Monthly Archives: August 2014

Making the Most of Madness

Madness has always been the most fashionable of afflictions. That is to say, unlike cancer, or cholera, or even the plague, it has been the most malleable, the most subject to interpretation by the society in which it takes place, the most available to being fashioned – into, perhaps, a curse, or a gift, from the gods; a comment and stigma on the society, or the individual, or the family; or perhaps a genetic or a chemical failure taking on mental dimensions. The utterances of the mad, too, have variously been taken as divine revelations or prophecies, as shrewd or satiric insights (‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t’ as Polonius puts it in Hamlet)1, or as gobbledegook and ignored accordingly. The eighteenth century in Britain saw an increasingly rapid professionalization of medicine – a dragging of the whole business of dealing with the sick into a scientific age and a gradual stripping it of its accumulation of superstitions, bits and pieces of magic and ritual, a freeing from the remnants of beliefs inherited from classical and medieval times. Not that this was a process accomplished overnight, but with medical training being put on a systematic basis, with the leading universities in Britain, after the example of the continent, taking medicine seriously, and increasingly expecting practical training (this particularly the case in Scotland), and with English, rather than Latin, becoming the norm for published medical works, doctors and doctoring were coming down to earth, coming face to face with reality, and making serious efforts to understand what was going on before their eyes.

The treatment of madness, as so often, tended to lag behind – unfashionable, at least in this respect. But change did follow. One major area was in confinement. As Roy Porter puts it, ‘Whereas in 1660 it had been exceptional for a lunatic to be put in a madhouse, by the beginning of the nineteenth century confinement was becoming increasingly normal, indeed the resort progressive opinion was recommending.’2 In 1660, he argues, little was different from ‘the Tudor and Stuart centuries’: an ‘unknown but small number of the disturbed’ had been ‘under lock and key’. ‘By the 1810s’, however,

official figures indicate that around 2590 lunatics were confined in licensed houses for the mad, and almost as many again in other places of custody such as houses of correction, workhouses and gaols. The real totals were higher.
(p. 111)3

Confinement, certainly, kept people off the streets, it made them easier to observe and to treat – primitive though that treatment sometimes was – and, in a professional age, it above all made them more profitable, at least in the booming trade of private madhouses that flourished as the century progressed. Confinement acted in some degree as a reassurance to the wider public that madness was under some sort of control, rather than being allowed to wander freely in society, though that was to an extent countered by the fear, especially in London, that the Bethlem bailiffs, or the men from St Luke’s, might pick you up in the night and cart you away as a madman!

But confinement also changed, in rather subtle ways, the meanings of madness, what it was capable of being made into. James Carkesse, back in the late seventeenth century, writes (poetically) of his being confined in Finsbury madhouse, a private establishment run by Dr Thomas Allen. (He adopts the doctor’s voice for this poem.)

Moreover I him in the Hole,
        As under a Bushel , confin’d;
Lest God’s Word, the Light of the Soul,
        In my Mad-house should have shin’d:
Ne’re the less into the Dungeon,
        He let the Rayes of the Sun,
And i’th’Pit, where him I did plunge in,
        Made Night and Day meet in one.4

There are many models, pre-eminently Biblical, but also, of course, classical, for the lone voice of truth shunned and misunderstood by its society. Those who speak certain truths are never welcomed with open arms. The act of confinement, however, is an unmistakeable consolidating factor. Society has judged, and in judging and acting in this way has actually confirmed the madman’s view of himself: ‘I must be right, otherwise they would never have confined me. And not only am I right, but I am being persecuted for being right. I’ll carry on, then.’

In this sense, confinement laid open the way for madness to find ways of making the most of itself, of a process of self-fashioning that was to last for the entire eighteenth century and beyond.


Allan Ingram

Back to post[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen & Co., 19820, II ii 205-6, p. 248.

Back to post[2] Roy Porter, Mind-Forg’d Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency (London: Athlone Press, 1987), p. 155.

Back to post[3]Porter references William Llewelly Parry-Jones, The Trade in Lunacy: A Study of Private Madhouses in England in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 54, for these figures.

Back to post[4] James Carkesse, Lucida Intrervalla: Containing divers Miscellaneous Poems (1679) in Patterns of Madness in the Eighteenth Century: A Reader, ed. Allan Ingram (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998), p. 25.