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Madness in Seventeenth-Century Autobiography (review)

From: Biography
Volume 31, Number 4, Fall 2008
pp. 738-739 | 10.1353/bio.0.0051

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Not a typical biography in the traditional sense of the word, Hodgkin’s study of early modern madness investigates the memoirs of three psychically disturbed Englishpersons. Their stories are interpreted within the framework of the classic historiography of English madness in an attempt to give broader meaning to the individual sufferers’ utterances. Here, Hodgkin engages with Michael MacDonald (Mystical Bedlam, 1983) and, to a lesser extent, Roy Porter and her series editor, Rab Houston. Hodgkin suggests that madness only became medicalized as a pathological condition in the eighteenth century. The seventeenth century has received less treatment, in part because of a lack of sources. However, as she demonstrates, rare finds can enhance our knowledge of this important transitional period, when religious and medical explanations for madness coexisted side-by-side.

The autobiographical accounts of two women, Dionys Fitzherbert (Hodgkin is currently editing her papers, preserved in the Bodleian) and Hannah Allen, and one man, George Trosse, are considered. Fitzherbert’s manuscript was penned around 1610, Allen’s appeared in print in 1683, while Trosse’s autobiographical account of his fall into melancholy was only published posthumously in 1713 (apparently, it had been written twenty years earlier). While the accounts of all three sufferers exhibit many commonalities, their diachronic appearance is used to interpret changing attitudes over time. The question remains whether one should make a microhistoric case for the exemplary status of these three individuals as barometers of an entire century. Indeed, the tension between these sufferers’ relatively high level of individuality (and, at times, clear oddity) and the author’s struggle to characterize their writings as representative poses a major theoretical challenge throughout.

Hodgkin attempts to resolve this inherent tension through an analysis of selfhood and the resultant “Crises of the Self” (chapter two) which each autobiographer describes. This provides her with a golden opportunity to examine problems of identity formation in early modern Europe through the prism of ordinary persons whose identity is literally falling apart. In that regard, her primary method of analysis remains literary criticism, largely the dissection and redefinition of subjective terms appearing in the sufferer’s memoirs in relation to other words and meanings. The subsequent chapters untangle their thoughts one-by-one to explain the subjective experiences of melancholy, spiritual afflictions, and the human body, to include exogenously caused permutations, and in all three cases, to assess the ultimate return to “normalcy.” Finally, she concludes with two chapters on the influence of relationships (family and love), along with their attendant difficulties, on the formation of a social identity.

The spirit of Michel Foucault is very much alive throughout the work. Hodgkin’s moving conclusions on mad wanderings without purpose or limit nearly seem intended to rehabilitate Foucault’s dubious interpretation of unreason, nothingness, and the Ship of Fools of the Alsatian social conservative and moralist, Sebastian Brant. While her comparison of the protagonists’ worried consciousness of their own mental plight to aimless wanderings in a labyrinth is sympathetic, it takes us a step back, historiographically speaking, to where we found ourselves before 1980, when Midelfort and Porter debunked Foucault’s Great Confinement thesis just as government agencies set about (to paraphrase Elvis Costello) to empty out all the asylums. Others have since convincingly argued against a positivist view of psychiatry, reminding us that, for better or worse, religious perceptions of mental disturbance continue to haunt us today. Perhaps it is not for nothing that the modern mental health carers adopted the name “psychiatrists,” literally “soul doctors.” In that sense, perhaps we have more to learn from apparently idiosyncratic accounts from the seventeenth century than we’d care to admit. The genealogy from religiouslybased spiritual physic to secular psychiatry in the eighteenth century still remains to be written, but will surely reveal some interesting continuities.

For this reason, Hodgkin’s contribution is significant, since it reminds us of how little we still understand the machinations of the mind, perceptions, and human consciousness. Certainly, the seventeenth century represented a crucial transition to a more secular understanding, but even the Enlightenment never banished religion entirely. If her contribution is limited by an insular approach to the topic, then a number of other studies which also appeared...



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