Today, words like ‘frantic’ and ‘frenzy’ are the stuff of hyperbolic newspaper headlines. Five hundred years ago, they described someone who was judged to be suffering from an episode of severe mental illness. Among frenzy’s hallmark symptoms were sudden, uncharacteristic changes in mood and behaviour; ‘those that be frantic… rage furiously, so that they cannot be ruled without bonds’, one sixteenth-century surgeon warned.
Too often, this portrait proved true to life: many mentally ill individuals did end up shackled by their own relatives and friends. But we cannot simply chalk this up to a period-specific shortage of compassion. Instead, the nature of an early modern community’s response to a mental health emergency was determined by a complex push-and-pull of factors, ranging from the availability of housing through to the perceived moral worth of the sufferer. Focusing on England, this paper asks: what was the response supposed to look like? If persons ‘fallen frantic’ could not be held accountable for the damage they had done to property, then who was? If they were threatening to start fires, whose job was it to make sure they didn’t? If they were physically violent, whose job was it to resist them? The answers to these questions tested the ties that bound early modern communities together. When those ties broke – as they inevitably sometimes did – it was often the mentally ill person who fell through the gaps.
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