abuse, murder, sterilisation, suicide: honouring the dead

I reckon the title makes it puh-lenty clear that this isn’t a perky pollyanna of a post. On a serious note – if you’re likely to be hurt by it, please give it a miss. I don’t want to hurt you.
Continue reading abuse, murder, sterilisation, suicide: honouring the dead

Chapters in the History of the Insane in the British Isles

By Daniel Hack Tuke, M.D., F.R.C.P. (President of the Medico-Psychological Association, Joint Editor of “The Journal of Mental Science,” and Formerly Visiting Physician to the York Retreat.)

Alrighty, get your geek on.

The book was published in 1882 and it’s fascinating from the prologue onwards. First we get an introduction to insanity from Saxon times onwards through witch burning, licenced beating of lunatics etc.

Leaving now the insane who were punished as witches, I pass on to remark that in Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” it is stated that the English have more songs and ballads on the subject of madness than any of their neighbours. “Whether,” the writer proceeds, “there be any truth in the insinuation that we are more liable to this calamity than other nations, or that our native gloominess hath peculiarly recommended subjects of this class to our writers, we certainly do not find the same in the printed collections of French and Italian songs.”

Native gloominess!

I was delighted by how readable it is, I struggle to focus on books earlier than the 20th century. Here’s a quote to give you an idea of attitudes towards mental illness in the late 19th century.

In the first place, we see that the nature of the malady under which the insane laboured was completely misunderstood; that they often passed as witches and possessed by demons, and were tortured as such and burnt at the stake, when their distempered minds ought to have been gently and skilfully treated. Some, however, were recognized by the monks as simply lunatic, and were treated by the administration of herbs, along with, in many instances, some superstitious accompaniment, illustrating, when successful, the influence of the imagination.

The accounts of beatings, torture and deaths of lunatics are sad as fuck. Makes you think, makes you wonder. Of course, the maltreatment wasn’t even confined to the mentally ill. People got locked away in asylums for the most trivial reasons. And yet … look at treatment of the mentally ill in the first half of the 20th century … and of course, though we sit feeling all first world superior, there are still places where it’s happening now.

But I digress!


To anticipate what belongs to subsequent chapters, we may say here that when the insane were no longer treated in monasteries, or brought to sacred wells, or flogged at “trees of truth,” they fared no better—nay, I think, often worse—when they were shut up in mad-houses and crowded into workhouses. They were too often under the charge of brutal keepers, were chained to the wall or in their beds, where they lay in dirty straw, and frequently, in the depth of winter, without a rag to cover them. It is difficult to understand why and how they continued to live; why their caretakers did not, except in the case of profitable patients, kill them outright; and why, failing this—which would have been a kindness compared with the prolonged tortures to which they were subjected—death did not come sooner to their relief

Sigh. Survival of the fittest?


He talks about asylums, including Bethlem Hospital (originally St Mary’s of Bethlehem) gave the English language the word bedlam and it’s probably one of the world’s best known lunatic asylums. And it’s still operating, as the Bethlem Royal Hospital.


Ole Daniel goes into a looooot of historical detail and I found out that Bethlem is responsible for the word jackanapes too.

He grinnes and he gapes,
As it were Jacke Napes,
Such a mad Bedlam

It’s tempting to try to diagnose everybody I meet in this darkly fascinating book:

I stepped into Bedlam, where I saw several poor miserable creatures in chains; one of them was mad with making verses.”

(Rhyming is a possible feature of hypo/mania.)

It’s not all about Bedlam, of course. The author wrote about other asylums and his sources were broad enough to include the literary as well as historical and political. Everything he tells us includes its context. There are also chapters dealing with Scotland and Ireland. Obviously there’s no point in applying political correctness to a book written so long ago – brace yourself for much talk of lunatics, idiots and imbeciles.

Übercool stuffs:
Free book download @ Gutenberg
Reviews & ratings of contemporary Bethlem.
Steeleye Span – Boys of Bedlam: YouTube
The ‘mad song’ Tom o’ Bedlam/Bedlam Boys