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Eighteenth-Century Life 27.2 (2003) 49-66

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The Face of Madness in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Scotland

Robert A. Houston
University of St Andrews


In 1806 the anatomist Sir Charles Bell wrote famously, "In the lower creatures, there is no expression . . . while in man there seems to be a special apparatus, for the purpose of enabling him to communicate with his fellow-creatures, by that natural language, which is read in the changes of his countenance." 1 Bell's exploration of the effects of pathologies on facial expression and his exhibition of the role played by facial muscles in demonstrating emotion formed a landmark in metoposcopy. 2 Half a century later alienists (mental pathologists or "mad-doctors") such as John Conolly reproduced photographic images of Hugh Diamond in order to promote study of the features of the mad and the stupid. 3 Yet, for all its originality and lasting influence, Bell's work also had historical precedents. 4 Writing in the 1790s, for example, Erasmus Darwin had opined,

The vascular system of other animals are less liable to be put in action by their general sum of pleasurable or painful sensation; and . . . the trains of their ideas, and the muscular motions usually associated with them, are less powerfully connected than in the human system. For other animals neither weep, nor smile, nor laugh; and are hence seldom subject to delirium. . . . Where the quantity of general painful sensation is too great in the system, inordinate voluntary exertions are produced either of our ideas, as in melancholy and madness, or of our muscles, as in convulsion. From these [End Page 49] maladies also brute animals are much more exempt than mankind, owing to their greater inaptitude to voluntary exertion. 5

The immediate context of Bell's work is provided by the popularity, from the mid eighteenth to the mid nineteenth century, of scientific theories that linked facial features with character, morality, and intellect. 6 On the Continent in particular Johann Kaspar Lavater's Physiognomische Fragment zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775-78) was well received. 7 The four-volume Biographien der Wahnsinnigen produced by the German Christian Heinrich Spiess in 1795-96 is another example. 8 The enduring effect on both science and art is clear. For example, between about 1819 and 1823 Théodore Géricault painted five challenging portraits of the insane, adding to a store of images that included Esquirol's two hundred drawings of mental patients that had been commissioned by 1818. 9 Like Bell's observations the theories of Lavater and others were the culmination of a physiognomic tradition built on long-established practical understandings of the face as a transmitter of meanings, intentional or otherwise. 10 Descartes thought the face the index of the mind; similarly, Bell was concerned principally with "hints respecting the external character of the outrageous maniac." 11 Indeed, a look of madness or stupidity had for centuries been the criterion used by the sane to identify men and women whose intellects were deranged or lacking. This essay aims to reveal the importance of facial appearance in that process of identification. People might have learned to describe the appearance of insanity from literature, but they also had visual (and auditory) experience of it in person as well as secondhand from prints and theatre. 12 Although this essay sets out where ordinary citizens might have seen the mad, it looks principally at how they verbalized those experiences.

It is, of course, difficult to recover physiognomy other than by recourse to practitioners' printed or written descriptions. However, and despite assertions to the contrary, alternative evidence does exist (Jordanova, "Art," 123), especially descriptions by laypeople and medical men of the appearance, words, and behavior of those alleged to be mad in proceedings before civil and criminal courts in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Scotland. 13 Statements by witnesses in insanity defenses and in processes for registering guardianships of mentally incapable persons provide a rich and underutilized source for understandings of the body and its pathologies. The...


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