Mental Illness: An Early Modern Perspective

Jonathan Willis

This week (18-24 May 2020) is ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ in the UK – May is also US ‘Mental Health Month’, and ‘World Mental Health Day’, in case you were wondering, is a separately-coordinated enterprise, and will be on Saturday 10 October.  The fact that we have events such as these in the twenty-first century tells you two things.  Explicitly it is evidence that, in general, our society pushes itself to recognise the importance of mental health, the prevalence of mental illness, and that signposting the various specialist treatments and https3a2f2fblogs-images.forbes.com2fbernardmarr2ffiles2f20192f052fthe-incredible-ways-artificial-intelligence-is-now-used-in-mental-health-1200x720-1resources that are available for people struggling with any number of specific conditions is an urgent priority.  The implicit message, though, is that mental health and mental illness have long been neglected in our broader political, social and medical public discourse.  While there are valuable and life-saving public health campaigns around specific physical conditions such as various forms of cancer, strokes, heart disease, etc., there is palpably no need for a special day or week or month to remind people that physical illness is, in fact, a ‘thing’.

My motivation for writing this post comes from two sources – firstly, from the project I am working on on the relationship between mental health and the English reformation, and secondly from my own experience of suffering from and receiving treatment for anxiety over the past few years.  By accident rather than design(!), it just so happened during the autumn of 2019 that I read a lot of brilliant work about early modern mental health, mental illness, and the history of the early modern emotions, at the same time as I was working on my own mental health during a course of therapy.  In this context I could not help but reflect upon the used-books-store-2concordances and divergences between how we and our early modern forebears understood the workings of the human mind.  In this post I want to offer some broad reflections on the similarities and differences between early modern and twenty-first century conceptions of mental illness, based largely on secondary literature.  In subsequent posts (for I see this post by way of introduction) I plan to delve more deeply into the specific relationship between religious beliefs and mental illness, using evidence drawn from early modern letters.

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A Wandering Story of the Wandering Jew

Laura Sangha

Part I

 

Wandering_jew

Gustave Dore, The Legend of the Wandering Jew: A Series of 12 Designs, c. 1857, V&A Collections.

Story 1

A month or so ago I read Sarah Perry’s wonderful third novel Melmoth. Central to the book is the myth of Melmotka, a woman who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, but who later denied that she had seen him. Since that time Melmotka has wandered the earth without home or respite, bearing witness to all humanity’s violence and cruelty, as she will do until Christ comes again.

The Stories of Story 1

In modern day Prague Helen Franklin traces the history of Melmotka through a collection of texts that speak of a wraith-like figure who appears at moments of great sorrow. The narratives found in these documents – a seventeenth-century letter, a contemporary manuscript, a twentieth-century journal – put flesh on the bones of Melmotka, a shadow that leaves bloody scarlet footprints where she treads, who is clad in some thin black billowy stuff, who stares with eyes that are like ink dropped into water… Continue reading

Responding to a Crisis: the Black Death, COVID-19, and Universal Basic Income

In this guest post, Professor Jane Whittle of the University of Exeter looks at the governmental response to the Black Death, and advocates a revolutionary new social policy for our own period of crisis. 

Jane Whittle

Unprecedented episodes of disease, such as the current outbreak of COVID-19, are moments of fluidity when parts of existing societies are laid bare as not fit for purpose. Wars create similar moments of flux. The Second World War created the consensus that allowed the founding of the NHS and the Welfare State. Could our current state of crisis lead to something positive and long lasting, amid all the disruption, trauma, and loss?

My research focuses on another such moment, the consequences of Black Death of the fourteenth century. In the midst of the Black Death the English government made the significant decision not to strengthen the institution of serfdom but instead to increase the regulation of waged labour with the Ordinance of Labourers of 1349.

The Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague that raged across Europe between 1347 and 1349 and killed an estimated 50% of the English population. Fortunately the mortality rate of COVID-19 looks to be closer to 1% of those infected (and thus lower for the total population). Yet in our highly interconnected modern society its impact is already shaping up to be enormous. Historians have long puzzled over the fact that the immediate social and economic impact of the Black Death appears to have been remarkably slight. Social, economic, and political structures remained in place. However, this is to overlook the innovation of the labour laws. The Ordinance of Labourers of 1349 was a revolutionary piece of legislation. It marked the end of serfdom and beginning of an economy dependent on wage labour, but it signalled that the government’s attitude to wage workers would be far from lenient. Although initially announced as an emergency measure by the monarchy, when Parliament next met in 1351 it was enthusiastically endorsed. The measures remained in force until the early nineteenth century. Continue reading

Not what it used to be? Nostalgia in Early Modern England

In this guest post Dr Francis Young examines the relationship between history and nostalgia, particularly how and why nostalgic rhetoric is deployed. Dr Young is a UK-based historian and folklorist specialising in the history of religion and supernatural belief. You can find out more about his work on his website.

The phenomenon of nostalgia – which may be defined, briefly, as a longing for an imagined past supposedly better than an unsatisfactory present – seems to be attested in every age. Clearly, nostalgia is not the same thing as history, since nostalgia celebrates or exploits an imagined past that may never have existed, without studying the evidence. Conservative societies undergoing little change have fewer reasons to be nostalgic, but societies in flux often become sentimental about an imagined former ‘Golden Age’. This was certainly true of early modern England, which was a society obsessed with the past. However, early modern nostalgia was not just an effect produced by a changing society: ironically, early modern nostalgia drove the process of change itself. By longing for the past, people brought in the future.

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The Winchester Round Table. Image: Martin Kraft (photo.martinkraft.com) License: CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the Middle Ages, it was commonplace for new monarchs to associate themselves with the ‘good old days’, whether they did this by invoking the laws of St Edward the Confessor, the liberties guaranteed by Magna Carta, or an imagined age of chivalry and the deeds of King Arthur. Perhaps no early modern reign was more infected with this kind of nostalgia than that of Henry VIII, who even had a painted wooden replica of King Arthur’s round table made for him in 1522, which now hangs in Winchester Castle. In a Latin poem to mark Henry’s coronation, Thomas More wrote, ‘When previously order utterly decayed, at once all order was restored in him … what are his virtues had been those of any of his ancestors’. More then went even further and declared Henry’s accession to be the restoration of the Golden Age prophesied by Plato: ‘The golden ages first return to you, prince; o! Plato may thus far be a prophet!’ Continue reading

Books as Open Online Content: Paper Trails

Laura Sangha

This year I joined the editorial board of a BOOC for UCL press titled Paper Trails, and if you are an academic, librarian, curator, collections manager, archivist, or educator, we want to work with you.

Paper Trails imageThat might need some explanation: a BOOC is a new, fully open access platform that allows for multi-form contributions across time. Living books for the digital age, if you will.

The innovative BOOC format comes with many benefits. It means that Paper Trails can offer space not only for peer-reviewed, ‘REF-able’ academic articles, but that these can be published alongside work by other practitioners who both study the past, and who make the study of the past possible. We thus hope that one of the things our BOOC will do will be to make visible and showcase the work of collection managers, curators, librarians, archivists and educators. The intellectual focus, multi-form content, and the four streams in our Call for Papers are designed with this in mind.

The Paper Trails BOOC therefore presents an excellent opportunity for interdisciplinary reflection on the ways that we construct the past, and on the collaborative nature of that project. In particular it will allow us to consider our relationship with research material more closely and coherently, by juxtaposing critical histories with reflections on practice, sources and materials.

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‘Engaging’ Lead Editor: Andrew WM Smith

Paper Trails is also intended as a means to capture and promote some of the excellent education and engagement work that many scholars are involved in, but which we often don’t get to hear about. We hope that the ‘Engagement’ stream will become a repository of shorter cases studies or think pieces that demonstrate particular skills or techniques, and which can therefore inform broader professional practice. Since creative and dynamic ways of engaging non-professionals with the past are now widespread, the BOOC can be the means to preserve and disseminate the best of this work. Continue reading

Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: Conclusion

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Susan D. Amussen offers some reflections on the ‘Conclusion’ of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, as well as on the posts in this series as a whole. Susan is a Professor of History at UC Merced, and tweets as @susandamussen. You can access the book here.

Susan D. Amussen

Alice Clark ended Working Life of Women by summarizing her findings in terms of her central themes. What does it mean for women when the individual rather than the household is the primary actor in the modern economy? Why don’t women get as much specialized training as men?  As the essays in this series have shown, the story of women’s work is considerably more complicated than Clark’s argument allows.  But Clark raises two new issues in her conclusion.  First, the subordination of women.  She argues that capitalism is not the source of the subjection of women; instead, ‘the subjection of women to their husbands was the foundation stone of the structure of the community in which Capitalism first made its appearance.’ (p. 300)  Second, she raises questions about political theory.  She asks about the impact of the ‘mechanical state’, represented by the works of both Hobbes and Locke.  What does it matter when women are invisible in formulations of what the state means?  Clark argues that these issues draw attention to a much wider range of issues and a longer chronology than those which have been the focus of the book.

Reading her conclusion alongside the essays that have made this series so interesting demonstrates one reason we – and our students – keep reading Alice Clark: she raises big questions.  She understands women’s work, and women’s position in society, first in relation to the history of capitalism.  At the end, though, she tells us that the big question is part of two even bigger ones, about fundamental social structures and the history of political thought.   Both of these have been the focus of extensive research over the past 40 years.  The tension between women’s agency and their subordination has been a central theme in women’s history.  We have simultaneously demonstrated women’s agency not just as economic actors but as political ones while we have explored domestic and sexual violence.[1]  Allyson Poska’s suggestion that we consider what she calls “agentic gender norms” that co-exist with patriarchy and provide a counter-vailing set of norms may be a useful way of thinking about these tensions.[2]  Similarly, scholars in the history of political thought have unpacked the ways in which contract theory not only erased women, but made women’s political action far more complex.[3] Continue reading

Visualising the early modern state

Brodie Waddell

What did the state look like in early modern England? There are, of course, many different ways you might answer this question. The most famous is Hobbes’s Leviathan, in which the king literally embodies his subjects. Or, if one wanted to be a bit more realistic, an image of a court sitting might give you an idea of what the state looked like to someone formally facing its majestic authority. Or, as Jonah Miller has recently argued, perhaps the most realistic image of all would be a picture of a local constable, for these were the representatives of the state who ordinary people most often encountered in their daily lives.

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Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651); Benjamin Ferrers, The Court of Chancery (c.1725); Thomas Dekker, The Belman of London (1608)

However, I’d like to offer a rather more practical, and much less aesthetically pleasing, answer. In one of the first sessions of my ‘Crime, Poverty and Protest’ module at Birkbeck, I try to give students an idea of what the court system – and in fact ‘the state’ more generally – looked like in the early modern period. So, I created a sort of tabular diagram in which I attempted to include on a single page all the most important components of this system that a student might need to know about. Here is the result as pdf and full-size jpgWaddell (2019) Scheme of courts, 1550-1750

I then released the image to the #twitterstorians of the world to tell me what I’d missed and what I’d gotten wrong. Pleasingly, I had plenty of responses. You can go to the tweet itself to read them all, but I’ll try to summarise them below… Continue reading