Conference Paper: Human Rights, Royal Rights and the Mentally Disabled in Late Medieval England

20 10 2009

Wendy Turner
(Augusta State University)

To read this article and its associated commentaries for free just click on the PDF links below.

Turner PDF

Commentary 1 PDF – Elizabeth Mellyn (University of New Hampshire)

Commentary 2 PDF – Aleksandra Pfau (Hendrix College)

In order to post your comment and response, please use the comments box at the bottom of this post. All comments are moderated and will appear shortly after they are submitted.



Scholars have misunderstood and, subsequently, misrepresented the treatment, care, and custody of the mentally incapacitated of the Middle Ages. The ‘mad’ were protected under the laws of England, and those with property cared for by the crown. Since the appearance of Michel Foucault’s work, Madness and Civilization, many scholars have assumed his view of the mentally disabled from literary sources of the Middle Ages as reality. Yet, Foucault’s work is not history and new works have recently established that the mentally incapacitated were neither ill‐treated nor excluded from society. Most mentally disabled persons remained active members of society, and beginning in the thirteenth century, those who were feudal landlords received special legal attention and care from the crown. This paper examines the crown’s legal and administrative treatment of the mentally disabled in late medieval England.



4 responses

20 10 2009
Wendy J. Turner

I want to first thank Elizabeth Mellyn and Aleksandra Pfau for their commentaries on this article. Interest in the subject of medieval mental conditions has grown of late, though much more work needs to be done.

Mellyn calls into question my use of the term ‘recently’ as far as a global rejection of Foucault’s theories on ‘madness’ in the Middle Ages. I think to have only a handful of scholars challenging these theories for the twenty years following its publication a shame. Not until the late 1970s do we see Neugebauer’s excellent work, along with McDonald’s and Midelfort’s later, and all of them working on mental disabilities and impairments in early modern Europe, not medieval. I think my point was that medievalists took a bit longer to finally reject Foucault outright.

Mellyn also asks many questions, which I could not cover in such a brief work. Let me try to address a few. First, though Neugebauer has a short chapter on the Middle Ages at the beginning of his book on Early Modern mental conditions, it is 30 years old. Much better now is Jonathan Andrews, et al, The History of Bethlem (Routledge 1997). Second, though the Prerogativa Regis ‘says’ that the crown cannot take profit from lands of the non compos mentis does not mean that never happened. In fact, many people were labeled as idiota and non compos mentis, perhaps in an effort to allow the crown at chance at some of the land’s income. Certainly, in all cases, when a guardian was assigned, his stipend came out of the profit of the inheritance. As far as ‘what type of behavior elicited such labels,’ I have an involved study coming out on that very subject (ed. Cory James Rushton, Cambridge Scholars). In short, an idiota was an individual with a passive condition and a furiosus was someone with an active, perhaps threatening, condition with non compos mentis, insanus, and other labels between. Normally people were ‘discovered’ as their parents estates were assessed at death (in the post mortem records), but others were turned in by relatives who were concerned that an heir was being taken advantage of. Some of these cases turn out to be false accusations of insanity or idiocy for reasons unknown.

Pfau addresses the question that I had hoped would spark conversation here, namely ‘rights.’ As she points out, the question becomes, ‘are the rights of the mentally incapacitated being protected as a convenience or because they inherently have rights? Are mad persons being protected, or is it all about the land? I would probably have to agree that it is about property and that the mad were protected as a means to an end. That does not fully explain the 12th chapter of the Prerogativa Regis, where non compos mentis, or as it has been interpreted elsewhere, those who became mad later in life, were granted guardians. This is probably the only place where one might make the case that, if someone became mad as an adult, it was his right that were being protected. Those cases are not the majority, as both Pfau and Mellyn point out, they are in the minority.

Thank you both for your thoughts. Let me know if you have others.

Wendy J. Turner

21 10 2009
Maeve O'Donovan

The work Wendy Turner undertakes in her essay demonstrates the importance of, and need for interdisciplinary conferences such as this one.

As I read it, Prof. Turner’s work provides the groundwork for an important correction in disability studies. Turner points out, and her commentators confirm, that 1) Foucault’s account of the treatment of the disabled in medieval Europe is deeply flawed, and 2) Foucault’s account has been treated as reliable, by disability studies (DS) scholars, until very recently. Thankfully, Turner’s essay provides a corrected history or, at least, a correction significant enbough to call for more work in this area.

For someone interested in epistemologies of ignorance, Turner’s premise and correction (and the work of Metzler that Turner cites) raise some very interesting questions: What explains the failure by DS scholars to either examine or, perhaps, even think of examining Foucault’s claims? Does the fact that most DS scholars use Foucault’s methodologies, rather than his historical claims, help to explain this oversight? What do the errors in Foucault’s historical account reveal about his geneological method? Is it simply a matter of correcting the ‘facts,’ or is a more serious undermining of Foucault likely to result from this new area of schoalrship?

Licia Carlson has a book coming out next year (The Faces of Intellectual Disability) that aims to provide a history of, and critque of, philosophers’ treatment of cognitive disability. Carlson’s 2001 essay, “Cognitive Ableism and Disability Studies: Feminist Reflections on the History of Mental Retardation,” is a call for ‘”a feminist analysis of the history of mental retardation” that makes explicit use of Foucault’s account of “histories” and power. While Carlson’s work is compatible with Turner’s, it also serves as an example of the kind of work Turner is asking us to revisit. Carlson’s history of mental retardation dates only to modern Europe, and no mention is made of Foucault’s claims about medieval notions of disability. Shelley Tremain’s “Foucault and the Government of Disability,” when providing historical accounts, also begins with modern Europe. But if Turner, Metzler and others are correct – such histories of modern Europe and disability are likely to be based on flawed accounts of disability in medieval times. Anyone wishing to employ Foucault in dicsussing disability needs to pay close attention to the work that Turner and others are now undertaking.

25 10 2009
Leigh Ann Craig

I was delighted to read both Dr. Turner’s meticulous paper and the thoughtful responses to her work. (Dr. Turner, I am currently working on the question of diagnostics in those deemd non compos mentis, sine senu, etc.) I had two thoughts about the ongoing discussion.

First, I’ll go out on a bit of a limb — I am not a scholar of the common law — and propose another way to frame this question of rights. The crown stood to benefit from guardianship, as did the guardians, and, as Dr. Turner points out, even the disabled person and his or her family could benefit if circumstances were right. However, considering the larger picture of the growth of royal authority and the royal court systems, I wonder if the crown’s interest was not really focused on either individual rights or on profits centrally, but rather on the question of order. A contested inheritance could create significant disorder, legally, economically, and socially, as heirs fought in court and perhaps even out of court, and the lands themselves were mismanaged. Meanwhile, the growth of royal authority in this period corresponded with a decline in feudal disorder in general. It strikes me (and has been in part suggested) that the crown may have been willing to take on these responsibilities primarily in order to assure orderly succession into land rights, because disorder was undesirable. Profits from the guardianship were something in the nature of a bonus, and if anyone’s rights were at issue, it was the rights of the potential heirs — but the goal was simply a smoother and more orderly transmission of landholding.

But there is a more interesting point to consider in all of that. If order and the rights of heirs were at issue, and the general consensus, from the legal standpoint, was that most who entered a guardianship situation would never leave it, I find it compelling that those determined to be non compos mentis were not simply disinherited from the time of their legal diagnosis, their lands passed to the next heirs immediately. That they were not simply discounted as legal persons has interesting implications. First, it suggests that the problem of those with lucid intervals or temporary mental disabilites were taken very seriously, and that the relative dearth of those who were ultimately removed form guardianship can’t be our only measure of the concern about this issue. If being declared non compos mentis was not a legal endpoint, I would suggest it was in part because of mindfulness of this potential for recovery. Secondly, it reminds us, in combination with the at-home care Dr. Pfau discusses and the mention of marriage in the hope of heirs made by Dr. Turner, that families had many reasons to care for their mentally disabled members, including the hope of recovery, compassion, and also the legal and social complexities of their individual situations. (As such, we can once again discount Foucault’s more sweeping assumptions.)

Thank you all for your excellent thoughts!

30 10 2009

Greetings from The Management. We’re thrilled that you’ve found such fruitful grounds for discussion and exchange. You’re welcome to continue here after today.

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