Wendy J Turner, Madness in Medieval Law and Custom

This collection of essays aims to present a view of medieval madness and legal reactions to it. In contrast to previous study on madness in the medieval period, which often claims medieval people with madness were either not noticed or were not cared for, it illuminates particular places and times where people with mental disabilities were cared for and were a part of society. Turner’s introduction opposes itself to Foucault’s Madness and Civilization in particular, which she critiques for generalizing both time and space/place and also for insisting that medieval mad people were excluded from community. Rather, Turner argues, while medieval disability and madness in particular were still occasions for discrimination, often there were legal and care-based options for mad people, especially those with resources, to survive and be part of society.

The first half of this book deals with the treatment of mentally ill people under the law, while the second half deals with how the mentally ill were utilized as symbols or guides for appropriate emotion. Mad people were “innocents” in the eyes of the law, meaning that they were not able to serve as witnesses and could have their sentences negated if they were deemed to be mad. The main way this seems to have occurred is through witness testimony, meaning that you were dependent on other people to deem you mad (or not). Alexandra Pfau’s chapter, which focuses on the importance of remission letters written to ask the king to pardon someone for something, replaced the idea of “justice” with law as a vehicle for social order. If madness is a social problem, resulting in misunderstandings of usual social norms and ruptures of social relationships, then it requires a solution that is focused on reestablishing social bonds. Evidently, madness was often seen as enough of a punishment for a crime; at other times, people self-exiled in order to remove themselves from the community, though usually they remained in the community and were assigned a guardian who took care of them. While this was nominally to protect the person, as Turner points out it also allowed the crown or the guardian to make money from the mad person’s goods.

I was also interested in James King’s chapter on the “mad rector” (and royal clerk!) Thomas, who was appointed a coadjucator to assist him and eventually was able to prove his sanity. The bishop in charge of Thomas’s diocese was known for providing coadjucators for people with physical disabilities, and this move shows his ability to identify and account for mental disability as well. Thomas’s advocacy for himself in order to prove he was no longer mad is one of the only points in this book where a mad person’s own testimony is admissible in court. As Pfau points out (in her dissertation), mad people were generally not allowed to be witnesses, and witness testimony from others was usually required to prove that someone was not mad. This case makes me wonder if there were other situations where someone was allowed to participate in their own defense, or if the prohibition was usual. In either case, King argues that the Bishop’s actions– appointing a guardian to help and take care of the rector– was not only an instance of compassion, but reflective of thirteenth-century society as a whole.

This book, and Pfau’s chapter in particular, rehabilitates the medieval potential for thinking about madness complexly, without failing to critique the ways that the management of madness bled over into surveillance or disenfranchisement in the name of social order. Indeed, this is another point at which the collection opposes Foucault, as it shows that imprisonment was used as a punishment, and that madness was seen as folly, inconvenience, and disease as well as “spiritual knowledge”. Pfau (here but especially in her dissertation) focuses on remission letters from all walks of life, and notes in the diss that a large proportion of remission letters come from “laborers”, not an especially wealthy class of people. This further helps to refute the exclusion hypothesis; while clearly wealth is a very important factor in terms of who gets care, it is not the only one, and its absence does not always equal social shutting out.



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