Work in Progress 2015

Stef Eastoe is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London. The working title of her thesis is ‘The Social History of Idiocy and Imbecility in the Long Nineteenth Century’. Using the institutional archive of Caterham Imbecile Asylum, one of the first such institutions built in England, alongside census returns, contemporary reports and investigations she goes beyond medical understandings and focuses on popular perceptions of idiocy, imbecility and feeblemindedness. The research explores the journey to the asylum, how families and lay professionals understood the conditions, how they responded, and the lived experience of idiocy both within the asylum and outside. To that end, the asylum, its location, its design its arrangement and its regime are drawn on to explore the wider medico-social responses and perceptions of idiocy, how patients interacted with the space, and how staff and patients impacted on the asylum experience.

Simon Jarrett is researching a Wellcome Trust-funded PhD at Birkbeck University of London, called “The road to Dr Down’s Idiot Asylum: the creation of the idea of intellectual disability, c. 1700-1867”. This research asks how the “idiot”, who was perceived as different but lived and worked in their community at the beginning of the eighteenth century, became understood as someone who needed to be under medicalised supervision in an institution by the 1860s. The changing perception of the idiot is traced through a wide variety of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century sources, including trial records, caricatures, press articles, art, novels, slang, jokes and anthropological writings. In his MA thesis at Birkbeck, Simon wrote about the experience of so-called idiots in eighteenth-century Old Bailey trials.

Claire Sewell has completed an ESRC funded doctorate at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick, on “The Emergence of the Carer: Mental Illness, Disability, and the Family in Post-War Britain”. This research examines the emergence of the category of the family carer in relation to severe mental illness and severe mental handicap. Whilst caring has taken place within the family for many centuries, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that this caring role came to be explicitly acknowledged and commented upon by social policy makers, the media, social researchers, and carer organisations. Building upon the work of Mathew Thomson, this examination of the emergence of the carer aims to destabilize both the established historical narrative of community care and the perceived dichotomy between the histories of mental illness and learning disability. The thesis can be accessed at

Dr Irina Metzler started a new project in September 2012 with the help of funding by the Wellcome Trust, on “Cognitive Impairment in the Middle Ages: Uncovering medical and cultural aspects of intellectual disabilities according to medieval normative texts”. Physical disability in the Middle Ages has become a rapidly emerging topic for research in the past decade, but not so cognitive disability. Partly this is due to a lack of interest among medical as well as social and cultural historians, but also to the difficulties of finding cognitive disability in medieval sources. Modern histories of intellectual disability tend rarely to look back beyond the nineteenth century, which with the availability of institutional records makes for a much more attractive period for historical inquiry. The Middle Ages hardly figure in histories of cognitive disability. There is far more to the medieval story than just looking for courtly “entertainers” such as fools. The key aim is to uncover what medieval normative texts (medical, legal and natural-philosophical) said about cognitive disability. The starting premise has to be an approach stemming from the history of ideas, rather than the history of medicine. Fools and Idiots? Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages is due out in February 2016: see

Chris Goodey has completed for Routledge a book entitled Learning Disability and Inclusion Phobia: Past, Present, Future, which appears on 9 October 2015: . It explains the direct relevance of the conceptual history to present and future policy, practice and research. It expands upon the idea, first touched on in his previous book on this subject A History of Intelligence and “Intellectual Disability”: The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe (, that concepts of intellectual and learning disability are the temporary historical products of a more general social disorder or phobia that expresses itself through the conceptual categorisation and practical exclusion of “extreme” outgroups.

Katherine Ellison is an Associate Professor of English at Illinois State University with research interests in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cryptography, intelligence, and technical communications. Her forthcoming book, An Early Modern History of English Cryptography, investigates the influences of English cryptography manuals from the 1640s through the 1680s on the framing of intelligence as a measurable and testable set of specific abilities, including pattern recognition, multilingualism, mathematic reasoning, analogic thinking, abstraction, and even wit. She has published widely on cryptography, and future work will include a study of the influences of cryptography’s categories of ability on nineteenth and early twentieth-century intelligence testing and Fop Intelligence, an analysis of the figure of the Restoration and eighteenth-century fop as simultaneously fool and genius. Her first book, Fatal News: Reading and Information Overload in the Eighteenth Century (Routledge, 2006), focused on literary authors’ anxieties about the physical and intellectual effects of proliferating information.

The Site Authors are in the final editing stages of a collected volume of articles provisionally entitled “Intellectual Disability: Conceptual History from the Medieval Law Courts to the Founding of the Long-Stay Hospitals”. The volume includes articles on the conceptualisation of intellectual disability in medieval law; the role of the “will fool” in medieval German literature; the teaching of slow learners in the educational theory of the middle ages; the seventeenth-century construction of “idiocy”  as a criterion for barring people from holy communion; the role of “idiots” in Condillac’s theory of sensationalism; the satirical representation of “changelings” in Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels; the location of idiocy within a new medical framework for mental illness at the end of the eighteenth century;  the rivalry between medical and legal experts in the first half of the nineteenth century;  and the “asylum travelogues” of writers such as Dickens and others during the setting up of the first long-stay institutions.

07. August 2014 by admin
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