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Idiocy: A Cultural History

Patrick McDonagh
Volume: 3
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 380
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The term ‘idiot’ is a damning put down, whether deployed on the playground or in the board room. People stigmatized as being ‘intellectually disabled’ today must confront variants of the fear and pity with which society has greeted them for centuries. In this ground-breaking new study Patrick McDonagh explores how artistic, scientific and sociological interpretations of idiocy work symbolically and ideologically in society. Drawing upon a broad spectrum of British, French and American resources including literary works (Wordsworth’s ‘The Idiot Boy’, Dickens Barnaby Rudge, Conrad’s The Secret Agent), pedagogical works (Itard’s The Wild Boy of Aveyron, Sequin’s Traitement moral, hygiene et education des idiots, and Howe’s On the courses of Idiocy), medical and scientific papers (Philippe Pinel, Henry Maudsley, William Ireland, John Langdon Downs, Isaac Kerlin, Henry Goddard) and sociological writings (Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Beames’ The Rookeries of London, Dugdal’s The Jukes), Idiocy: A Cultural History offers a rich study of the history and representation of mental disability.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-536-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface and acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Introduction: idiocy, culture and human relations
    (pp. 1-23)

    ‘I have to tell you a tale’, said John Charles Bucknill to the governors of the newly formed Birmingham and Midland Counties Asylum for Idiots at their first annual meeting in 1873, at Birmingham town hall. ‘Not, I trust, as Shakespeare says, “A tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, but, still, a tale of an idiot or of idiots. And I am warned by experience that I must trespass upon your patience so far as to describe what an idiot is’ (Bucknill 1873: 169).

    We might be surprised that Bucknill, onetime medical supervisor at...

  5. CHAPTER 2 ‘Stripping our own hearts naked’: William Wordsworth and John Wilson read ‘The Idiot Boy’
    (pp. 24-49)

    John Wilson would one day rank among Britain’s leading cultural and literary critics; he would contribute regularly toBlackwood’s Edinburgh Magazineunder the pseudonym Christopher North and eventually assume the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. But in May 1802 Wilson was a precocious seventeen-year-old writing a fan letter to poetry’s bright new star, William Wordsworth. The epistle reads like an early exercise in Wilson’s literary criticism, with his comments onLyrical Balladsbeing part analysis and part adulation. ‘[T]hough I am not personally acquainted with you, I may almost venture to affirm, that the qualities of...

  6. CHAPTER 3 A ‘pupil of innocent Nature!’ The wild boy of Aveyron goes to Paris
    (pp. 50-78)

    In March 1797, a boy, about twelve years old and apparently feral, was caught by woodsmen in the fields around the town of Lacaune, in the rolling hills of southern France. He escaped after being on show briefly, was apprehended again in summer 1798, and again fled to the woods after several days. He was caught yet again by three hunters in mid-July of 1799, and was left with a peasant, who fed him on potatoes and nuts, the only food he accepted; he escaped – yet again – after eight days. Finally, he reappeared for good on 8 January...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Diminished men: masculinity and idiocy
    (pp. 79-101)

    In letter XVIII, ‘The Poor and Their Dwellings’, of George Crabbe’s long poemThe Borough(1810), the narrator describes an ‘antient Widow’ who lives with her idiot son:

    With her an harmless Idiot we behold,

    Who hoards up Silver Shells for shining Gold;

    These he preserves, with unremitted care,

    To buy a Seat, and reign the Borough’s Mayor:

    Alas! – what could th’ambitious Changeling tell,

    That what he sought our Rulers dar’d to sell? (lines 40–45)¹

    The introductory header at the start of letter XVIII forecasts the section’s contents, including ‘Some Characters of the Poor’ and then (in order)...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Essential women: femininity and idiocy
    (pp. 102-128)

    Eugenia Tyrold, fifteen years old, is small, limps from a childhood accident and is scarred by smallpox. Among the many female characters populating Fanny Burney’s 1796 novelCamilla, Eugenia is distinct in her physical unattractiveness, although she is equally distinguished by her intelligence and generosity. Sheltered by her loving family, she does not realize the disadvantages of her appearance until one day, on a public outing, she is singled out and abused by a vulgar crowd. Mortified, Eugenia tries to isolate herself from the world, until one day her father insists on taking her and her sister Camilla on an...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Holy fools, witty fools, depraved fools: folly, innocence and sin
    (pp. 129-151)

    ‘Doesn’t the happiest group of people comprise those popularly called idiots, fools, nitwits, simpletons, all splendid names to my way of thinking?’ demands Stultitia, the goddess Folly, midway through Eramus’sMoriae Encomium, orPraise of Folly(Erasum 1511: 116). Not only are they freed from both the mundane and the spiritual crises facing others but also, as she observes, ‘if they come still closer to dumb animals in their lack of reasoning power, the theologians tell us they can’t even sin…. They are indeed under the protection of the gods, and most of all, under mine; and for this reason...

  10. CHAPTER 7 History, society, economy: holy fools and idiots come home in nineteenth-century literature
    (pp. 152-169)

    The natural fool – the innocent, the trickster, the depraved – is a vibrant, complex actor in medieval and early modern society, and so it should come as no surprise that nineteenth-century writers, looking back at the store of characters and images bequeathed to them by literary and cultural history, should also light upon the fool as a means of ironic commentary and social critique. But, of course, when the social context shifts, so too do the fool’s specific functions. By the nineteenth century, the ‘natural’ fool is an anachronism, and the individuals so designated have been replaced in the...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Barnaby Rudge, idiocy and paternalism: assisting the ‘poor idiot’
    (pp. 170-191)

    From protests on town commons to petitions before Parliament, through the 1830s and 1840s Britain witnessed an explosion of working-class trade unionism and occasional agitation, primarily associated with the Chartist movement. ‘Chartism means the bitter discontent grown fierce and mad, the wrong condition therefore or the wrong disposition, of the Working Classes of England’, according to Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1839 (see Shelston 1971: 151). ‘What means this bitter discontent of the Working Classes? Whence comes it, whither goes it? Above all, at what price, on what terms, will it probably consent to depart from us and die into rest?...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Innocence, philanthropy and economics: the new ‘asylum’ idiot
    (pp. 192-230)

    When the brothers Fergus, Ronald and Archie first meet the laird, the landowner to whom they pay rent in Harriet Martineau’s 1832 story ‘Ella of Garveloch’, from herIllustrations of Political Economy(1836), only Fergus and Ronald acknowledge him; Archie remains aloof. The laird naturally asks about the third brother, so Fergus answers that, different as he is, Archie ‘is wiser than us about many things, and sees farther. He is always housed before a tempest, or safe in a hole in the rock, like the birds he seems to learn from’ (7). ‘Ella of Garveloch’ provides an introduction to...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Sensational idiocy
    (pp. 231-256)

    In May 1862, Margaret Oliphant’s review article ‘Sensation Novels’ situated the popular new literary genre as an offspring of its era:

    Ten years ago the world in general had come to a single crisis in its existence. The age was lost in self-admiration. We had done so many things that nobody could have expected a century before – we were on the way to do so many more, if common report was to be trusted. (Oliphant 1862: 564)

    But all that had changed. ‘What a wonderful difference ten years makes!’, Oliphant writes. The ‘distant roar’ of war abroad – that...

  14. CHAPTER 11 ‘The sins of the fathers’: idiocy, evolution and degeneration
    (pp. 257-288)

    ‘Everybody knows the consequences of prolonged intermarriages between any sort of people who are few enough to be almost all blood relations’, wrote Harriet Martineau in her 1854Household Wordsarticle ‘Idiots Again’.

    The world was shocked and grieved, some years since, at the oldest baronage in England ‘going out at the ace of diamonds’ – expiring in the disgrace of cheating at cards. The world ought to be quite as much shocked and grieved at seeing – what has been seen, and may be seen again – the honours of the same ancient birth being extinguished in a lunatic...

  15. CHAPTER 12 Danger and degeneracy: the threat of the urban idiot
    (pp. 289-308)

    The crowd of parents, awaiting their appearance before a school board ‘B’ committee, mills outside the room on the second floor of the school building. The year is 1883, and they have been summoned to the meeting to explain before a group of school board officers why their children have been missing school, which had been made compulsory with the 1870 Education Act. When Mrs Jones, ‘a decent-looking woman’, takes her turn to explain why her daughter has been missing classes, she is accompanied by her nursing baby and ‘a small boy, with staring eyes that seem fixed upon nothing...

  16. CHAPTER 13 The problem of the feeble-minded: the Royal Commission, eugenics and eternal chaos
    (pp. 309-331)

    In his ‘author’s note’ to his 1907 novelThe Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad recalls a conversation with an unnamed friend about the 1894 Greenwich Observatory bombing, which Conrad called a ‘blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought’. It was an ‘outrage [that] could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to bits for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchist or other’ (39). Conrad recounts that...

  17. Epilogue
    (pp. 332-337)

    Despite efforts to nail down its true being, to define its causes, its significance and its parameters, ‘idiocy’ has remained elusive. John Charles Bucknill admitted in 1873 that, notwithstanding his confidence that he did ‘know what an idiot is’, a definition might be difficult to render all the same. Forty years later, with the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, idiocy was subordinated under the newer banner of ‘mental deficiency’, and while the concepts designated by this new term may have seen their formal legal and medical status solidified thanks to both the Act itself and the enthusiasm of its supporters, in...

  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 338-359)
  19. Index
    (pp. 360-370)