Patrick McDonagh

The chapter below is the Introduction to Idiocy: A Cultural History (Liverpool UP, 2008).


Introduction: idiocy, culture

and human relations

‘I have to tell you a tale’, said John Charles Bucknill to the governors of the newly formed Birmingham and Midland Counties Asylum for Idiots at their first annual meeting in 1873, at Birmingham town hall. ‘Not, I trust, as Shakespeare says, “A tale told by an idiot of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, but, still, a tale of an idiot or of idiots. And I am warned by experience that I must trespass upon your pattitle=”history of learning disability”ience so far as to describe what an idiot is’ (Bucknill 1873: 169). We might be surprised that Bucknill, onetime medical supervisor at Devon County Asylum, the Lord Chancellor’s Visitor of Lunatics and the founder of the Asylum Journal (later the Journal of Mental Science), would assume that the governors of an idiot asylum would need to have an idiot described to them, but he was, as he says, relying on experience. Let us allow him to continue:

“On the occasion when it was decided by the Justices of the Peace for this County to establish the Asylum for Pauper Idiots, at Hatton, I well remember hearing an influential magistrate make the earnest inquiry – ‘Who can tell me what an idiot really is?’ I believe this question was not a vain and futile one, and that there are plenty of well-informed people who would have found it an exceedingly difficult one to answer well, and although I do know what an idiot is, I fear I shall not myself find this question an easy one to answer in this place.” (Bucknill 1873: 169–70)

What is an idiot, and what is idiocy? We can imagine why Bucknill might be concerned – it was his job to know, after all – and why the governors of the Birmingham and Midland Counties Asylum for Idiots might need to know as well. But why might we care today? The idea of idiocy has not been the subject of much serious consideration over the years, yet the history of idiocy and related concepts has much to tell us – not only about class, gender and race relations, including social organization and political theory, but also about our assumptions concerning intelligence and those qualities that we believe ourselves to possess. The idiot has been transformed into a resilient contrast group, a category of people against whom we rational modern (and post-modern) folk can identify ourselves, to affirm our intelligence and to assert our claims to respect and justice. But to become this contrast group, idiots had to become stable and unidimensional. They had to be stripped of the numerous markers by which we understand ourselves and others, those qualities that accumulate to give us identities. People identified as idiots had to become only idiots, and nothing else. But this process occurred over time, over history, and developed according to the demands of a specific social environment. In Britain, the idea of ‘idiocy’ evolved in writings and social interactions, and through the physical segregation imposed by the asylum system of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The formation of idiocy, the refinement of its symbolic and ideological functions, was also a part of the process by which we became the people we are, or believe ourselves to be: rational, reasonable, with a claim to rights and authority. Thus, idiocy is as much a socially and ideologically meaningful concept as it is a way of saying something about other people, and the study of idiocy is the study of a particular form of exile, through which some humans are removed in order to enable the remainder to believe in their own unalloyed intelligence. ‘Idiocy’ is thus a term to designate other people, or other groups of people. In sum, the idea of idiocy takes shape as part of a historical process, and this process is also that which creates the contemporary individual.

In 1823, fifty years before Bucknill stood before the asylum governors in the Birmingham town hall to tell them about idiocy, the physician and psychologist John Haslam had claimed that, while lunacy might be complex and subject to difficult interpretation, ‘the state of idiocy is well understood, although cases of an intricate nature may occasionally occur’ (Haslam 1823: 18). Clearly, things had changed by Bucknill’s day, and the questions posed by idiocy seemed more challenging than they had been. One symptom of this growing complexity in the idea of idiocy can be seen in the attempts to delineate its various forms. Édouard Séguin, the French pioneer of pedagogy for people identified as ‘idiots’, had singled out only l’idiotie profonde and l’idiotie superficielle in 1846, and the American Samuel Gridley Howe in 1848 proposed three divisions, ‘pure idiots’, ‘fools’ and ‘simpletons’ (the last, he noted, were also known as ‘imbeciles’ in Britain). But in 1861, P. Martin Duncan and his colleagues elaborated a taxonomy that included six distinct forms of idiocy and another seven ‘accessory cases’, from ‘imbeciles’ to ‘backward children’. In 1866, Duncan and William Millard simplified these classifications to an eight-part division of idiocy and imbecility, including both congenital and non-congenital forms; that same year, John Langdon Down, onetime superintendent at the National Asylum for Idiots in Earlswood, had identified six ‘ethnic’ classifications of idiocy, including his famous ‘mongoloid idiot’. And in 1872, the year before Bucknill met the asylum governors, W. W. Ireland, medical supervisor of the Scottish National Institution for the Training of Imbecile Children, argued that ‘idiocy and imbecility are purely mental classifications; in short … they are other names for psychical deficiency commencing in early life’ (Ireland 1872: 335). He then proposed his own ten classifications, among them hydrocephalic idiocy, epileptic idiocy, traumatic idiocy, congenital idiocy and idiocy by deprivation. No wonder, then, that defining idiocy should prove a challenge.

But in some ways the opposite was true as well, and Bucknill’s consternation about describing idiocy does not diminish his certainty that he knows what idiocy is. Idiocy could be an ambiguous state, albeit at the same time, in Haslam’s words, ‘well understood’. In 1823, the same year that Haslam asserts the relatively uncomplicated nature of idiocy, John Galt’s novel The Entail (discussed in Chapter 4) presented as a central character Walter (Watty) Walkinshaw, a ‘Natural’ who is worried about his inheritance (Galt 1822/23: 102). His father, Claud Walkinshaw, says of him that, ‘haverel though it’s like to be, is no sae ill as to be cognos’t’ (36), meaning that Watty may be something of a half-wit, but he still has enough wit left to avoid being declared an idiot judicially. Throughout the novel, other characters offer other assessments of Watty’s prospects: Mr Keelevin, the family lawyer, suggests that ‘Watty, not to speak disrespectful of his capacity, might never marry’ (57), although the elder Walkinshaw disputes this claim and also rebuts Keelevin’s later assertion that Watty ‘should na be meddled wi’ but just left to wear out his time in the world, as little observed as possible’ (59). Watty does eventually marry and receives the paternal estate in favour of his disinherited older brother, Charles, whose choice of wife has alienated him from his father. A scheming younger brother, George, realizes that Watty’s capacity can be called into question, as the lawyer Keelevin had supposed, and eventually, despite Claud Walkinshaw’s prediction, Watty is declared legally an idiot, his inheritance reverting to George. Shamed by the decision, Watty slowly withers and dies.

In contrast, Maria Fulmont in Charlotte Yonge’s 1860 novel Hopes and Fears, or Scenes From the Life of a Spinster is eventually identified as being ‘innocent’ half way through the novel, at which point the character is in her early teens. Her family, including several close sisters, have not recognized her condition, although one sister, Phoebe, admits that she ‘always knew [Maria] was not clever’; however, Phoebe credits this to Maria’s isolation from society, saying of her, ‘She is so good and kind! If only she could see a few things, and people, and learn to talk’ (241). It is left to the governess to diagnose Maria as having ‘not the usual amount of capacity’, and she notes ‘that she cannot be treated as otherwise than deficient’ (242). For the remainder of the novel, Yonge makes it clearer through her descriptions and the statements of the other characters that Maria is indeed mentally deficient, but the revelation comes as a shock to the family (and in fact to me: I wasn’t sure if it was Maria or Bertha, the stuttering rationalist, who was deficient until the ‘outing’, even though I knew one of them was). Once the label is applied and Maria is revealed as ‘the poor innocent’ (321) she always was, the descriptions of her before her diagnosis – such as her ‘leav[ing] off trying to read a French book that had proved too hard for her’ (121) – assume a new portentousness. Watty Walkinshaw, the ‘haverel’ of The Entail, is legally declared an idiot, but for the reader (and in the world of the novel) this construction remains contingent upon the case elaborated by the prosecution: that Watty’s grief at the deaths of his wife and daughter was excessive and took unconventional forms, and that he could not manage money responsibly. The reader can acknowledge the strength of the case before Watty and even accept Watty as ‘fatuus’ (Galt 1823: 181) but at the same time must remain aware of the parameters of the label and the manner in which it is constructed and imposed: Watty clearly seems to meet the criteria in some areas, whereas in others he is an irreproachable gentleman. The legal designation carries authority, but of a restricted sort. Thirty-seven years later, though, the limits on this authority are fast disappearing. Maria Fulmont becomes fully the ‘poor innocent’ as soon as everyone realizes that this is her state; after Maria is fixed as being deficient, Yonge is able to refer to her walking with ‘the shuffling gait of the imbecile’ (372). Idiocy is at least in part a social role in the earlier novel, but it resides completely within the individual by the time of the latter. This distinction is not just a consequence of differing authorial whims on the parts of Galt and Yonge. The concept of idiocy alters in the time between these two novels, acquiring a significantly more formal status in medical, sociological and pedagogical discourses.

But this new status does not necessarily make idiocy any easier to nail down, as Bucknill’s address to the Birmingham governors shows, and the question is still a poser: what, exactly, did the term ‘idiot’ mean to a mid-Victorian audience? As Martin Duncan had observed in 1861:

It may readily be assumed, from the paucity of reliable and trustworthy information on idiocy, that hasty generalizations, baseless assertions, and captivating theories should abound; nor is it likely to be doubted that the first steps of the truthful inquirer, when brought into contact with the objects of his study, are retrogressive. To unlearn is to take a great step in this, as in many other pursuits. (233)

We shall come back to the latter portion of Duncan’s observation; for now, let us consider those ‘hasty generalizations’ and ‘baseless assertions’ that muddied the idea of idiocy – and, for that matter, continue to muddy the contemporary concepts of intellectual disability, or mental retardation, or cognitive impairment, or developmental delay, or learning disability. Anyone wanting to understand the history of the idea of intellectual disability and its various genealogical precursors, such as idiocy, must contend with the slipperiness of the key terms.

As Arthur Lovejoy noted in 1948, any history of ideas has to struggle with ‘the rôle of semantic transitions and confusions, of shifts and of ambiguities in the meanings of terms, in the history of thought and of taste’ (xii). With concepts as slippery as ‘idiocy’ and its kin, this task is imposing, but critical, especially as these terms relate to individual people. Certainly there are individuals so designated who need assistance in performing some – or even most – of the acts of daily life; others need occasional support services to facilitate some of the more complex elements of social life. But our interpretation of these needs has been heavily overdetermined, as have been our denials of our own similar needs in our assertions of independence and competence. Our broad cultural notions of intelligence (and its apparent lack) are laden with baggage packed with ideas and preconceptions about gender, class, ethnicity and religion, among others. Consequently, idiocy as a concept is nothing if not problematic, ambiguous and obscure – a shadow image (Stainton and McDonagh 2001) or, more prosaically (and at the very least), a social construction (Rapley 2004). Idiocy appears as a state of being when applied to an individual, but it is also a reification: an idea given flesh and embodied by (or imposed upon) specific individuals. All the same, many histories tend to accept a relatively uncomplicated reading of idiocy as something residing fully within the people so designated, with different historical approaches simply providing different lenses through which to view the same phenomenon.

This historiographic inclination misses some important questions. First of all, how do we know if the phenomenon designated by ‘idiocy’ or one of its many related terms is the same across the ages? And secondly, if ‘idiocy’ is not the same thing from one time or place to the next, what is it? We have no way of knowing for certain if someone called a ‘fool’ in the sixteenth century would, if transported through time, be called ‘simple’ in the eighteenth century, an ‘imbecile’ in the 1890s, or ‘moderately or mildly retarded’ in the 1960s; nor do we know if someone called an ‘idiot’ in 1760 would still be one in 1860, or ‘severely retarded’ in 1960. Even in their own days, these terms signified a remarkably wide range of characteristics: the sixteenth century designation ‘fool’ could be applied to atheists, physically distinct people like dwarfs or hunchbacks, people who seemed lacking in wit,[1] professional performers and even those hapless amateurs who imitated professional performers. In the fourteenth century, the legal term ‘idiot’ meant exactly what it said in Greek: a private man. When the term was affixed to an individual by the Court of Chancery after an investigation into the defendant’s ability to perform such tasks as handle money and identify lineage, it meant that person was no longer considered a ‘public individual’ capable of holding any degree of authority at the indulgence of the Crown; instead, he was demoted to the lowly status of an idiota, who does not hold a public office and is thus level with peasants and (most) women (Goodey 2008). The criteria for being identified as a ‘fool’ or even a fourteenth-century ‘idiot’ would not necessarily include those individuals diagnosed as ‘idiots’ in the nineteenth century. Even after the professionalization of the treatment of idiocy, there was no guarantee of constant diagnoses. Among his tales to the Birmingham governors, Bucknill recounts a story told by the medical officer of the Western Counties Asylum, one

Dr Pycroft, who had noted that ‘In the year 1864 the first patient was admitted, but as he was adjudged by the medical officer and by the committee generally to be a clever boy of much more than average intellect, he was returned to his parents’. Misdiagnoses such as these were, of course, ‘wonderful and exceptional cases’, Bucknill assured his listeners, and there was no danger of such errors taking place at the new Birmingham and Midlands Counties Asylum (Bucknill 1873: 180).[2] But ‘idiocy’ professionals were aware of the porosity of their taxonomies. Duncan and Millard (1866: 13) warned that ‘there are no accurately distinctive symptoms which separate clearly the subdivisions of congenital idiocy; there is a gradual progression in intellect and physical power from the lowest to the highest; yet the artificial and broad definitions will be found useful’. Not surprisingly, then, asylum records show individuals receiving different diagnoses at different times and from different physicians. When patient number 2762 at the Earlswood institution was admitted as an eight-year-old in 1891, he was described as a ‘good laundry boy’, amiable but unsuccessful in schooling; in later years he was diagnosed in case updates as an imbecile (May 1915, January 1919, May 1941, May 1946, May 1951) and, according to the last three entries, with a mental age of three, but also as an idiot (June 1931, August 1936); he died in the institution in 1952, after living sixty-one of his sixty-nine years within its walls.[3]

If such variation existed in one institutional reading of an individual, imagine the faith required to believe in the stability of ‘idiocy’ across decades. And across cultures – even closely related ones – the problems are magnified. The English physician Martin Duncan, summarizing an 1848 Massachusetts report on idiocy, concluded that ‘it would appear that the statistics of one nation will not apply to the idiots of another, unless the social and climatic conditions are the same’; instead, the report’s ‘fairest conclusions become doubtful when they are examined and tested by our experience amongst our own countrymen’ and ‘in America there is hardly a case whose history does not bear upon its cause; here it is quite the opposite’ (Duncan et al. 1861: 237) – an observation that anticipates the virulence of the American eugenics movement compared with the British version. So, when Samuel Gridley Howe (1848) claimed that his term ‘simpleton’ is the American equivalent to the British ‘imbecile’, we must ask if they are truly equivalent. Of course, this question needled mid-century observers as well as twenty-first-century historians. The anonymous writer of ‘Cretins and Idiots’ in the 1858 Atlantic Monthly noted that most residents of the Earlswood institution were not, in fact, ‘idiots’ as the term was understood in the United States, but rather ‘the greater part of the admissions … are from the pauper and poor labouring classes; and the simple substitution of wholesome and sufficient food for a meager and innutritious diet is alone sufficient to effect a marked change in them’ (Anonymous 1858: 417). Thus, while agreeing that the asylum is a force for benevolence, the article claims that ‘these youths are not idiots, and no such analogy exists between them and idiots as would enable us to infer with certainty the successful treatment of the latter from the comparatively rapid development of the former’ (417). This slippage in terms is important for our understanding of idiocy’s social-symbolic function. That is, if basic definitions are not harmonized across cultures, we should be asking if the concept does or does not perform the same functions across cultures. To the British writer, American ‘idiocy’ is rooted in a perverse familial lineage, whereas the American writer perceives a British ‘idiocy’ connected to class; surely this distinction is important.

Rather than being an insurmountable difficulty for historians, these shifting concepts, diverging associations and wide-ranging terminologies and diagnostic categories help us to track those historical processes shaping the concept of idiocy and its related terms, and form a subject of critical study in their own right. As the cultural historian Roger Chartier has noted, drawing on the work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, ‘the historian examining classifications and groupings is not … straying from the social realm’ but is rather ‘identifying trouble-spots that are all the more conclusive for being less immediately material’ (Chartier 1988: 5). While the history of the idea of idiocy and its related groupings has been grossly neglected, it is critical to our understanding of both contemporary and historical notions of intelligence – in addition to providing a necessary complement to social and institutional histories in developing an understanding of ‘intellectual disability’. Indeed, the importance of stable notions of idiocy to our belief in intelligence – and, by extension, in our own intelligence – is probably the primary reason for this strenuous neglect of idiocy’s history.

This book argues that ideas such as ‘idiocy’ and ‘imbecility’ are, as Ireland claimed, ‘mental classifications’ buttressed by a dynamic interplay of factors – but with a difference, of course. The history of idiocy as an idea must address the issues that arise when such ‘mental classifications’ are given flesh – that is, when they become part of the daily matter of the social life of specific individuals. Concepts are applied to individuals for a number of ideologically potent reasons that are laden with unexplored associations. One goal of this book is to look into these associations – what can they reveal about idiocy, about intelligence, about the people identified as idiots and about ourselves?

In describing a cultural history of the idea of idiocy as it has been applied to particular groups of people, this book is not presenting a history of ‘idiocy’ as an invective, an allegation tossed at others, as when Alexander Pope mocks his poetic competitors in The Duncaid (1742) by having them compete to win the approval of the goddess ‘Dulnes’, the ‘fair Ideot’, ‘Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night’, who ‘rul’d, in native Anarchy, the mind’ (from lines 11–16).[4] But these applications of the term are not entirely separate, and we could very easily see the bodily presence of people identified as idiots as a flesh and blood personification of this invective, rather than the opposite. ‘Its considerable semantic shifts and dislocations not withstanding, everyone knows what it means to call someone an idiot’, Avital Ronell points out in her playful (yet very cerebral) exploration of stupidity (Ronell 2002: 167). But do we insult people by calling them ‘idiots’ because we want to align them with those devalued individuals whose intellectual, social and moral capacities are considered subnormal, or do we diagnose people as ‘intellectually disabled’ (or ‘idiotic’) and assert a phalanx of restrictions and prohibitions over them because we wish to isolate a disturbing concept within a specific population rather than leave it loose to roam among ‘normal’ humans such as ourselves? Idiocy is a metonymic state: when it is a diagnostic label pasted onto a human, that human becomes defined by his or her capacity to embody the part of human nature called ‘idiocy’, which is also that part of our being receiving the invective. The ‘idiot’, in embodying for us our own flaws, our fears, our incapacities and our failures, becomes that part of ourselves we usually avert our eyes from. But this argument suggests that intelligence itself is a reification, a particularly malleable and squishy concept, open to conflicting definitions, that masquerades as a specific and identifiable quality or set of qualities that we can call our own. Perhaps our unwillingness to look directly at what a relatively slow cognitive process means to us has made idiocy (or intellectual disability – or, for that matter, intelligence) seem invisible as a category worthy of critical analysis; we have long assumed it to be an ideologically neutral designation, although nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, from the early decades of the twentieth century the physical separation and isolation in institutions of those people who wore the ‘idiocy’ label made the historical processes shaping the concept even more invisible. That the history of ideas of idiocy and its flip side, intelligence, has been ignored as an appropriate subject of investigation and analysis, and that the relation of this history to other streams of thought, other realms of discussion, has been almost completely neglected, suggests just how effectively the idea has been absorbed within frameworks that shape its meaning. Now might be a good time to recall the latter portion of our earlier quotation from Martin Duncan on working with idiots: ‘the first steps of the truthful inquirer, when brought into contact with the objects of his study, are retrogressive. To unlearn is to take a great step…’ (Duncan 1861: 233). Learning the history of idiocy, or intellectual disability, or mental retardation, demands that we forget much of what we think we already know. As recent publications suggest, some of this ‘unlearning’ has already begun, at least provisionally.

The critical background

For years, the only available histories of idiocy and related concepts were works such as Leo Kanner’s A History of the Care and Study of the Mentally Retarded (1964), Richard Scheerenberger’s A History of Mental Retardation (1983) and Peter Tyor and Leland Bell’s Caring for the Retarded in America (1984), all of which tracked the growth of the professional treatment of people bearing the relevant labels; a shorter and more politicized rendition of this history appeared in Ryan and Thomas’s The Politics of Mental Handicap (1987). The past dozen years, however, have seen a flood of publications by historians, primarily in social and institutional history; most of the chapters in David Wright and Anne Digby’s seminal edited collection From Idiocy to Mental Deficiency (1996) focus on these areas. Mathew Thomson’s The Problem of Mental Deficiency (1998) examines the development and application of mental deficiency laws and their relation to movements in health care and eugenics, while Mark Jackson’s The Borderland of Imbecility (2000) investigates the growth of the concept of feeble-mindedness through an analysis of Mary Dendy’s Sandlebridge schools (see Chapter 12). David Wright’s Mental Disability in Victorian England (2001) presents a social history based on his research on the archives of the Earlswood asylum, while James Trent’s Inventing the Feeble Mind (1994) and Philip Ferguson’s Abandoned to Their Fate (1994) track the asylum movement in the USA, and Steven Noll’s Feeble-Minded in Our Midst (1995) documents the history of ‘institutions for the mentally retarded’ in the southern United States from 1900 to 1940.[5] Some of these works sustain a critical analysis of the categories used to define people; for example, Trent, Thomson and Jackson are concerned primarily with the creation of those categories – ‘feeble-minded’ in Britain, ‘moron’ in the USA – that rest on ‘the borderland of imbecility’ and they investigate some of the social currents, especially growing middle-class anxiety about urban poverty, economic competition and moral degeneracy, and, in the United States, race and miscegenation, that helped feed these concepts, as well as the political responses to them. Recently, Edward Shorter has written the political history The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation (2000), focusing on the role played by the Kennedy administration and family in the reform of laws governing ‘mental retardation’ in the United States.

However, the core concept – idiocy – still remains largely untouched by critical historical analysis. There are exceptions, of course. Chris Goodey (1994, 1996, 2004) has contributed a series of provocative and challenging analyses of the ideological development and application of idiocy and related concepts by writers from John Locke to Thomas Willis and Paracelsus; Jonathan Andrews (1998a, 1998b) explores the social meaning of idiocy in a pair of wide-ranging and informative articles; Tim Stainton (2004) has analysed the representation of folly and disability in northern European Renaissance art; and Goodey and Stainton (2001) have challenged conventional thinking about the ‘changeling’ myth in the light of intellectual disability. Martin Halliwell’s Images of Idiocy (2004), while not a history per se and concerned with textual images rather than the interaction of text and context, addresses the symbolic functions of ‘idiot’ characters in modern fiction and film, and thus provides insights into some of the symbolic resonances of the idea of idiocy; and Robert Bogdan’s Freak Show (1988) approaches tangentially the display of people with intellectual (and other) disabilities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[6] But these instances are few, and the history of idiocy is long and rich.

So what are we talking about when we discuss the history of idiocy? And how might we further unravel the strands that tie together the concept? Most historians have turned to archives to understand the history of idiocy, but these tell the story primarily from one perspective: that of the institution and its employees. Thus, Jackson’s work relies heavily on the Sandlebridge archives and Wright’s on Earlswood’s; and Thomson is indebted to political records and related documents, as well as institutional archives. These histories, all offering critical insights into the social history of idiocy, often allude to broadly ‘cultural’ sources of historical evidence to support or illustrate their findings, but do not actively investigate these sources. Recently, autobiographical information and first-person oral histories have been made available by academic researchers working in conjunction with people who have been identified as having intellectual disabilities (e.g. Walmsley 2001; Atkinson and Walmsley 1999; Atkinson and Williams 1990; Dybwad and Bersani 1996), and groups such as People First[7] have set out to document the histories of their members. But these latter sources, despite their contemporary importance, are of limited use to the historian of periods before the 1950s, as few older autobiographical records have been left behind by people identified as idiots.

One challenge for the historian is to determine the whole range of factors that make some people more likely to bear the label than others. If we do not analyse the constituents of the idea of idiocy – if we are not trying to identify the forces that help shape it into being – then we are implicitly accepting idiocy as an objective category, without a pervasive metaphorical or symbolic function, and free from ideological taint. And this would be an error. All the evidence shows that idiocy performs symbolic and ideological tasks.

Names and naming

‘The terms used in the literature of idiocy, complicate the first steps of practical inquiry greatly, and different writers, regardless of the necessity for unanimity, use the same words to describe various classes of idiots’ wrote Duncan et al. in 1861:

It soon becomes manifest, that a total revision is necessary, and that when the subject has been studied for years, and its theoretical portion becomes advanced, the word ‘idiot’ itself will have to give place to some other, more expressive of the cases to which it is now applied. (Duncan et al. 1861: 236)

This wide and fluid terminology that worries Duncan and his colleagues has often appeared as both an obstacle to understanding idiocy and as an indication of its universality: after all, everyone seems to have a word for it. Séguin opens his 1846 Traitement moral, hygiène et education des idiots with a multi-linguistic and cross-cultural list of synonyms for ‘idiocy’, a strategy he reprises in his English-language work twenty years later (Séguin 1866). But as Duncan points out, these words all too often do not signify the same thing.

People who are now designated ‘mentally retarded’, ‘intellectually disabled’, ‘developmentally delayed’, ‘learning disabled’ or ‘cognitively impaired’ have – as the multiplicity of current terms suggests – been subject to a staggering number of labels and epithets over the years, and the condition denoted by any one term may not be absolutely (or even remotely) identical to that denoted by another, especially as each term is the product of a specific social and cultural environment. Disability activists and theorists have elaborated a distinction between the concepts of ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’: the former denotes a physical condition whereas the latter is a social condition, a form of oppression, exclusion or constraint (Davis 1995; Oliver 1996; Gleeson 1997). Disability is thus a state that ‘any society might produce in its transformation of first nature – the bodies and materials received from previous social formations’, argues Brendan Gleeson (1997: 193). However, in the case of ‘idiocy’ this impairment is already ambiguous and unstable: where is it, precisely, and how do we know it exists in any other than a statistical sense, as a predetermined deviation from a mathematical mean? The people to whom terms such as ‘intellectual disability’ or ‘idiocy’ refer (or have in the past referred) may well have an impairment of some sort – but this is far from certain, as the ‘impairment’ may be no more substantial than the ‘disability’, and often remains indistinguishable from it.[8] However, my goal is not to evaluate the meaningfulness of some possible impairment or the accuracy of terms used to designate it, but rather to investigate the process by which a particular society reproduces and re-imagines this presumption of impairment within the culturally meaningful notion of idiocy.

On a fundamental level the labels and syntax used to identify disabilities reflect the speakers’ positions. Certainly the label most favoured by the US disability civil rights movement, ‘people with [intellectual] disabilities’, is meant to denote a group whose members are determined to emphasize their humanity, with the disability assuming the status of a secondary characteristic, rather than being a primary designation. However, this label is not without its critics. Gleeson, following disability theorist Paul Abberley, argues that ‘the endless tendency to reinvent titles for disabled people is characteristic of a vacuous humanism which seeks to emphasise a “human commonality” over the material reality of oppression’, and denounces this formulation as ‘a retrograde terminological change which effectively depoliticises the social discrimination that disabled people are subjected to’ (Gleeson 1997: 182), a criticism shared by disability theorist Michael Oliver, a primary figure in the development of the social model of disability (see for example Oliver 1990). Gleeson, Oliver and the British disability movement in general have endorsed the use of the term ‘disabled person’ as a more politically direct designation that foregrounds social oppression.

Obviously, some term has to be used to designate the people who are implicated in the notion of intellectual disability. Throughout my work, I alternate between some variation of the ‘people identified as having…’ formulation when referring to the actual human beings judged ‘idiotic’ or diagnosed as ‘intellectually disabled’, and whatever designation – ‘idiot’, ‘innocent’, ‘imbecile’ – is used in the text being cited or the period being discussed. This terminological approach will foreground of the social position of those people identified as being ‘idiots’; the tension between the terms is critical to our understanding of how concepts have shifted across time and space, and of what consequences these shifts have for people so identified. On a very basic level, I do not replace ‘idiocy’ and its historical brethren with terms more harmonious to contemporary sensibilities, such as ‘intellectual disability’, because they are not the same thing, even if they are conceptually related. The varying meanings of the different labels become much clearer when no single one is given priority as a more correct or accurate way of designating a particular state of being, impaired, disabled or otherwise. For this reason, I replicate the historical terms, as well as diagnoses, as I find them.

The cultural history of idiocy

‘Amongst the abnormal conditions of humanity, imbecility, at first  sight so repulsive, so barren of all suggestion, will appear when we come to look at it more closely, to be rich in analogical inference and full of tender poetry’, wrote asylum advocate and poet Dora  Greenwell in 1868 (76). True to her observation, poetry and analogical inference have played a major role in shaping the idea of idiocy and imbecility, but not everyone has been pleased by this state of affairs. In 1862, John Langdon Down lamented:

The opinion which has been formed, both in and out of the [medical] profession, in reference to idiocy, has arisen more from the representations of poets and romance-writers than from the deductions of rigid observation. The popular novelist, in this as in other cases, seizes on the characteristics of some exaggerated specimen, portrays them by the aid of a vivid imagination, and henceforth the exaggeration becomes the type of a species in the mind of men. (See Down 1887: 92)

Clearly, literary and other cultural products are important to understanding the history of the idea of idiocy, even if the notions expressed in these sources do not always conform to those endorsed by medical practitioners and their allies.

When ‘idiocy’ appears in texts, whether they are novels, personal letters, medical reports or newspaper articles, it is laden with meanings from the explicit to the subtle and unacknowledged. Such evidence often makes metaphoric and symbolic use of the idea of idiocy and its conceptual cousins, even while making no assumption of objectivity. Literary works, for instance, play to popular notions and ideas, thus providing insights into the components of a concept like ‘idiocy’. Of course, evidence gathered from cultural products has important limitations: it does not necessarily record how those people labelled as idiotic, imbecilic or feeble-minded were treated in society; nor does it provide a consistently reliable means of revealing social attitudes to these people, although some sources may contain these kinds of insights. However, by placing vernacular alongside other forms of evidence we can layer the symbolic function of idiocy, most explicit in cultural texts, over the more apparently objective renditions of the idea expressed in professional and institutional works; we can thus read more clearly the tensions and correlations that help define idiocy’s cultural significance. Mary Poovey argues in respect of Victorian gender imagery ‘that the construction and deployment of these images performed critical ideological work … that they were intimately involved in the development of England’s characteristic social institutions, the organization of its most basic economic and legal relations, and in the rationalization of its imperial ambitions’ (Poovey 1988: 2). Representations of ‘idiocy’ also act in what Poovey (1988: 15) calls the ‘symbolic economy’ of texts: that is, within the relations of signs and symbols that constitute a work’s meaning, the ‘internal structure of ideology’. This approach has influenced my own attempts to make sense of ‘idiocy’ imagery, and to determine how and why these images are put to work in texts in the way that they are. The better we understand the ideological and symbolic labour performed by idiocy in the nineteenth century, for example, the easier it becomes to give shape and form to the ideas motivating and validating the concept.

By the nineteenth century in Britain, the once prevalent, theologically inspired reading of idiocy, which, depending on one’s theological position, aligned the condition with either divine or demonic powers, was layered over (rather than replaced) by subsequent readings born of evolutionary theories, social concerns, political philosophies, economic policies, medical hypotheses and educational strategies, all functioning within the dynamic relations of that society. Maria Fulmont in Yonge’s Hopes and Fears is presented as both a pathologized imbecile with her ‘shuffling gait’ and a Christian ‘innocent’, a fusion not easily maintained philosophically or scientifically, as expressing two distinct and often opposed positions, but one which was apparently much less challenging to support in daily life. Occasionally, older concepts of idiocy resurface within newer frameworks, or simply refuse to disappear. Indeed, these older concepts often determine the shape assumed by newer ideas, so that the demonic idiot shares significant features with the later pathological or degenerate idiot.

Cultural works foreground the symbolic functions of nineteenth century notions of idiocy in a manner that is often repressed in forms of writing that presume objectivity – although not so often as we might expect, as many nineteenth-century physicians and related professionals were willing to engage in flights of metaphor and analogy in their writings. All the same, the symbolic or metaphorical uses of ‘idiot’ characters in literary works often express culturally charged beliefs about the subtexts or connotations of idiocy, which are less overtly explored in professional or institutional writings and rarely articulated in the same manner. In Narrative Prosthesis, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder argue that ‘disability pervades literary narrative, first, as a stock feature of characterization and, second, as an opportunistic metaphorical device’ (Mitchell and Snyder 2000: 47). Disability images provide a means of ‘complicating … representational universes’ (2) and thus conveying meanings that otherwise would remain inexpressible or transgressive, with the result that disability becomes ‘foundational to both cultural definition and to the literary narratives that challenge normalizing prescriptive ideals…. In short, disability characterization can be understood as a prosthetic contrivance upon which so many of our cultural and literary narratives rely’ (51). Disability imagery fills a narrative void, acting as a bridge (or a prosthetic) to enable a metaphysical or symbolic reading that the text cannot articulate (or refuses to) explicitly. Mitchell and Snyder are writing almost exclusively about physical disability – hence their use of the ‘prosthetic’ metaphor – but the same notion often applies to narratives drawing on images of idiocy.

Critical analyses of the concept of idiocy allow us to ask ‘What did idiocy mean to the people writing and reading these texts? And why did it mean what it did?’ The goal of cultural history, as Mark Poster (1997: 10) defines it, is:

the study of the construction of the subject, the extent through which and the mechanisms through which individuals are attached to identities, the shapes and characteristics of these identities, the role the process of self-constitution plays in the disruption or stabilization of political formations, and the relation of all these processes to distinctions of gender, ethnicity and class.

The challenge facing historians, then, becomes:

to describe the mechanisms through which such people [as ‘suffering workers’ or ‘victimized women’] were constituted as subjects in relation to the measure of stable, centered autonomy; to show how the discursive figure of the universal, free individual was paradoxically able to designate these groups and others as outside the universal and as unfree, to show that modern freedom has always only been possible through its exclusions. (11)

As Poster suggests, our objective is to obtain a fuller understanding of the various manifestations, articulations and parameters of the ideas of idiocy and their functions within different social spaces and contexts. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault (1969: 32) writes that:

It would certainly be a mistake to try to discover what could have been said about madness at a particular time by interrogating the being of madness itself, its secret content, its silent, self-enclosed truth; mental illness was constituted by all that was said in all the statements that named it, divided it up, described it, explained it, traced its developments, indicated its various correlations, judged it, and possibly gave it speech by articulating, in its name, discourses that were to be taken as its own. Moreover, this group of statements is far from referring to a single object, formed once and for all, and to preserving it indefinitely as its horizon of inexhaustible ideality; the object presented as their correlative by medical statements of the seventeenth or eighteenth century is not identical with the object that emerges in legal sentences or police action; … it is not the same illnesses that are at issue in each of these cases: we are not dealing with the same madmen.

To meet this problem, Foucault focuses on discursive formations, statements in which ‘one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations)’ (1969: 38). The critical concern becomes not whether we are referring to exactly the same physiological condition across the years, but whether the terms used to designate a condition are part of repeating, transforming and interconnected discourses. Our goal then shifts from describing a presumed objective condition – ‘idiocy’ in our case – to analysing the terms, the language and structures that articulate the cultural idea of that condition, and thus confer upon a concept such as ‘idiocy’ its status as an objective state.

The path from sixteenth-century folly to nineteenth-century idiocy does not follow a straight line; in fact, the path from early modern legal applications of ‘idiocy’ does not follow a straight line to nineteenth century medical ‘idiocy’ either, even though the terms are the same. Idiocy, mental deficiency, folly, mental retardation, intellectual disability and learning disability are not all the same names for a trans-historically stable subject; instead, they designate different manifestations of a set of related ideas, which are then embodied in specific individuals (or perhaps not – ‘folly’ was often presented as a general characteristic of all humanity in sixteenth-century writings). The discourse of idiocy is connected to broader social and cultural discourses and, thus, must be considered in this context. The concept of idiocy may be dramatically different from one time and place to another. For instance, it would be very difficult to find a physician today who would state that idiocy could be caused by excessive masturbation – itself a difficult-to-quantify notion, for how much is too much? In the United States of the 1850s, however, those physicians were apparently quite common – substantially more so than in Britain.[9] This association between masturbation and idiocy is significant, even if, from a twenty-first-century perspective, clearly wrong. Why were US physicians so convinced of the connection between the two? And why were their British confrères more reticent about asserting these links? The questions tell us something about the different symbolic functions of, and the ideological work performed by, the idea of idiocy in US and British society.

As both time and geography exert strong forces on the concepts that mould idiocy, it is necessarily a culturally specific notion. This history focuses primarily upon British notions of idiocy, and thus British sources of evidence, although there are exceptions: the influential writings of Samuel Gridley Howe and other Americans are considered, but especially as they affect or illuminate British conceptions of idiocy. So too are the writings of Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin in France, as these works lay the foundation for later efforts and initiatives to educate idiots, and their ideas resonate throughout the nineteenth century – and, in many ways, to the current day.

To comprehend nineteenth-century idiocy and related concepts, then, demands that we delve into the discursive spaces in which the idea takes shape, and track the different lines of thought that express its points of cohesion, tensions and directions of development. This development is not linear and progressive, but rather the product of conflicting notions (and social applications) of the term. Thus, we have the innocent Christian idiot, the moral and, later, racial degenerate, the helpless and the dangerous, the drain on social resources and the exemplar of supportive community, the diminished male and the promiscuous female, and a plethora of other characterizations. Investigating these associations and exploring more fully their tensions and interrelations in cultural, social and political milieux may help us bring the history of idiocy out of its narrow readership to a larger audience, by demonstrating the importance of the concept to other realms of discourse and activity. Such a move would be informative as well as emancipatory. I like to think it would also be interesting, engaging, even pleasurable.

A tale told by an idiot

I have been calling this book a ‘cultural history’, but I am not wedded to that classification. Perhaps it is the social-cultural history of an idea; perhaps, following Bucknill (albeit at a distance) and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it is merely a tale told by an idiot:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

(Macbeth, act V, scene v, lines 18–27)

But there is more to this passage than is noted by those commentators, like Bucknill, common in the nineteenth century, who equated ‘idiocy’ with meaninglessness and offered to impose rationality where before none existed. Shakespeare, or Macbeth at any rate, proposes that life is that tale told by an idiot – at least, this is Macbeth’s gloomy interpretation of life as he learns of his wife’s suicide. Significantly, Shakespeare’s idiots were part of life, and idiocy, like its cousin folly (and those fools whose travels to dusty deaths were lit by yesterdays), was something in which everyone shared (‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’

Shakespeare’s Puck observed, wonderingly). And Macbeth’s ‘idiot’ is not our own (nor Bucknill’s). His image draws on two prominent and concurrent meanings of the term: a person of lesser wit but also one whose language signifies nothing because he is a private person and has no public authority – unlike the king, who epitomizes this authority. Notably, the lead actor Richard Burbage, for whom Shakespeare writes these lines, also compares life to ‘a poor player’. The juxtaposition should be clear, but generations of readers, playgoers and scholars have missed it, in large part because of a simplistic understanding of the term ‘idiot’: the renowned Burbage is to the ‘poor player’ what Macbeth, the king, is to ‘the idiot’, or private, powerless peasant. But life does not accept such elevation, and will ultimately level them, the stage star with the poor player, the king with the peasant idiot: all are fools on the road to dusty death. The sound and fury are that meaningless cacophony generated by all mortal beings, because all, ultimately, are idiots in that second sense of the term: before the unwavering power of mortality, no voice, not even the king’s, can claim any authority. It is not intellectual capacity but social standing and power that are underscored by the term ‘idiot’ in this passage, in which all humans, as mortal beings, are peasant idiots. The ‘nothing’ signified by idiocy is Macbeth’s own socio-existential crisis.

Idiocy involves interpretation, whether by physicians or psychologists performing a diagnosis, or historians and cultural analysts reading old documents. We ignore this process at our peril: we cannot pretend to understand the history of idiocy (or intellectual disability, or intelligence) if we forget to question and analyse what forces shape this concept and its precursors. How and why were they understood in the ways that they were? Without asking these questions, those other questions of asylum management, workhouse tenancy and community living become analyses of policy and implementation rather than of the underlying processes that define idiocy (or, later, intellectual disability) and those parameters that determine what position an individual so identified will occupy in a society.

What lies before us…

Ideas of idiocy and the social position and treatment of people identified as ‘idiots’ intersect with cultural and political notions in shaping a broad social understanding of human relations and human identities. This book looks at some of the ways idiocy took form and what functions – analogical and symbolic as well as social and political – it performed, primarily (although not exclusively) in nineteenth-century Britain. The period spanned by the book is primarily between the end of the eighteenth century and the start of the twentieth. Literary critics have long pointed to the 1798 publication of Lyrical Ballads, including William Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Idiot Boy’, as a defining moment at the start of British romanticism, and it parallels philosophical investigations into idiocy. Looking back from a vantage point in 1904, the US physician Martin Barr wrote that the capture in 1800 and subsequent education of ‘the savage of Aveyron’ ‘might be likened to a guide-post reading two ways’:

Standing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a literal symbol of the parting of ways for his caste, in this uncouth figure is represented all the cruelty of the past and the beneficent influences of a new era. The last of those of whom history or tradition speaks as, either through neglect or through wilful desertion, driven from the haunts of men; he is also the first example recorded of an idiot reclaimed from the life of a mere animal to be trained to a human existence. (Barr 1904: 30–31)

These twin events – the publication of Wordsworth’s renowned poem and the beginning of Itard’s equally renowned pedagogical experiments –  mark the start of a rise in social concern with idiocy, which also included the increasingly aggressive attention given to developing medical and scientific theories regarding idiocy’s causes and, later, social policies meant to control it. These policies culminated in Britain in the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, which might, to return to Barr’s quote, mark the point at which the idiot was once again ‘driven from the haunts of men’. In addition, while at the start of the nineteenth century ‘idiocy’ is often a general term applied to a number mental conditions, in  1913 ‘idiocy’ is itself formally subsumed under the broader concept of ‘mental deficiency’ (as Duncan predicted) and no longer functions as the general denominator. The greater part of this effort at writing the cultural history of idiocy ends when ‘idiocy’ ceases to be the dominant term used to describe a form of mental difference.

The chapters that follow form essays, rather than a strictly linear narrative, that set out the history of the idea of idiocy, primarily through how it appears in cultural, scientific, philosophical, medical and sociological representations. The concept of idiocy acquires and sheds meanings, slipping in and out of different realms of understanding. There are dates in the history of idiocy, of course, even in the cultural or conceptual history. And many of the essays here are structured around events – the publication of a book, the capture of a feral child, the opening of an institution – that form a chronology. But the essays also attempt to describe how the idea of idiocy blends with other notions, concerns and understandings across decades and centuries, to see how it enters into these, and how it is in turn shaped by them.

To do this, we open in medias res and, in this instance, with a something akin to a firm date. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on William Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Idiot Boy’, published in 1798 as part of Lyrical Ballads, a landmark text of English romanticism, and on the ‘wild boy of Aveyron’, who enters recorded history in 1797 (although he was not captured for good until 1800). The first of these focuses on Wordsworth’s poem and the epistolary exchange it prompted between the poet and his young admirer John Wilson on what we might call the aesthetic value of idiocy, and the connection of this aesthetic value to actual human relations. The second considers the impact on these human relations of Jean Marc Gaspard Itard’s pedagogical experiments with the enfant sauvage, eventually named Victor, who was considered by some to be an ‘ineducable idiot’ and others – such as Itard – to be an example of a tabula rasa through whom scientists could learn how humans acquire knowledge and awareness. This chapter also investigates some of Itard’s aesthetic assumptions in his two case reports on the growth of Victor’s mind and his social identity. These chapters share a common theme: they explore the uncertain relation of people considered ‘idiots’ to other people in their world at the start of the nineteenth century. Wordsworth’s ‘The Idiot Boy’ and Itard’s 1801 and 1806 reports on his progress with Victor would become key texts in the reconceptualization of idiocy later in the nineteenth century.

In the next four chapters we leap through time, travelling from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, to consider the historical roots of some very resilient associations of idiocy and its conceptual cousins. The primary concerns in these chapters are thematic, and thus depart from chronology; however, they inform the more chronologically specific material covered later in the book. Chapter 4 focuses on the common associations of idiocy with financial incompetence and self-governance when it appears in men, following legal definitions of idiocy from the thirteenth-century Prerogativa Regis to nineteenth-century documents on ‘manliness’; Chapter 5 looks at those points where ideas about women, and especially female sexuality and physical appetite, intersect with notions of intelligence and idiocy, from the sixteenth through to the nineteenth century. Similarly, Chapter 6 explores the lengthy history of associations of idiocy, through its discursive or conceptual precursor ‘folly’, with innocence and sin, reaching back to the early modern period and including the works of Sebastian Brant, Erasmus and Robert Armin, as well as the King James Bible. Chapter 7 continues this line of investigation by tracking the connection between these complex early modern representations of folly to nineteenth-century cultural expressions of the innocent, the trickster and the amoral fool.

This background material in place, Chapter 8 returns to a more specific time and geography – that is, England in 1841, the Chartist movement and Charles Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge – to explore the relations between working-class agitation, political reforms, the debate over paternalism and the shifting understanding of the idea of idiocy amid all this social turmoil. The remaining chapters focus more chronologically on the latter half of the nineteenth century, although they are not organized in a strictly linear fashion. Chapter 9 looks at the growth of the asylum movement in the early 1840s until the 1860s, and also considers how this movement vigorously transformed the innocent idiot into an unreclaimed being who could be educated and woven into the Victorian social fabric; supporters of educational asylums drew upon traditional imagery to work upon the sentiments of readers (who were, notably, also important sources of funding), while at the same time portraying the uneducated idiot as a subhuman brute who could be reclaimed for humanity by the dedicated work of caring physicians and educators. Chapter 10 pairs the ambiguous representations of idiocy in the 1860s ‘sensation novel’ with ideas of physiological and moral education developed by Édouard Séguin and his many followers, also primarily in the 1860s, to argue that these new ways of constructing the reader as subject to ‘sensation’ take shape by juxtaposition to the concept of the uncertainly ‘insensate’ idiot. Chapter 11  considers the growth in the 1850s, ’60s and ’70s of degeneration theories that drew on both Lamarckian ‘acquired characteristics’ and Darwinian ‘natural selection’, often yoked uneasily together. These theories, as expressed in medical, scientific, sociological and literary writings, had profound consequences on the scientific construction of idiocy as a form of degeneracy of the familial line or, more worryingly, of the English race. Chapter 12 considers another consequence of degeneration theory: the reformulation of idiots as morally degenerate beings likely to commit crimes and to procreate with abandon. This fear is linked to the growing concern over the threat of the ‘feeble-minded’ and the consequent broadening of the notion of idiocy. In Chapter 13, Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is set against the 1908 report from the Commission on the Feeble-Minded to explore the symbolic work of idiocy in this discourse, but the chronological focus ranges from the late 1860s up to the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, which grew out of the recommendations of the 1908 report.


[1] This opposition of folly and wit is further complicated by the fact that sixteenth century ‘wit’ is not identical to our current notions of intelligence, although it is a precursor to contemporary intelligence.

[2] Asylums would continue to make such ‘errors’, according to their criteria. Perhaps most famously, in 1957 Mayo Buckner, an inmate at the Iowa Home for the Feebleminded, where he had been originally entered as a ‘medium-grade imbecile’ fifty-nine years earlier, scored 120 on an IQ test; a 1958 Life magazine feature by Robert Wallace brought Buckner’s story to an international audience and claimed that among the 130,000 people in the USA’s ninety institutions, at least 5,000 were not, in fact, ‘retarded’ (Trent 1994: 253). But the question of misdiagnosis should not obscure the much more important issue: what quality, precisely, exists to be quantified, thus enabling a diagnosis in the first place?

[3] Earlswood archive 6523/1/6 (case-book starting in 1891).

[4] Pope, as a short, hunchbacked Catholic with an oddly shaped head, was no doubt aware that he fit many of the criteria of the traditional fool; his verbal assaults on other poets may also project his own anxieties regarding his provisional status in the English high society of the 1720s and 1730s.

[5] There have also been several unpublished doctoral dissertations, notably by Michael Barrett (1986), Spencer Gelband (1979) and Lilian Zihni (1990).

[6] There have also been some doctoral dissertations submitted in this area, including by Paul Marchbanks (2006a) and Gina Herring (1988).

[7] People First, a self-advocacy group of people labelled as having intellectual disabilities, traces its history to the mid-1970s (Dybwad 1996). It is now an international organization, with chapters in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. The group’s name reflects the desire of people so labelled to be recognized as human beings rather than pathologized entities such as ‘retarded’, ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’; People First chapters lobby to promote this goal, while at the same time serving as ‘consciousness-raising’ or support groups for people identified as having intellectual disabilities.

[8] To draw a blunt image, a person with one leg is clearly ‘impaired’ under this division, as people are biologically constructed to have two legs. However, an IQ of 75 simply designates a place on a statistically defined curve. No specific physiological impairment need be involved.

[9] To elaborate upon this example, the supposed association of idiocy with masturbation (touched upon more fully in Chapter 11) arose from a set of beliefs drawn from a range of sources, including Christian morality as well as scientific theories regarding ‘vital fluids’ and what Barker-Benfield (1976: 181) calls the US fixation with the ‘spermatic economy’, in which the vitality of the individual labourer or businessman was deemed to be crucial to the economic vitality of the nation.


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