Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland

In the first half of the nineteenth-century treatment of the mentally ill in Britain and Ireland underwent radical change. No longer manacled, chained and treated like wild animals, patient care was defined in law and medical understanding, and treatment of insanity developed.

Focussing on selected cases, this new study enables the reader to understand how progressively advancing attitudes and expectations affected decisions, leading to better legislation and medical practice throughout the century. Specific mental health conditions are discussed in detail and the treatments patients received are analysed in an expert way. A clear view of why institutional asylums were established, their ethos for the treatment of patients, and how they were run as palaces rather than prisons giving moral therapy to those affected becomes apparent. The changing ways in which patients were treated, and altered societal views to the incarceration of the mentally ill, are explored. The book is thoroughly illustrated and contains images of patients and asylum staff never previously published, as well as first-hand accounts of life in a nineteenth-century asylum from a patients perspective.

Written for genealogists as well as historians, this book contains clear information concerning access to asylum records and other relevant primary sources and how to interpret their contents in a meaningful way.

Kathryn Burtinshaw and Dr. John Burt have put a tremendous amount of research, time and heart into an incredibly difficult and complex piece.

 I felt compelled to review this due to my family’s personal connection to the issue. Decades ago when the turmoil between Protestants and Catholics was much worse, and Catholics had little to no power, just being a Catholic was often considered enough of a crime to warrant punishment. I had a great grandfather beaten over the head and committed to an asylum under the guise of treatment in order to cure his politics is the nice way to put it.

 Opening with an explanation on the reason behind difficulties in discovering information on your ancestors as well as the various types of records used is very educational particularly as they pointed out there once was a very seemingly embedded “don’t ask don’t tell” policy as if anything to do with mental health was shameful.

 The inclusions of case studies brought a sense of realism to a weighty subject as you take in how the system worked and understand you’re not just reading about history but about real people who once walked this earth and how that life treated them.

 Reading about the ‘treatments’, and I use that word lightly, used on people is enough to make you believe in evil and not question the veracity of horror movies ever again. The authors regularly broke up how mental health was handled by areas since even though Ireland, Scotland, Wales & England are close each culture is unique to the area so how their people approach the subject would be unique. Even with England’s domination over the area, Ireland included for a long period of time, the people still held onto their own unique cultures, languages, ideas, beliefs and so forth so what constitutes mental illness in one area may not in another; the authors did a remarkable job of pulling these apart to exhibit those specifications.

 The in-depth history, legalities, descriptions of day to day life, and everything else they poured into this one book provides an extremely detailed analysis of an oft ignored subsect of the human population. The authors treated this weighty subject with a caring tenacity that showed they truly believed in showcasing the truth on a dark period in human history with the compassion it deserved.

 Thank you to Netgalley and Pen & Sword for allowing me to review this book.

 *synopsis and pic from

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