Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Possession or Insanity? Two Views from the Victorian Lunatic Asylum

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Possession or Insanity? Two Views from the Victorian Lunatic Asylum

Article excerpt

During the Enlightenment, the widespread belief in demonic possession gradually gave way to the medical view of pathological insanity. This process was well underway in the seventeenth century, and the latter view was no longer a specialist position in the eighteenth. The physician Richard Mead, writing in 1749, denied the existence of possession, and prescribed medical treatment for the insane: blood-letting, emetics, purgatives and other drugs, diet, and exercise. He also prescribed a sort of psychological treatment: the doctor should, he said, "keep the patient's mind employed in thoughts directly contrary to those which possessed it before."1 The old language of possession was still present, now as metaphor.

Mead was unusual in his time for recommending a moral, as well as a physical approach; one may contrast, for instance, the purely physical treatment offered in Peter Shaw's much-reprinted textbook, A New Practice of Physic.2 But by the end of the century, this moral treatment started to be introduced into lunatic hospitals in Italy, England, and France. The traditional hero of this movement was the French clinician, Philippe Pinel, celebrated across the Continent for his humane handling of the insane; he reduced their restraints and abolished harsh physical treatments, advocating psychological approaches to the mitigation and cure of their conditions. In his landmark work of 1801, the Traité médico-philosophique sur l'aliénation mentale, Pinel dismisses demonic possession as past superstition- demoniacs, he says, citing Mead approvingly, were only ever maniacs.3

Legislation in 1808 and 1828 prompted county asylums to open across England, for the benefit of pauper lunatics. The first of these was the Middlesex County Asylum in Hanwell, west London, which opened in 1831. It was here, in the 1840s, that the physician John Conolly became famous for abolishing physical restraint entirely, attempting to rehabilitate and educate his patients instead of confining them. Conolly, too, was dismissive of any belief in possession, singling out Joseph Glanvill for censure in this regard.4

These developments have been much studied: Pinel and Conolly, the asylums, their doctors and patients, their social structure and effects, have all received attention.5 But one group has, to my knowledge, been almost entirely overlooked-the chaplains. As in Germany, these were problematic figures.6 The law demanded the presence of a chaplain at each asylum, and there was some discussion in medical journals as to their role in dealing with the mad. It was argued in certain quarters that chaplains were useless, as divinity had no good effect on the mad-indeed, they were in danger of stirring up religious enthusiasm among the more volatile patients.7 In 1855 the Asylum Journal recommended the appointment of chaplains "the warmth of whose religious feelings ranges below that of gentlemanly sentiment, good taste, and quiet decorum."8

On an intellectual level, asylum chaplains were caught in a bind from the start, since on the one hand they were religious figures, and on the other, ancillary to the medical establishment. How did they perceive madness-as a theological, or a scientific problem? In 1841 we read of one chaplain who exceeded the limits of his office and made "emphatic assurances to the melancholy and the mad that the devil was ever seeking to devour them . . . in the bottomless pit they would be bound with chains instead of cords"; the visiting superintendent watched with horror.9 Much later, in 1893, the medical community would set out their own view of an ideal asylum chaplain, written in the mock-Tudor prose beloved of the late Victorians:

The Good Chaplain regardeth it as a fundamental axiom that the false beliefs or the sense of spiritual desertion and the fear of impending damnation are the indications of physical disease, and neither the work of the devil nor the expression of Divine wrath ... he hath learnt to regard the lunatic as the victim, not of demoniacal possession, but of a pathological state. …

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