Madness in the Realm: Narratives of Mental Illness in Late Medieval France


Madness in the Realm: Narratives of Mental Illness in Late Medieval France

By Aleksandra Nicole Pfau

PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2008

Abstract: This dissertation situates madness within the specific historical context of late medieval France, before, during, and after the reign of King Charles VI, whose episodes of mental disturbance contributed to the kingdom’s political crises. Chroniclers, preachers, and political theorists sought to marshal the king’s madness in efforts to construct, or in some cases reconstruct, a united French realm. The concept of madness as a challenge to communities also lies at the core of legal sources about ordinary mad people. Surveying an array of legal, literary, and other sources, “Madness in the Realm” therefore considers how communal networks ranging from the locale to the realm responded to people considered mad. Because the mentally ill could not seek pardon from the king on their own behalf, getting letters of remission for the mad involved the extended family. Thus, entire kin networks participated in the legal process. Through these letters, petitioners actively imagined themselves as partaking in larger communities, as well as in their villages and neighborhoods. Individuals and groups interacted with the legal system, negotiating with royal notaries in Paris who helped them forge their narratives. As a result, the madness of individuals played a role in engaging people with legal mechanisms and proto-national identity constructs, as petitioners sought the king’s mercy as an alternative to local justice. Narratives about the mentally ill in late medieval France constructed madness as an inability to live according to communal rules. Although such texts defined madness through acts that threatened social bonds, those ties were reaffirmed through the medium of the remission letter. The composers of the letters presented madness as a communal concern, situating the mad within the household, where care could be provided. These mad were usually not expelled but integrated, often through pilgrimage, surveillance, or chains, into their kin and communal relationships. This dissertation revises the image of the itinerant medieval mad that can be traced to Michel Foucault’s influential The History of Madness, while working toward a social history of madness through the lens of communal narratives about the mentally ill.

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