Madness

Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries

by D.P. Walker
University of Pennsylvania Press, 116 pp., $16.00

Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England

by Michael MacDonald
Cambridge University Press, 323 pp., $39.95

Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century

edited by Charles Webster
Cambridge University Press, 394 pp., $45.00

Madhouses, Mad-Doctors, and Madmen: The Social History of Psychiatry in the Victorian Era

edited by Andrew Scull
University of Pennsylvania Press, 384 pp., $9.95 (paper)

During the last fifteen years, a series of semi-independent intellectual trends have come together to transform the history of what society has thought about madness and how it has treated those it considers mad. Once upon a time, the history of medicine was regarded, like that of pure science, as largely “internalist,” a story of how a progressive endeavor by a handful of gifted intellectuals slowly replaced superstition and error by empirical proven truth. More recently, however, historians of both science and medicine have begun to fit the protagonists in these ancient intellectual battles more deeply into their social settings. In the process, they have revealed a welter of unproven pseudo-scientific theories, professional or national rivalries, institutional jealousies, personal and professional ambitions, cultural conditioning, sexist and racist prejudices, political exigencies, economic incentives to save money, and religious biases, out of which new and powerful scientific and medical paradigms have emerged.

Some now argue that medical progress has been a power grab by the medical profession, and institutional treatment for the purpose of better care has been relabeled the “great confinement.” It is now credibly believed that hospitals were lethal death traps before Pasteur demonstrated the importance of a sterile environment. It is now also generally recognized that doctors may—presumably unwittingly—have killed more patients than they cured, certainly before the early nineteenth century, and maybe before the invention of anti-biotics in the mid-twentieth, and that their most valuable contribution to public welfare was psychological reassurance that help was on its way.

The most ambitious attempt ever made to examine the demography of early modern England concludes that the prolonged growth of population which began in the 1740s and only petered out during the last few years owed little, at any rate in its early stages, to a decline in the mortality rate. Medicine, therefore, can have had no part in the beginnings of the great demographic transition.

The beneficial effects of the medical profession are now thrown into doubt, and scientists generally are no longer regarded simply as wise men battling the mysterious forces of nature with supremely elegant conceptual thinking, and incredibly patient and exacting testing and retesting of data. Newton is now known to have been as concerned to establish the measurements of the temple of Solomon or to unravel the meaning of the Book of Revelations as he was to elucidate the laws of gravity or optics. James Watson’s frank disclosures in The Double Helix of the strength of personal ambition as a compelling motive behind scientific research has forever destroyed the image of the detached scholar selflessly dedicated to the pursuit of truth. The self-evident fact that exploitation by politicians of the recent discoveries of nuclear physicists is quite likely to result some time in the next few decades in the destruction of civilization, and possibly of most life on earth, merely reinforces this atmosphere of cynicism and suspicion.

The second trend has been a turning away from the history of elites, whether …

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