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Imprisoning the Mentally Ill in Medieval England

Imprisoning the Mentally Ill in Medieval England


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What to do with mentally ill individuals who are violent? This is a question that modern and medieval societies had to deal with. In two papers given last month at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, scholars examined what sources from medieval England revealed about under what conditions the mentally ill would be imprisoned.

The papers were given by Leigh Ann Craig of Virginia Commonwealth University and Wendy J. Turner of Portland State University, two of the leading scholars in issues regarding mental illness in the Middle Ages.

“Inside a Most Fortified Little House”: Communities and the Imprisonment of the Senseless in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

Leigh Ann Craig examined eight medieval miracle stories from England which had stories of individuals being imprisoned, either in a home or a shrine, because of a mental illness. For example, in one story a ten-year old girl found a bloody rag and believed it was a relic of Jesus Christ. Her mother detained her in their house, but she became increasingly violent and claimed she was the daughter of the King of England. In another story, one lady had been “out of her mind for 25 years” before her husband had her confined.

These hagiographical stories make it clear that imprisonment was often seen as a last resort and that it was expected to be a temporary measure. In some cases, it was to prevent the mentally ill-person from doing self-harm – for example, one lady was capturing and eating spiders, while another threw himself into a fire.

Craig notes that some of these people had to be physically restrained even while in captivity, either by hand or ropes; otherwise they might attack family or friends. The mentally ill person could also cause much damage to a home, such as smashing objects or even breaking through walls.

The stories examined by Craig noted that for the friends and family were also making effort were made to heal the person. In one case, the friends of one mentally-ill man had to carry him around and forcibly feed him for over seven years, as they took him to various shrines hoping that he could be helped. In another story, a woman named Agnes Green was kept in solitary confinement in hopes that it could provide some sort of therapeutic treatment. In that case it worked, as she said she was visited by the spirit of an English king, who spoke with her. She then regained her sanity.

Handcuffs, Chains, and Ropes: Medieval English Restraint and Incarceration of the Mentally Afflicted

Wendy J. Turner’s paper examined various criminal records dating back to the 13th century England to see what measures were being done for people considered insane (insania). By this time, English law had noted that the mentally ill who committed crimes were not to be punished:

Madmen committing cries in their madness ought not by law to undergo the extreme penalty nor forfeit their goods and chattels.

If crime was committed, it was expected that local officials would detain the mentally ill individual pending an investigation or trial, and in a few cases it was reported they needed to be chained or tied up. Sometimes the person needed to be bound to a bed, wall or floor. Turner notes that in all cases this was done for their protection and the protection of their keepers, and not as a kind of punishment.

In other situations, the officials would appoint a keeper for the person, usually one of his friends or relatives. This could be a dangerous role, as there were cases of some keepers being killed by their wards.

In the end, if a person was found to be mentally ill, their crime was pardoned. Some would later atone for their actions by undertaking a pilgrimage to places such as Paris, Rome or the Holy Land. Others had to continue to be held by the community, with a custodian appointed to watch over their legal rights.

Turner also notes that the Priory of the New Order of St Mary of Bethlem, established in London in 1247, would by the fifteenth-century become the first institution of its kind where the mentally ill would be housed. A report from 1403 notes that this hospital had six male inmates who were “mente capti”, a Latin term indicating insanity, and that inventory of its goods included four pairs of manacles, 11 chains, six locks and two pairs of stocks. By the mid-fifteenth-century one mayor of London noted that:

A Church of Our Lady that is named Bedlam. And in that place be found many men that be fallen out of their wit. And full honestly they be kept in that place; and some be restored onto their wit and health again. And some be abiding therein for ever, for they be fallen so much out of themselves that it is incurable unto man.

Eventually, the hospital at Bethlem would become known as Bedlam, leading to the word being associated with mental illness.

Turner concludes that “all told medieval England was relatively humane” when it came to the dealing with the mentally ill.


Watch the video: Treatment of the Mentally Ill Throughout History (June 2022).


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