bedlam: london and its mad – catharine arnold

Huzzah! History! And in true Brit style, a disclaimer.

The term ‘mad’ is not intended to cause offence, but to reflect the generic use of the word, reserving explicit clinical terms for the appropriate context.

{Hi-vis jackets are available and there will be a telephone number afterwards, in case you have been upset by the book.}


The history and treatment of madness across the centuries falls into three basic categories: magical, medical and psychological. In the beginning, madness was regarded as ‘magical’ in origin, a perception dating back to prehistoric times, when no real distinction existed between medicine, magic and religion.

It’s a lively book, I like it a lot. Don’t bother reading my review, just grab a copy yourself. Ms Arnold is a true storyteller, in the best enthralling, fireside sense of the word and her book is stuffed full of fascinating facts. And out of the various non fiction books I’ve reviewed on this blog, this one’s the most fluid and accessible. Be warned, it doesn’t shy away from graphic accounts of the horrors of treatment throughout Bedlam’s existence.

Soranus of Ephesus (AD 98–138) seems to have discovered lithium as a cure for manic depression by recommending that severely disturbed patients be treated with the alkaline waters of the town, which contained high levels of lithium salts. A more radical approach consisted of a pioneering form of electric shock treatment: the Greeks used the ‘electric torpedo’, or eels, as a cure for headaches, believing that ‘the touch of a living torpedo stupefied or blunted the acute sense of pain’. An oil was prepared from the dead fish for use when no live ones were available.

Almost 2 000 years later, still no cure.

Did you know that the Romans also used electric eels as a primitive form of ECT? And as for the Saxons, well …

One account tells of a poor, ‘moon-sick’ individual found wandering the Roman Ridgeway, half naked, a clovewort tied round his neck by a red thread (the plant was believed to cure madness). As if he had not suffered enough, he was seized and given a good thrashing with a whip of porpoise hide.

Bethlehem, Bethlem, Bedlam was founded in 1247 and it’s still going (though it has moved premises twice). Although it is far younger than the history of madness, Bedlam has seen centuries of it and its story is a good counterpoint to the story of madness itself.

Soon this magnificent building, reminiscent of Versailles, became a freak show and a pickup joint, with visitors crowding in to view the lunatics every holiday.


That was the first move, to the building which is now the Imperial War Museum, the next shift was to Kent.

By the beginning of the 20th century, they’d shunted the paupers elsewhere and Bedlam was home to “the worried well and the shabby genteel, driven to madness by the pressures of middle-class life,”. (Seems legit.)


(OT dept door, present day.)

And in the 21st century?

As hospitals go, it is a paradise. But, lest we forget, the museum–which is open to the public–recalls ‘Bedlam’ in all its infamy. Here, you may inspect the restraints, the instruments for force-feeding, and meet the ‘brainless brothers’ face-to-face, larger than life and somewhat intimidating, crouched in the confines of a little room. In the casebooks you will find the sad histories of those who have already featured in this book. But you are not left without hope of redemption. The museum has regular exhibitions of patients’ work and is a testament to art therapy.

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