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This paper uses a collection of highly unusual letters from the Elizabethan State Papers, whose authors are described as ‘crazy’, ‘distracted’, and ‘insane’, to explore the epistolary construction and expression of mental and emotional distress in late-sixteenth-century England. It begins by reflecting briefly on the tricky methodological problems inherent in such an enterprise: the uncertain nature of the testimony provided by the sources; the foggy history of the archive itself; the variety of existing scholarly approaches to early modern emotion and mental health; and the issue of finding appropriate terminology to discuss without anachronism the experience of distress for people living in sixteenth century England. Analysis of the sources identifies, if not a specific ‘script’, then at least a common repertoire of cultural resources and preoccupations which those experiencing mental distress drew upon, in distinctive combinations but not entirely dissimilar ways: from desperation to acute feelings of paranoia and persecution, and from fantastical genealogical claims to pious but unconventional religious rhetoric. The paper aims to illustrate how the particular historical context of late sixteenth century England inflected the ways that a diverse group of subjects experiencing psychological and emotional distress rationalised their experiences and expressed themselves when entreating those in authority for aid. Such an understanding brings us closer not only to marginalised people in the past, but also grants us a richer knowledge of Elizabethan society and culture, and of the experience of being human in it.

Jonathan Willis is associate professor of early modern at the University of Birmingham.


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