Monday, December 22, 2008

The Bedlam of Bethlam

bed⋅lam [bed-luhm]
1. a scene or state of wild uproar and confusion.
2. Archaic. an insane asylum or madhouse.

Are the holidays driving you nuts? Inspired by fabulous reader Kristi, who always sends me awesome emails, I thought what better a time to talk about "the mad" then the holiday season.

Because insanity or mental illness were misunderstood throughout much of history the people who suffered from these conditions were usually mistreated. This also meant those with mental handicaps were thought to be "mad" as well. These unfortunate souls would be put in madhouses, hidden away from public view where they spent their lives being beaten or even killed.

In 1247 the Sisters of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem founded a priory on the site of what is now London Liverpool Street Station. Hmm I wonder if I can say that my friend Erin spent a night there since she was stranded at that station overnight. The building went through many changes throughout the centuries. But the Enlightenment brought a new thinking about these castaways and Bethlam Royal Hospital (as it was now called) began attempts to improve the treatment of the inhabitants. The hospital was also called Bedlam which turned into a word to mean [see above] and that's exactly how the old Bethlam was. The screaming and noise that came from the building was said to drive anyone who heard, mad themselves. Now with the Enlightenment the great thinkers set about trying to, perhaps, quiet those inside.

Firstly, they began referring to those inside as patients. After-all, Bethlam was a royal hospital. Then someone realized that the patients actually exhibited different symptoms; most notably, screaming versus not screaming. So they considerately divided these patients from each other. They made "curable" and "incurable" wings and divided the patients by sex. Bethlam was intended for short stays but if after a year the patients remained uncured they were just discharged, unless of course, someone lost track of how long a patient was there. The uncured wing allowed an alternative to giving up on the patients.

Bethlam was commended by Europe for their advancements with the mad, but of course they weren't perfect. As a means of generating more funding, you could pay a penny and view the "lunatics." Crowds peered through iron bars hoping to get a glimpse of the patients unusal looks and behavior, especially if their antics included anything of a sexual nature or violence. They were even allowed sticks to prod the poor patients. Asylum conditions were improving but they still had a long way to go.

The above figures of raving and melancholy madness graced the entrance gate of of Old Bethlam. These two allegories show how limited knowledge was of the different patients' conditions and needs.

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