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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975

A conventional history of insanity might take the form of a history of psychiatry that narrates the emergence, progress, and triumph of humane treatment and scientific knowledge of mental illness from the Middle Ages to the present. In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault presents a counterhistory of madness. He maintains that treatment of mad people has become increasingly abusive, repressive, and insidious in modern times, silencing what was a vital creative dialogue between madness and reason in Western civilization during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Foucault describes madness in medieval Europe as free to be itself and express itself; madness was everywhere and always present: in wandering mad people in the streets, fools and jesters in the households, and crazy gargoyles and grylli observing life from the Gothic cathedrals. He presents the Middle Ages as a kind of paradise of uninhibited, vitally creative madness, a paradise which the modern world has lost.

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Foucault’s historical method is radically unconventional. He rejects narrative and analysis in favor of an imaginative, figurative, intuitive, even mythopoeic understanding of madness in history. In Madness and Civilization, he presents, in vivid images, a succession of mythic events and symbols of madness which he arranges in roughly chronological order but neither interconnects with coherent arguments nor locates exactly in time and place. Foucault’s presentation yields many memorable images but no logical exposition.

Foucault’s first image is the haunting one that sets the tone of Madness and Civilization. In late medieval Europe, after the eradication of leprosy, according to Foucault, thousands of lazar houses, or leprosariums, stood empty of inmates as if awaiting the internment of the insane in early modern times. This image identifies mad people—outcasts, scapegoats, and persecuted deviants—as the new “moral lepers” of Western civilization. According to Foucault, modern mad people assumed the role of medieval lepers and even occupied lepers’ institutional space.

The striking image of the empty leprosarium is the first in a succession of images of madness from which Foucault constructs his history of insanity. His history emerges as a kind of celebratory poetry or mythology of madness. The medieval period is characterized by a kaleidoscope of gargoyles and licensed fools in motley. The Renaissance period follows, with the Ship of Fools, Tom o’Bedlam, satirical praise of folly, King Lear and his fool, and Don Quixote. The Hopital General was founded in Paris in 1657. According to Foucault, this institution symbolized the “Great Confinement” of misfits, including indigent insane people and street people. This Great Confinement was general policy in Western Europe. Misfits were incarcerated in hopitaux generaux in France, Zuchthauser in Germany, and bridewells, or houses of correction, in England. Madness, which had run free in medieval Europe, was now confined.

Foucault’s depiction of the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, is deeply disturbing. During this period, interned mad people were treated like animals in the zoo or circus, caged, chained, and put on public display at Bedlam in London, the Bicetre in Paris, and other places elsewhere in Europe. Because the Enlightenment placed such a high premium on reason, society regarded persons bereft of reason as subhuman and treated them abusively. This treatment stood in sharp contrast to the acceptance of madness in the Middle Ages and the curiosity or ambivalence about it during the Renaissance.

Foucault’s images continue with the supposed “liberation” of the insane during the 1790’s by psychiatric reformers such as the French physician Philippe Pinel and the English Quaker philanthropist William...

(The entire section contains 1048 words.)

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