Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 975 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Cousins, Mark, and Athar Hussain. Michel Foucault, 1984.

Megill, Allan. “Foucault, Structuralism, and the Ends of History,” in Journal of Modern History. LI (1979), pp. 451-503.

Merquior, J.G. Foucault, 1985.

Midelfort, H.C. Erik. “Madness and Civilization in Early Modern Europe: A Reappraisal of Michel Foucault,” in After the Reformation: Essays in Honor of J.H. Hexter, 1980. Edited by Barbara C. Malament.

Rosen, George. Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness, 1968.