The Medieval Review 11.07.07

Turner, Wendy J. Madness in Medieval Law and Custom. Later Medieval Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2010. Pp. xv, 252. $146. 978-90-04-18749-8. . .

Reviewed by:

Michael Sizer
Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)

Fifty years after the 1961 publication of Michel Foucault's Histoire de la Folie à l'âge classique framed much of the debate while confusing many of the facts (particularly regarding the Middle Ages), the history of madness remains an important and unresolved field of study. The contribution of medievalists could arguably be of particular significance relative to other fields: because of the way that madness intersects with questions of interiority and subjectivity, its medieval forms can serve as a comparative example allowing for a re-examination of the supposed progressive evolution of selfhood that remains one of the last- standing pillars of the narrative of an exceptional modernity. As psychiatry has had to come to grips with "culture-bound syndromes"-- mental disorders particular to a specific time and place such as running amok in Polynesia and anorexia in the West--the universality of scientific systems of mental illness classifications have been qualified, suggesting further cracks in long-standing assumptions about the modern subject, occasioned by definitions of madness. A clear picture of the medieval forms of madness and mental incapacitation--one that Foucault was not able to provide--thus can help participate in a proper discussion of not only the contingent quality of mental debilitation but of mental states in general. Apart from (or alongside) this set of questions, there are others as well: the ethics of various treatment and care alternatives can be re- assessed and evaluated, for example. And in terms of understanding medieval society itself, the history of madness can help define that era's cultural notions of normality/marginality, scientific thinking, law, and belief in visions. Furthermore, understanding madness in the Middle Ages can shed important light on the social history of communities that had mentally incapacitated persons in them, sometimes holding important offices or significant properties, and political history such as that of late medieval France and England, which both were thrown into crisis and civil war due to the chronic mental incapacity of their kings (Charles VI and Henry VI respectively).

This volume of essays takes on the task that is perhaps most needed in the field: to describe mental incapacitation and the responses to it in the Middle Ages accurately and according to the terms of the period. As the collection's title indicates, the authors here focus mostly on how madness and mental incapacitation were handled in law, meaning law understood broadly, thus not just in law codes and official texts, but also including customary social practice. Therefore these essays are not merely concerned with describing the theory of the care of the mad--something that has already been done-- but rather in showing how laws were actually applied. There are seven contributors but ten essays (including the introduction and afterword), as editor Wendy J. Turner does some heavy lifting with three pieces not counting her introduction. The collection does not show the most range: six of the essays are on England, with one each on France and Byzantium. In terms of chronology, most are on the late Middle Ages, although Kate McGrath's essay on Anglo-Norman texts describing royal anger and Margaret Trenchard-Smith's essay on Byzantium dip back into earlier centuries. The essays do, however, provide coverage throughout the social strata, describing mental incapacitation from peasant to cleric to king.

Turner's introduction essay situates this collection within recent developments in the history of madness and against prior studies that too often apply modern categories to medieval texts, or, like Foucault, characterize the medieval response to mentally incapacitated persons as one of expulsion and marginalization. Turner argues (and this will be corroborated by many of the case studies) that medieval concepts of mental incapacitation were more fluid, and included those with both permanent and temporary afflictions. Furthermore, in the eyes of the law and in most medieval discourse, little distinction was made between those who were mad, and those who had a lack of cognitive ability (a ready example of this is the medieval French word "fol," which can mean either "fool" or "madman"). These are crucial differences, as they explain why medieval response to mental incapacitation was more embedded within mainstream social life, and situation-specific, rather than the stigmatizing, exclusionary practices which would characterize much post-medieval care.

The first essay in the volume--also Turner's--illustrates the above generalizations in the specific case of late medieval English law and custom. The essay details the shift from informal family care of mentally deficient people to a more official practice of appointed legal guardianship in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Aside from the primary concern of assuring good care for the disadvantaged person, this was done, Turner argues, because of concern that in the informal practice mentally incapacitated persons were occasionally being disinherited by family members, and so authorities stepped in to appoint official guardians of the properties of mentally incapacitated persons to protect their rights and to ensure the smooth running of the property. In addition to caring for the mentally incapacitated person, these guardians would enjoy the revenues of the property while they were running it, but would not have rights to inheritance. Whether it was the crown or local borough authorities who had the authority to appoint the guardian was sometimes an issue in dispute, but in either case Turner points out that the rights of the mentally incapacitated person were a key factor in the change in law and practice. Turner also points out that the increased practice of writing individualized wills (with their common clause "of sound mind") in the late Middle Ages represented the family's reclaiming of control over inheritance practices, and this often worked against mentally incapacitated people who had enjoyed sterner protection in most medieval law.

Margaret Trenchard-Smith's essay on Byzantium is one of the most useful in the collection, as she provides a concise discussion of the Roman legal background as well as the various terminologies used in describing the mentally incapacitated. For both Roman and Canon law, intention was central to determining legal rights and responsibilities: for this reason, mentally incapacitated persons were "juridically disabled" (39) much like children or sleeping people. This meant that they could not enter contracts, but they would also not be held responsible for serious crimes like murder. This could include temporary insanity, which in general was given significant consideration in the Middle Ages. Ascertaining insanity was performed by a magistrate, according to testimony and not according to any expert guidelines. Rules concerning guardianship were similarly vague, which allowed for flexibility. How these laws were applied is less clear from this article, but overall this article does a very clear job of outlining the Roman legal picture.

The third essay, by James R. King on mentally ill clergy in thirteenth-century England, fills in another gap in the history, showing how church practice mirrored secular practice. This was a pressing issue, as those with church benefices not only held an important property in their office but also had duties towards a congregation and in service of the church, and because senility in older clergymen was a common problem. King uses one case, from the memoranda rolls of Bishop of Lincoln Oliver Sutton, of Thomas de Capella, a rector of Bletchingdon, to show one example--which he deems representative--of how church officials could compassionately and sensitively treat cases of mental incapacitation by its members. Thomas de Capella's insanity in this case was temporary, and in his moments of health his office was fully restored to him. As with Byzantine canon law discussed by Trenchard-Smith's essay, what we do not see is any special religious condemnation of the mentally incapacitated as demoniacally possessed or punished by God for excessive sin: such thinking did not constitute the standard medieval belief among churchmen.

Turner returns for the fourth essay, regarding the ways that emotion and memory lapses were sometimes benchmarks for measuring mental competence in trials. Excessive or inappropriate expressions of emotion, as well as the inability to recall basic details about family and home, were common indicators that a person was incompetent. While it is not clear whether there was a systematic diagnostic test for mental competence, Turner does see some recurring patterns (a set of questions about life skills or family names, for example) used to gauge mental fitness in court. This article is full of rich example, and shows how mental incapacitation intersects with emotion and memory, two other recent rich fields of inquiry.

Alexandra Pfau's essay on madness in French remission letters is perhaps the most sophisticated essay in the book, particularly in the way it shows a fine understanding of the source material and the ways these sources can contextualize the use of madness discourse. Pfau, following Daniel Smail and Barbara Rosenwein's arguments about medieval emotionality, first insists that we should not see accounts of madness in the sources as a window into the internal state of the people described, but rather as "performed" (99) in that they can signal to us only how they interacted with social reality. From this important step, she argues that madness in remission letters was often used to mitigate otherwise inexcusable crimes that wholly defied the social order (such as wife-on-husband domestic violence), and provided a means for the family (usually the petitioners on behalf of the accused) to reinsert their loved one back into the traditional family dynamic. Pfau therefore shows the most critical stance towards her sources of all the volume's contributors, as she explains how legal sources might provide a picture of social cohesion and the restoration of harmony that might perhaps not be reflected to the same degree in literary or narrative sources, where madness is sometimes more problematic.

Indeed, Kate McGrath's essay on royal anger in eleventh- and twelfth- century Anglo-Norman narrative sources shows how madness could be a label signaling disapproval by ecclesiastical chroniclers of secular rulers' expressions of emotion. Descriptions of emotional outbursts by royal figures increased in this period mirroring the increase of kings' personal authority, and these could be approved displays of righteous wrath, or manifestations of unrighteous mad rage depending on the clerical author's point-of-view. McGrath shows how this is also reflected in kingly characters in romances. It is interesting to compare these sources with legal ones: in both cases madness signals transgression but is incorporated into a system (legal in one case, moral in the other) that restores order and control.

The last two articles in the collection--by Cory James Rushton and Turner--deal with the tragic case of Henry VI, whose outbreak of madness in 1453 initiated a political crisis in England. Rushton's fine article describes the political implications on the kingdom as a whole, and the available symbols and explanations that were applied to explain Henry's madness and its connection to the realm. Henry's catatonic passivity, fatal to him as the king of a country at war, eventually came to symbolize saintly innocence as he was recast as a holy martyr. Turner's article provides a more detailed description of Henry's sickness, and describes the efforts used to heal Henry of his illness, which included alchemy and other desperate measures. What is most interesting about Henry's case--and in this it corresponds to the situation of France's Charles VI which is more familiar to me--is that, while the king's madness was in a sense a political "given," the interpretations of and reactions to it were numerous and variable. This episode was a transformational one in English history. As with Charles VI's France, the crisis caused by Henry's madness forced English political society to distance the exercise of authority from the person of the king, and instead bestow more of that authority to an impersonal government.

Irina Metzler's afterword functions as a built-in review, providing a nice overview of the essays with a big-picture focus sometimes lacking in the rest of the volume. Metzler explicitly contrasts medieval attitudes and practices of care with modern ones, arguing that the medieval forms anticipated the "care in the community" approach that has recently been advanced as an alternative to the harsh institutionalizing practices of the modern era.

The contributors will perhaps be annoyed by my introducing this review with a mention of Foucault, whose flawed but iconic work in this topic they are trying to transcend: Turner says in her introduction that Foucault "does not mention law and has had no direct impact on the works in this volume." (2) I find this unfortunate, not because his thesis needs to be validated or refuted by every study of madness, but because he would seem to be, in spite of his mischaracterizations of the Middle Ages, a useful ally in the broader project of destabilizing modern assumptions on madness as these authors do here. A discussion with other chronologies is mostly implied in this volume; a more frontal engagement from the perspective of the medievalist would be very useful. Until that happens, this volume will serve as a valuable description of medieval madness that comes closer to providing a sense of lived experience of mentally incapacitated persons than most previous histories, which have focused mostly on theory. The picture that emerges is of a medieval world that was often compassionate, flexible, and understanding when it came to the care of the mentally incapacitated persons, whether they were peasants or kings.