A Simple Fellow Given to Blowing at Feathers, Exploited by His Grasping Brothers

Roy Porter

  • From Idiocy to Mental Deficiency: Historical Perspectives on People with Learning Disabilities edited by David Wright and Anne Digby
    Routledge, 238 pp, £45.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 415 11215 X

It is easy to conjure up landscapes of the past peopled by holy fools, and to suppose that medieval times were full of simpleton jesters, and boy bishops leading rites of inversion and showing how all sinners were equal in God’s eyes. It is equally easy to imagine a subsequent darkening of the plain – the old Christian reverence for simplicity yielding to the carceral project of modernity, Foucault’s great confinement.

Go back to the ‘reversible world’ of the late Middle Ages, however, and you will find that real idiots are remarkably absent from inverted ceremonials; court jesters, after all, tended to be professional comedians. What the records of the time show, when idiots crop up, is not a transcendental meta-physic but a nagging concern with legalities and technicalities: can someone non compos mentis be held liable for a crime, be responsible for committing suicide or lawfully hold property or make a will? The Prerogativa Regis considers what was to be done if, for example, a feudal tenant ‘happen to fail of his wit’. (Answer: the King had not only to protect the inheritance, but also to ensure that the profits were used to support both the lunatic and his family ‘competently’. Any surplus profits were retained for the tenant’s use, should he recover.)

Historical myths are there to entice us when addressing the question of the mentally handicapped, but we must avoid being misled. It is a history especially hard to approach, for if any subset of the population remains a closed book, surely it is those people who over time have been stigmatised as ‘fools’, ‘cretins’, ‘midgets’ and ‘morons’ – those now said to be ‘differently abled’. (The terminological problem is insoluble. Here I shall use the idiom of the era in question, but with a neutral intent.) If such people were by definition ineducable, incapable even of remembering their own names and parentage, let alone writing their stories down; if, moreover, idiocy, unlike madness, was a condition from which there was no way back, and hence there were no tales to be told – how can their voice possibly be recovered? The annals are not totally silent, of course; and family and court records afford us some hints – village idiots babbling away or ceaselessly mouthing a single word. But that is poor fare, unless the sheer vacancy of it attains an eerie eloquence of its own.

‘Idiots’ might thus stand as the definitive historical Other: the living dead whose minds are irrecoverable and unfathomable, those who, at most, briefly caper across the heath of history crying out ‘come not in here, nuncle,’ or who, as with George Austen, achieve a glimmer of reflected glory. Sister Jane left her novels: the mentally defective brother, boarded out with a poor family near Basingstoke and eventually buried in an unmarked grave, no word at all. A few parish records register that he existed, but about his life, his family was as silent as he was himself.

What historians can do, if only faute de mieux, is to set about determining how idiotism was framed and named in the past-who was judged to be innocent and who impaired, and on what grounds? How were such defectives explained? Above all, how were they managed? A fine start in this historical quest was made for North America a few years back with James Trent’s Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States. Historians in this country, too, have been snorkelling in the archives, and the first fruits of their hunt are now presented in From Idiocy to Mental Deficiency, a work which has the virtue of covering the subject from medieval times to the present, even if it is restricted to one nation.

Some truths had been accepted since Antiquity. There were those who, identifiable by distinctive physical and mental oddities, could learn and do very little; incapable of shouldering life’s responsibilities, such idiots weighed heavily on their families. Typically, their plight was thought congenital, though some had grown senile with age or empty-headed through accident. Whichever the case, it was agreed that, as the 19th-century psychiatrist George Man Burrows put it, ‘absolute idiocy admits of no cure’ Legal machinery might be needed to handle the difficulties that arose. Chancery or the Court of Wards would appoint guardians, charged to tend the property and person of a party non compos mentis. But abuse of halfwits remained all too easy, as was revealed by the pathetic (mid-18th-cenrury) case of Henry Roberts, a simple fellow given to blowing at feathers, exploited by his grasping brothers, greedy for his inheritance.

In England there was little call in Early Modern times to institutionalise such ‘natural fools’, and generally they were kept at home with their families, like Wordsworth’s idiot boy (his mother’s ‘best delight’), or tended by the parish. As Jonathan Andrews shows here in a rich archival trawl, the old Poor Law often dribbled out shillings to nurses (mainly but not exclusively female) to tend those unable to dress, clean or feed themselves. Such findings hardly square with Foucault’s vision of a stringent street-sweeping and mass warehousing of the mad, sottish, vicious, criminal, derelict and disabled. Indeed, the very reverse of the Foucauldian model seems to have been operative in 17th and 18th-century England. London’s Bethlem Hospital, for instance, was energetically attempting to exclude imbeciles. As a charitable hospital catering for inmates diagnosed insane but curable, Bethlem wanted nothing to do with those whom popular wisdom and medical philosophy alike judged beyond improvement.

Eventually, however, ‘community care’ began to give way and, from early Victorian times, moves were afoot to institutionalise idiots, particularly during adolescence. In part it was an expression of the great bricks and mortar delusion. ‘Morals reformed,’ Jeremy Bentham claimed à propos his panopticon, ‘health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burthens lightened, economy seated as it were upon a rock, the gordian knot of the poor laws not cut but untied – all by a simple idea in architecture’ Not just prisons but schools, madhouses, hospitals, reformatories and workhouses – all were erected in the sanguine faith that for every problem there was an institutional panacea. Indeed, to some degree, the mentally deficient became a problem specifically as a consequence of a previous institutional fix. Once the 1870 Education Act ushered in compulsory elementary schooling for all, ‘backward children’ could no longer melt into the shadows: they held back the rest and jeopardised payment by results. Something had to be done with them. The solution was fortunately to hand: rural colonies, somewhat on the model of lunatic asylums. Five such charitable institutions were created around mid-century: Earlswood near Redhill in Surrey, and the Eastern, Western, Northern and Midland Counties Asylums. The herding together of huge populations of problem people in turn prompted the framing of new medical categories, in particular the mongoloid type or Down’s syndrome, first identified at Earlswood by Dr John Langdon Down.

There was, however, more to this transformation than the mere growth of administrative protocol. Long-term shifts were occurring in the philosophy of what constituted idiotism, as is outlined here in a superb essay by C.J. Goodey. Theologians had long perceived the ‘natural’ as one link on the Chain of Being forged in His wisdom by the Creator. They could be ‘holy fools’, but they might equally be ‘changelings’, those deformed in shape as well as deficient in mind, clearly by way of divine judgment on drunken parents or incestuous sheets (Luther recommended drowning such monsters). But since salvation depended on the mysteries of grace, or for Calvinists hinged on divine will, might one not then sing in praise of Folly, for were not all sinners God’s fools? So long as this was assumed, idiocy could not constitute a serious social problem or become a medical field: it was God’s judgment, part of His secret providence.

The conceptual marginalisation of the witless developed with the rationalist revolution of the 17th century. As Enlightenment stirrings rebelled against Calvinist caprice, against the Divine Right of Kings and the authority of tradition in matters of faith and politics, reason became the touchstone of legitimacy. But though in their more rhetorical and expansive judgments the new philosophies of Descartes and Locke proclaimed the universality of reason’s realm, in reality distinctions and exceptions were made. In The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (1964), C.B. Macpherson argued that Locke in effect pictured the earth as being inherited by the industrious and the rational. Locke judged idiots to lack the mental tackle required to exercise the individual autonomy regarded as the basis of the new Whig political philosophy of government by contract and consent. The Enlightenment republic of reason was erected on an implied two-tier model, with fully rational members of society elevated above the irrational underclass. After all, the very word ‘idiot’ meant ‘a private man’ – in the words of James Cowles Prichard, ‘any person by unsoundness of mind ... unable ... to fulfil the ordinary duties of his station’. Old divisions between saints and sinners, saved and damned, would in due course be translated into questions of IQ.

Locke drew an influential distinction between the insane, who reason wrongly, and idiots, who ‘reason scarce at all’ because they ‘either perceive but dully or retain the Ideas that come into their Minds, but ill’ and cannot think abstractly. The contrast was all in favour of the mad. Their delusions were rectifiable, but idiocy was confirmed as incorrigible. Progress passed simpletons by.

Locke’s successors proved more sanguine, however, vesting touching faith in the Enlightenment cure-all, education. Inspired by the utilitarian psychology of Condillac and by experiments with blind, deaf and feral children, special schools were set up, first of all in France. The great pioneer was Edouard Séguin, who, like so many others, sailed off to the New World to realise his utopian dreams. ‘Families’ of defectives, headed by valiant, paternalistic pedagogues, could, he believed, be disciplined into normalcy, eventually rejoining society as productive workers. Training became the keynote in the major idiots’ asylums established in Mid-Victorian England.

In practice, however, education rarely stuck. And that failure in turn fuelled Fin-de-Siécle fears of degeneration which stressed the inheritability of idiocy and equated deterioration (individual and social) with national and racial decline. Social Darwinist thinking was able to draw on entrenched anatomical and physiological traditions that had long stigmatised the difference of the idiot, concentrating on facial abnormalities and skull shape. Idiots had been supposed to take after animals: with the rise of empire and anthropology, theories of feeble-mindedness became incorporated with notions of race. Defectives were held by some to recapitulate the primitive stages of human development which non-white races still exhibited; while others saw their development as arrested, a notion embodied in the idea of atavism or in the ‘mongol’ whose ‘Kalmuc’ profile supposedly betrayed a more rudimentary type. A clear message was signalled by that gloomy giant Henry Maudsley and other psychiatrists: mental defectives constituted a national problem in view of the heritability of disorders, mental, physical and moral, and the association of this ‘morbid variety of mankind’ with criminality. The solution lay in preventing them from breeding – after all, Maudsley asked, ‘can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?’

The eugenics movement touted the solution direct: sterilisation, whether voluntary or compulsory. In many nations, compulsory sterilisation proceeded apace – over 15,000 males in the United States, where, in a notorious 1927 judgment, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that ‘three generations of imbeciles are enough.’ The Nazis were impressed. In England, however, the preferred anti-breeding solution (as is argued by Mark Jackson in his study of the scary Manchester reformer, Mary Dendy) lay in perfecting already existing institutional isolation, identifying the defectives – especially girls with ‘knowledge of evil’ – and securing them permanently in sexually segregated environments, designed to give ‘protection’ to all while effecting economies: the labour of ‘low-grade’ defectives would make such colonies self-financing.

Who was to deny that such solutions made sense? Certainly, few of the mentally handicapped could raise voices of complaint (‘Mother says it done me good,’ wrote one imbecile of life in a colony). Time was when relatives had been quite prepared, eager even, to keep their backward children in the bosom of the family. Eventually they came round to the idea of off-loading them – a change rued by a late 19th-century inspector: ‘I ... think there is a disposition among all classes not to bear with the troubles that may arise in their own houses. If a person is troublesome from senile dementia, dirty in his habits, they will not bear with it now. Persons are more easily removed to an asylum than they were a few years ago.’

In our own day official thinking has come full circle. No one now denies that such special homes became dumps, hotbeds of cruelty and sexual abuse which positively invited public and parental neglect. The rationality of institutional segregation has been undermined, and integration and ‘mainstreaming’ have become watchwords for the mentally handicapped as well as for schizophrenics and other problem subjects. Meanwhile, the verdict of science is also shifting, with a new diagnostic technology of chromosomes renewing interest in internal bodily causes and the Human Genome Project promising to locate DNA markers for low IQ. How this science will interact with changes in the social status and acceptance of such people is anyone’s guess.

One thing is clear, however: it will have its politics. Today the atmosphere reeks of right-wing ideologues determined to roll back the granny stare. As part of the present backlash against permissiveness, the Holy Family unit (pace Laing and others who emphasised its pathogenicity) is being reconsecrated. One consequence is that the family itself is once more being expected to shoulder the burden of care for those with disabilities, mental and physical alike. And, interestingly, there has been a rise in the number of expectant parents who reject termination after as positive test for Down’s syndrome: some at least have faith in integration in the community.