For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

History of Madness

by Foucault, Michel (2013)


When it was first published in France in 1961 as Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la Folie à l'âge Classique, few had heard of a thirty-four year old philosopher by the name of Michel Foucault. By the time an abridged English edition was published in 1967 as Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault had shaken the intellectual world. This translation is the first English edition of the complete French texts of the first and second edition, including all prefaces and appendices, some of them unavailable in the existing French edition. History of Madness begins in the Middle Ages with vivid descriptions of the exclusion and confinement of lepers. Why, Foucault asks, when the leper houses were emptied at the end of the Middle Ages, were they turned into places of confinement for the mad? Why, within the space of several months in 1656, was one out of every hundred people in Paris confined? Shifting brilliantly from Descartes and early Enlightenment thought to the founding of the Hôpital Général in Paris and the work of early psychiatrists Philippe Pinel and Samuel Tuke, Foucault focuses throughout, not only on scientific and medical analyses of madness, but also on the philosophical and cultural values attached to the mad. He also urges us to recognize the creative and liberating forces that madness represents, brilliantly drawing on examples from Goya, Nietzsche, Van Gogh and Artaud. The History of Madness is an inspiring and classic work that challenges us to understand madness, reason and power and the forces that shape them.

Key Passage

In 1532, the Parliament of Paris had decided to arrest all beggars and force them to work in the city sewers, chained upin pairs. The crisis quickly worsened, as on 23 March 1534, an order was given to expel ‘poor scholars and indigents’ from the city, and the singing of hymns before sacred images in the streets was forbidden. The wars of religion swelled the ranks of these indigents, where peasants thrown off their  land  met  deserters  and  redundant  soldiers,  poor  students,  the  sick and the unemployed. When Henri IV besieged Paris, the city had a population of less than 100,000, including more than 30,000 beggars. The new century  brought  an  economic  upturn,  and  it  was  decided  to  reintegrate forcibly all the unemployed who had still to find their place in society. A parliamentary  act  of  1606  decreed  that  in  Paris  all  beggars  were  to  be whipped in a public place, branded on the shoulder, and then thrown out of the city with their heads shaved. The following year another act created companies of archers to guard the gates of the city and refuse entry to any of  the  poor  who  tried  to  return.  The  coming  of  the  Thirty  Years  War cancelled the effects of the economic upturn, and the problem of begging and idleness continued until the middle of the century, as the high taxes levied on manufacturers put a brake on prosperity and created unemployment. These were the times of the great riots in Paris (1621), Lyon (1652) and Rouen (1639). The appearance of new economic structures also led to great disorganisation in the world of the workers, as factories became bigger  and  more  widespread,  and  brotherhoods  and  guilds  saw  their powers and rights dwindle. New General Regulations removed the right of assembly  for  all  associations,  leagues  and  groups  of  workers.  In  some professions, these guilds managed to reform, only to be harried again by institutional pressure. The parliaments showed a measure of leniency, the Normandy  parliament  for  example  refusing  to  judge  rioters  in  Rouen.Perhaps for that reason the Church intervened, ruling that secret organisations  of  workers  had  the  same  status  as  witches’  covens.  A  Sorbonne decree  of  1655  proclaimed  that  to  join  the  ranks  of  these  orders  was equivalent to sacrilege or mortal sin. (p.63)


Foucault, Madness, Civilization, Foucauldian, Postmodern, Poststructuralism


History of Madness

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