Mad Tuscans and Their Families: A History of Mental Disorder in Early Modern Italy

Mad Tuscans and Their Families: A History of Mental Disorder in Early Modern Italy

Mad Tuscans and Their Families: A History of Mental Disorder in Early Modern Italy

Mad Tuscans and Their Families: A History of Mental Disorder in Early Modern Italy


Based on three hundred civil and criminal cases over four centuries, Elizabeth W. Mellyn reconstructs the myriad ways families, communities, and civic and medical authorities met in the dynamic arena of Tuscan law courts to forge pragmatic solutions to the problems that madness brought to their households and streets. In some of these cases, solutions were protective and palliative; in others, they were predatory or abusive. The goals of families were sometimes at odds with those of the courts, but for the most part families and judges worked together to order households and communities in ways that served public and private interests.

For most of the period Mellyn examines, Tuscan communities had no institutions devoted solely to the treatment and protection of the mentally disturbed; responsibility for their long-term care fell to the family. By the end of the seventeenth century, Tuscans, like other Europeans, had come to explain madness in medical terms and the mentally disordered were beginning to move from households to hospitals. In Mad Tuscans and Their Families, Mellyn argues against the commonly held belief that these changes chart the rise of mechanisms of social control by emerging absolutist states. Rather, the story of mental illness is one of false starts, expedients, compromise, and consensus created by a wide range of historical actors.


Ajax, so long as the mad fit was on him,
Himself felt joy at his wretchedness,
Though we, his sane companions, grieved indeed.
But now that he’s recovered and breathes clear,
His own anguish totally masters him,
While we are no less wretched than before.
Is not this a redoubling of our grief?


Many books have been written about men and women like Ajax and the madness that gripped them; fewer have been written about the companions who watched them suffer, cared for them, and grieved over their condition. This book is not so much about people like Ajax as it is about those companions who watched, cared, and grieved. It takes as its starting point not the commonly asked question of how a past Western society represented madness, though it is certainly an important part of the investigation. Rather, it asks first and foremost what families, communities, and civic authorities did to address the disorder or, in its worst manifestations, the chaos that it visited on their households or unleashed in their streets.

The focus on action rather than representation is meant to capture, to the extent that it is possible, the lived experience of madness in a specific time and place. Such an endeavor rests on three assumptions. First, madness, or in current terms, mental disorder, is a universal and persistent feature of human history. Every society, past and present, struggles to make sense of it; every society, past and present, struggles to address it. Second, madness is at once biological and social. As a failure of a person’s internal mechanisms it can produce cognitive, emotional, and behavioral states that lie outside the bounds of what a . . .

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