prior Thomas's attempts to treat Hugo took place before he re-entered the house.

It also shows how Prior Thomas's use of music and spectacula recreativa in treating Hugo could not have been predicted from religious motives alone.

There is no mention of the kind of music ordered by Prior Thomas. Since instrumental music, and in particular organ music, was forbidden in the Red Cloister by the statutes of the congregation, it is not surprising that the prior prescribed music and spectacula recreativa before Hugo returned to his brethren in the Cloister. Once he was back it would not certainly have been appropriate to continue the music treatment, which must have been of short duration.

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The source of the experience

Goes, Hugo van der

Concepts, symbols and science items



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Activities and commonsteps