Academic journal article Parergon

The Lexical Prison: Impairment and Confinement in Medieval and Early Modern England

Academic journal article Parergon

The Lexical Prison: Impairment and Confinement in Medieval and Early Modern England

Article excerpt

In Crime and Insanity in England, volume 1: The Historical Perspective, the criminologist Nigel Walker states that 'in the history which extends from the tenth to the twentieth century, a minor problem is the choice of terms in which to refer to the various categories and types of mental disorders'. (1) Differing from Walker, I argue as a literary scholar that these often Latin clerical terms have a claim to be regarded as a major problem because they influenced the future treatment of the impaired, particularly, but not always, when they committed serious crimes. Some of these consequences were carceral--imprisonment, home detention, physical restraint--or social exile.

There is now a growing body of scholarship in premodern disability studies by historians, literary critics, and cultural studies practitioners. Alongside this trend, the field of medieval mental impairment and care has greatly advanced in its own right over the last few years. In the past, this topic was a side note in penal histories or consisted of a few pages in the short early chronological section in histories of medicine. Intellectual impairment is a category that the historian Irina Metzler, in a groundbreaking study of the medieval understanding of what modern medical and psychiatric practitioners term intellectual disability--a 'notoriously ambiguous conceptual category'--outlined the medieval counterparts and understandings of conditions such as autism, and the difficulties of uncovering narratives of cognitive intellectual disability in medieval sources. (2) The predominant interest of historians has been, Metzler claims, the 'more glamorous acquired madness rather than folly or idiocy'. (3) There is nothing 'glamorous' about cases of insanity that describe perplexing and incongruous motives and inexplicable behaviours of those deranged in thought and deed. Metzler's approach is to move away from the prurience that Bedlam, for example, generated for its early modern 'dark' tourists.

Additionally, Wendy J. Turner, a historian of medieval mental health and intellectual disabilities, has tackled the problem of definitions in her comprehensive analysis of terms used from 1200 to 1500 in English administrative records. (4) Turner collected and analysed 139 terms for mental impairment in criminal cases for their frequency of occurrence. She was able to demonstrate that the uses and meanings of words such as idiota and non compos mentis ebbed and flowed at different times. For example, in the early thirteenth century, administrative records that recorded adjudication about land favoured the term non compos mentis for those born with low intellectual ability. But by the 1270s the word idiota was used in approximately half of the cases about holdings that involved those born without comprehension. These non-medical descriptors were used as legal shorthand for the outcome of disputed land cases. A further striking finding Turner made is that beyond the division between innate and acquired impairment, descriptive terms for disorders featured active and passive elements (e.g.jhriosus--an agitated frenzy involving movement, sometimes with a fever). (5) Walker had suggested that the terms 'lunacy', 'insanity', 'idiocy', 'frenzy', 'madness', non compos mentis, and de non saine memoire were substitutable, and that 'it would be a mistake to relate any of them to some more precise subdivision of mental illness'. (6) Turner's research disrupts Walker's position that no precise subdivisions are possible in premodern terminologies of mental disorder. Likewise, the semantic imprecision that I highlight in my examples shows some of the problems that arise with too limited a range of descriptive terms. We can conclude that categories of congenital or acquired incapacity may appear simple but they are merely simplifications of what are in practice disorders of the mind and/or emotions that are less discretely defined in practice. (7)

Historians of disability, such as Turner and Metzler, have examined premodern records of once living persons. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.