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Madness and Civilization

A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

By Michel Foucault
12-minute read
Audio available
Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason by Michel Foucault

Madness and Civilization (1961) explores the bumpy road taken by European society in learning how to understand and treat mental illness. Famed philosopher and critic Michel Foucault offers insight into civilization’s troubled history of treating the mentally ill as social outcasts, wild animals and misbehaving children.

  • Historians of Europe and medicine
  • Those who want a greater understanding of mental illness and psychiatric institutions
  • Readers interested in French philosophers and sociologists

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, political activist and academic, who lived from 1926 to 1984. A towering figure in the intellectual life of France and continental Europe, he taught in several European universities and was a professor at the Collège de France in Paris from 1970 until his death.

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Madness and Civilization

A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

By Michel Foucault
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason by Michel Foucault
Synopsis

Madness and Civilization (1961) explores the bumpy road taken by European society in learning how to understand and treat mental illness. Famed philosopher and critic Michel Foucault offers insight into civilization’s troubled history of treating the mentally ill as social outcasts, wild animals and misbehaving children.

Key idea 1 of 7

After the Middle Ages, facilities set aside for leprosy sufferers began to be used for the mentally ill and other social outcasts.

In Europe, during the late Middle Ages from 1250 to 1500, so-called “madness” was understood differently from what it became hundreds of years later. People with psychological issues were essentially thought of as just being “different.” Some were even seen as having a wisdom that demonstrated the limits of reason.

During this time, most of those with a mental illness or disorder wandered freely, as long as they were in someone else’s backyard. If an alleged “madman” was found in one European city, he’d be sent to a sailor or merchant who’d drop them off in another city or a sparsely populated area of countryside.

This custom was particularly common in Germany: in fifteenth-century Nuremberg, records show how 31 of 63 mentally ill people were removed from the city in carriages and boats, while in Frankfurt, at the end of the fourteenth century, seamen were instructed to round up and remove any such people found wandering naked.

The practice of shipping off mentally ill city dwellers is where we get the phrase, “ship of fools,” a term popularized in literature and other artwork throughout the years.

Several works refer to the Narrenschiff, or “ship of fools,” which sailed the waters of the Rhine and Flemisch canals, carrying away the city’s “madmen”. Hieronymus Bosch, the famous Dutch painter, also captured this image in his painting, The Ship of Fools, made between 1490 and 1500.

It wasn’t until some years later, following the decline of leprosy in Western Europe, that those with mental illness began to be detained.

Leprosy is a contagious disease that affects the skin. When the disease spread across Europe, patients were confined to special facilities called lazar houses, located on the outskirts of cities.

When the leprosy outbreaks subsided in Europe, these facilities found a new purpose in detaining criminals, derelicts and people with mental illness. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that the new detainees began to be seen as carriers of disease. Just as medieval societies had come to marginalize and stigmatize the then-called “leper”, the societies of the classical ages did the same with these new people – thereby associating the term “madness” with being an outcast.

But it wasn’t just lazar houses that were holding people with mental issues. In the early eighteenth century, cities began to hold such people in fortified locations, such as the tower within the walls of Caen, France, known as the “Tour aux Fous.”

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