Madness in 18th century Scotland

Monday 20 March 2000

A historian claims that his discoveries into mental illness in eighteenth Century Scotland could have implications for psychologists and psychiatrists throughout the country.

Following a five-year study which looked at civil and criminal court records, family papers and asylum documents, Professor Rab Houston from the University of St Andrews has revealed a string of new discoveries about the way mental illness was dealt with. His research has also revealed the existence of stalkers and people who asked doctors to amputate healthy limbs.

Professor Houston’s subsequent book “Madness and Society in Eighteenth Century Scotland” highlights the everyday experiences of men and women who suffered from a spectrum of mental impairments ranging from idiocy to lunacy. Issues explored include the links between madness, gender and social status and the links between madness, religion, and witchcraft. The book also looks at the various causes of mental derangement (including heredity and alcohol abuse), the social background to incarceration and its alternatives, and the written and spoken words of sufferers.

Professor Houston said, “The understanding of mental problems is much more subtle than I thought it would be. It is utterly wrong to write off the eighteenth century as an age of barbarism in its approach to madness.”

Professor Houston’s research has sparked several strong themes. In particular, he reveals considerable evidence for the humane and discriminating treatment of the mentally disabled in the past where family and community tried to understand and help the unfortunate, not simply incarcerate and forget them. Almost all care was in the community because there were very few institutional places before the nineteenth century. People were called “mad” because they had mental problems, not because they were “individuals” who simply failed to fit in with an intolerant society. Indeed, Professor Houston’s research suggests that the mad of the eighteenth century were not just the witches of the sixteenth and seventeenth century in another guise.

It has also emerged that the definition of mental incapacity was done by lay people using common sense, rather than by medical professionals. People were judged mentally incapable by the standards of their age, social background, and sex and not by some arbitrary criteria. Conditions like manic depression and schizophrenia are readily identifiable in the sources and can therefore not be seen as “modern” developments.

Professor Houston said, “My findings not only have consequences for historians but for mental health workers across Britain. If we can identify conditions in the past which also exist now, and if we can isolate what are cultural understandings and what is the essence of the condition, then treatments may become more effective”.

Professor Houston’s next book will be published by Blackwell in October. Written with an eminent psychologist, Autism in History is a compelling human story of the arranged marriage and divorce on the grounds of mental incapacity of an eighteenth-century landowner from Kirkcudbrightshire. The book shows that this was a very different society from today’s: one where the wearing of wigs, attendance at funerals, and dining with the family were crucial signs of mental ability.


Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07887 650072 or email [email protected] Ref: madness/standrews/chg/20march2000PR 1912

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