Drawing on the rich judicial archives of early modern Florence and its Tuscans domains, Mad Tuscans offers an innovative look at how families and courts of law worked together to forge pragmatic solutions to the range of problems madness introduced to their households.
2014 | 304 pages | Cloth $55.00
History | Medicine
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Table of Contents
Note on Dates and Money
Introduction: The Tales Madness Tell
Chapter 1. Incapacity, Guardianship, and the Tuscan Family
Chapter 2. "Madness Is Punishment Enough": The Insanity Defense
Chapter 3. Spending Without Measure: Madness, Money, and the Marketplace
Chapter 4. From Madness to Sickness
Chapter 5. The Curious Case of Forensic Medicine: The Dog That Didn't Bark in the Night
List of Abbreviations
The Tales Madness Tell
Ajax, so long as the mad fit was on him,Many books have been written about men and women like Ajax and the madness that gripped them; fewer have been written about the companions who watched them suffer, cared for them, and grieved over their condition. This book is not so much about people like Ajax as it is about those companions who watched, cared, and grieved. It takes as its starting point not the commonly asked question of how a past Western society represented madness, though it is certainly an important part of the investigation. Rather, it asks first and foremost what families, communities, and civic authorities did to address the disorder or, in its worst manifestations, the chaos that it visited on their households or unleashed in their streets.
Himself felt joy at his wretchedness,
Though we, his sane companions, grieved indeed.
But now that he's recovered and breathes clear,
His own anguish totally masters him,
While we are no less wretched than before.
Is not this a redoubling of our grief?
The focus on action rather than representation is meant to capture, to the extent that it is possible, the lived experience of madness in a specific time and place. Such an endeavor rests on three assumptions. First, madness, or in current terms, mental disorder, is a universal and persistent feature of human history. Every society, past and present, struggles to make sense of it; every society, past and present, struggles to address it. Second, madness is at once biological and social. As a failure of a person's internal mechanisms it can produce cognitive, emotional, and behavioral states that lie outside the bounds of what a society generally considers reasonable. At the same time, it is a society's values and attitudes that mark out the bounds of the reasonable in the first place. Third, madness is a powerful category of historical analysis. Every society defines it in its own terms and tackles it with a contingent range of institutional strategies.
And its reverberations run deep. In the words of one scholar, "madness is the most solitary of afflictions to the people who experience it; but the most social of maladies to those who observe its effects." It undermines the conventions of thought, feeling, and behavior that bind people together as members of families, neighborhoods, cultures, and communities; it strains the foundations of social and civic life. Because it radiates so deeply and broadly, the study of madness as a social reality in search of a pragmatic solution offers historians an especially sharp lens onto the past.
For the richness of its archival material, the stage on which this particular drama is set is the city of Florence and its Tuscan domains from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-seventeenth century. Evidence from Florentine judicial records recalls the circumstances that led nearly three hundred men and women from all walks of life before civil and criminal courts for being allegedly mad. Some were brought there by family members trying to protect the economic and social stability of their households; others were summoned by magistrates seeking to maintain public order; still others went before the courts of their own accord to defend their sanity or even to declare their own insanity. In many of these cases, petitioners had benign intentions; they sought only to arrange long-term care for vulnerable kin. But sometimes their ends were predatory: to exploit helpless relatives, to overturn a contract, or to escape punishment for a criminal offense.
These cases uncover the complex networks of people and institutions that lived with, cared for, and in some cases cast off or exploited the mentally impaired. But they offer, too, a unique view onto great changes unfolding in late medieval and early modern Europe. Together they tell a larger story that begins in the fourteenth century when the allegedly mentally disturbed first trickled into the records of Florence's civil and criminal courts. At this point, the only long-term custodial institution was the family; hospitals generally administered acute care to the sick poor; monasteries and convents were reluctant to admit potentially dangerous or disruptive people into their communities; and the courts were just beginning to provide families with guardians for vulnerable kin.
By the seventeenth century, the social, cultural, professional, and institutional landscape of Tuscany had significantly changed. First, medical language and ideas had entered the courts. Petitioners and magistrates had come to explain madness in organic terms and the disease melancholy was recognized as the most common cause of abnormal thought and behavior. Second, learned medical practitioners in Italy and France had begun to write treatises touting their skill in resolving legal questions that involved the body in court. Their medical expertise was crucial, they maintained, in helping judges determine when, how, and in what situations particular types of madness were likely to express themselves and what that meant for the law. Finally, the mentally disordered began to move from household to hospital. In 1643, Florence established Santa Dorotea, its first institution devoted solely to the care of the severest cases of madness. About forty years later, the famous old Florentine hospital of Santa Maria Nuova followed suit, creating the "pazzeria," a mad ward for poor and indigent mad men and women. Simply put, the Tuscan who wondered what to do with a mad relative in the seventeenth century had more institutional options than his or her fourteenth-century counterpart. But what do these changes mean and how should they be interpreted?
Such transformations might inspire the telling of origins stories—the medicalization of madness, the foundation of legal medicine, the birth of the clinic, the rise of the early modern state, the roots of European penal institutions, or the formation of state or elite programs of discipline and social control. Indeed this is how many scholars have framed similar developments. Histories of psychiatry, for example, have praised the triumph of modern psychiatric practice and institutions over the superstition and barbarism that supposedly characterized the treatment of mentally disturbed men and women during the European Middle Ages. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, this view unfortunately persists. A textbook frequently assigned in American colleges and universities still claims that the "Middle Ages in Europe were largely devoid of scientific thinking and humane treatment for the mentally disturbed," a point this book categorically rejects as another example of the "enormous condescension of posterity."
Florentine society, like other late medieval and early modern European societies, like our own society, grappled with how to care for people who, on account of mental disorders, could not care for themselves or who wrought havoc in households and communities. Like us, they struggled to arrive at concrete if imperfect and shifting solutions for dealing with disturbed men and women within a society that had limited public and private resources. Given the state of their medical knowledge, the remedies available to them through the courts, and the availability—or lack thereof—of private or public custodial institutions, Florentines and their European counterparts often did the best they could with the knowledge and institutions they had.
Of course, psychiatry has had its critics. But even the most vociferous among them did little more than exchange a narrative of triumph for one of oppression or decline. Scholars in this camp claimed that the medicalization of madness and the birth of the asylum were disastrous, signaling little more than the pernicious growth of society's mechanisms of social, professional, and political control. The most famous and influential of these critiques remains that of Michel Foucault, who imagined the countryside of Renaissance Europe dotted with mad men and women, its seas speckled with ships of fools. In his vision—more provocative than accurate—townsfolk drove the mad from their gates, consigning them to lives led wandering terrestrial or watery spaces along the fringes of civil society. As objects of historical analysis, they were not so much individuals as bearers of their society's obsession with sin and the impossibility of true knowledge and the fear of God's wrath, the devil, and death. The only reasonable thing to do was to push them to the margins of society. But exile on land or sea was better than what was to come.
Foucault's real target was late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, his real goal to expose the Age of Reason as an age of confinement in which a new bourgeois ethic came to associate morality with labor and diligence, madness with unemployment and idleness. Europeans hauled madness from the margins to place it at the center of society; they locked up the mad—unemployed, idle, and poor—and dissected their disease in institutions devoted to their physical treatment and moral reform.
This book tells a story of a very different kind and one that builds in no small part on historical scholarship that has exposed the limits of teleological thinking and the deceptive linear narratives it tends to generate. Through a stunning array of new sources—the casebooks of mad doctors, patients' narratives, asylum registers, a range of legislative and administrative documents, and, more recently, judicial records—a number of historians have reexamined the role families, civic authorities, and professional groups played in the care and confinement of the mad. Michael MacDonald's classic study of the casebooks of a seventeenth-century astrological-physician and R. A. Houston's social history of madness in eighteenth-century Scotland have shown the persistent role ordinary men and women played both in defining madness even in official arenas and in caring for or abusing the mad despite the growth of a medical profession and the foundation of mental hospitals well into the eighteenth century.
Furthermore, mental hospitals were by no means a late seventeenth-century innovation or uniformly mechanisms of control in the hands of repressive social and political regimes. The first European institutions that cared for the mentally disordered appeared in Spain as early as the beginning of the fifteenth century. Over the next two centuries and beyond, similar institutions emerged throughout Europe. As Lisa Roscioni has cautioned, there is not one history of European mental institutions but many. Each institution recalls a custodial experiment whose nature was shaped largely by its immediate context. Sometimes the foundation of institutions that took on the care of the mad offered desperate families compassionate care options outside households; at other times their foundation signaled the tightening mesh of political or professional power over certain social groups or types of behavior; sometimes well-intentioned institutional missions failed in one generation, succeeded in another, only to fail again.
The three hundred or so cases that make up this study show that the practical and sometimes highly adversarial arena of the courts was also an important site of social experimentation. In the Tuscan context, conflicts and collaborations between petitioners and their officials over what to do about the mentally impaired or criminally insane generated new social, legal, and institutional remedies. They also provided predators with opportunities to exploit the vulnerable for their own gain—something that did not escape the notice of attentive magistrates. But herein lies both the creative and destructive potential of what Olwen Hufton called "the economy of makeshifts" and Nicholas Terpstra the "politics of makeshifts," that constant and opportunistic grasping for solutions to intractable realities be it a poor person trying to make ends meet, an entire society at work on providing social welfare, or families and courts tackling the problems madness posed.
Historians like neat paradigms; human experience resists them. As Terpstra has elegantly shown in his recent book on poor relief in Renaissance Bologna, the sweeping linear drive of history papers over the complex shifting dynamics that characterize a society's efforts to confront its challenges. It is that spirit of experimentation, dynamism, dialogue, and exchange that I invoke here.
The Legacy of Culture
Although historians have brought the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century experience of madness more sharply into view, the social reality of madness has been harder to capture for medieval and early modern Europe because of the fragmentary nature of the period's archival records and, perhaps counterintuitively, because of the extraordinary richness of its cultural tradition. Decades of excellent scholarship have shown that medieval and early modern Europeans thought a great deal about behavior that defied their sense of what it meant to be rational. During this period, the European intellectual and cultural elite contemplated madness in art, literature, philosophy, and theology, passing on to posterity moving visions of mad lovers, melancholy artists, brooding scholars, frenzied heroes, courtly fools, and the divinely or demonically possessed. The mad and their madnesses were living symbols of the wages of sin, the consequences of immoderate passion, and the vanity of earthly life.
And indeed such representations of madness have important and revealing histories. As the fifteenth century drew to a close, for example, personifications of folly captured the European imagination with renewed vigor. From Sebastian Brandt's (1457-1521) ship of fools to Erasmus's (1466-1536) drunken trollop Stultitia to Cervantes's (1547-1616) addled knight Don Quixote, artists and authors invoked folly simultaneously to entertain their audiences and to remind them of the fragility, uncertainty, and wretchedness of the human condition and the glory of the kingdom of God.
Tuscans also availed themselves of folly's symbolic potential. On June 22, 1514, the first day of the celebrations for the festival of Florence's patron saint San Giovanni, one of the floats that appeared along the procession route was a fusta piena di matti—a ship of fools. Prancing along behind it were about thirty men dressed as devils, holding hooks and bells. At one point they grabbed someone from the crowd and tossed him in the ship, barring his escape unless he paid a bounty. But these topsy-turvy, carnivalesque performances of folly that entertained as much as they challenged social norms bear little resemblance to the men and women who appear in court records. They tell us a good deal about how madness was imagined, little about how it was lived.
As the sixteenth century progressed, melancholy, at once a physical disease, mental disposition, and potentially perilous spiritual condition, became all the rage among Europe's elite. For historians of northern Europe, melancholy's heightened profile was an expression of deep psychological anxiety triggered by the turbulent era of religious reform in western Christendom. In England, Michael MacDonald connected the melancholy vogue to sectarian conflict and the fanaticism it inspired. During the English Revolution, various sects used madness to describe a world beset by demons and sin on the one hand and, on the other, humankind's troubled path to righteousness. Falling into the ditch of despair along the road to right belief was just as dangerous as falling prey to unbridled religious exuberance. Fueled by achievements in physical science and anatomy as well as their "orthodox hatred of religious enthusiasm," elites rejected religious views about madness and melancholy to embrace instead more level-headed secular, medical explanations. In Germany, melancholy begins its sixteenth-century career as a Lutheran obsession with sin and the devil to find itself on the eve of the seventeenth century recast as mental illness—the result of both spiritual exhaustion after more than a century of sporadic but devastating religious warfare throughout Europe and the fruits of the medicalization of European society.
Tuscans did not suffer the same religious turmoil as their northern neighbors, but they shared early modern Europe's fascination with melancholy. It was, after all, a number of famous Tuscans often in dialogue with other Italian philosophers and literati who helped originate and spread ideas about melancholy throughout Europe. The three crowns of Florentine literature, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, spoke of the physical and spiritual perturbations that gripped the melancholy lover; Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), a famous medically trained Neoplatonist from Florence in his influential work Three Books on Life (1489), and Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494), a Neoplatonist among Ficino's set who hailed from the Tuscan town of Montepulciano, popularized the idea of melancholy genius. Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533), one of Emilia-Romagna's if not Italy's most famous Renaissance poets, drew heavily from these sources to shape the character of Orlando Furioso, the hero driven mad by obsessive and pathological love. These works in turn nourished a broader fascination with melancholy and its many manifestations.
Larger-than-life characters fascinate, but they also mislead. Literary invention should not—must not—obscure the lives of mentally disturbed individuals and the people who lived with and around them. Some of the men and women who populated Florentine court records were said to have been melancholic, but they remain far removed from the likes of Ariosto's mad Orlando. The three hundred cases that make up this study push beyond the heady realm of high culture to recapture those decidedly unromantic, day-to-day experiences of madness that, in some cases, measured themselves out in interminable moments of stress and anxiety for everyone involved. As one petitioner told a Florentine court in the sixteenth century, "the care of a mad man is a heavy burden." Madness for him and his family was not symbolic; it was real. How it was experienced, how it was addressed, by whom and with what results—these are the questions that open new windows onto the social and institutional history of a late medieval and early modern society.
The goal of catching Tuscans in the act of dealing with madness has shaped this book. We begin not with the evocative representations of madness in medieval and early modern art and literature but with Tuscans in their households as they tried to figure out—sometimes desperately—what to do with their mentally impaired or criminally insane kin. Chapter 1 examines cases emanating from civil courts. Accounting for a little less than half of the three hundred sample cases, they show families asking judges for help assigning legal guardians to mentally incompetent kin. This was ordinarily done to protect them from exploitation and abuse by other family members or to protect the family itself from financially reckless behavior. Chapter 2 addresses the remaining half of this sample, which appeared in criminal courts where Florentine families strategically and effectively employed categories denoting madness to negotiate sentences, mitigate punishments, or get relatives released from prison.
Florence underwent far-reaching constitutional changes during the period covered by this book. From the thirteenth century to 1494, the Florentine polity was communal with a republican form of government. By 1532, after four political revolutions and significant constitutional reform, the republic finally gave way to a regional duchy with a Medici once again at the helm. Like the early Medici and their partisans who came to exercise extraordinary executive power beginning in 1434, the Medici dukes and their administrators saw legal institutions, particularly those with criminal jurisdiction, as important mechanisms for legitimating, maintaining, and exercising political power.24 The ducal system of justice was highly centralized and absolutist relative to the one it replaced. It did not, however, significantly imperil the mentally impaired as some historians have suggested.
Even as the size and reach of the government grew, private strategies employed by families in pursuit of long-term custodial arrangements often trumped legal norms. Far from revealing expanding mechanisms of control in Florentine government and society, these cases illustrate the limited (though not unimportant) role that public institutions played in the care of those who could not care for themselves. In all of these cases, the spirit of compromise and negotiation reigned; judges were willing to take into account the needs of families as long as there was no threat to public order and as long as the courts were not being abused for personal gain—a likelihood in some cases. The thorniest of questions was what to do with the mentally disturbed. To that question, there was no easy answer. Care of mad men and women was more often than not an ad hoc arrangement of uncertain duration, utterly contingent on the presence, willingness, and ability of relatives to bear the inconveniences associated with tending to their incapacitated kin.
To put it another way, this book is not merely a "bottom-up" corrective to histories that have taken madness in medieval and early modern Europe for a cultural artifact or a lever of social control. It argues, too, that social ordering from household to street was a collaborative affair in which petitioners and civic authorities mutually worked to find solutions to the practical problems madness created with a view to serving both private and public interest though balance between them might not always have won the day.
Chapter 3 puts households in dialogue with Tuscan society's values more broadly. The civil and criminal cases that make up this study show in particular its changing attitudes to wealth and consumption. From the fourteenth through the seventeenth century, in pace with the rise of a consumer society and a constantly changing economy, petitioners and officers of the ducal administration came more and more to apply an economic definition of mental incapacity to regulate financial behavior in Tuscan households and invalidate contracts made by reckless kin—a tactic that was used by individuals to protect family patrimony and by ducal administrators to police transactions in the marketplace. Petitioners and magistrates alike explicitly linked prodigality and madness—in Roman law two categorically distinct states—on the principle that only a truly mad person would throw money away to the detriment of his or her family. To put it differently, in the fourteenth century, Christian values of poverty, humility, and renunciation shaped attitudes to spending and consumption. By the sixteenth century, attitudes to money and its uses had shifted so as to foreground what I call patrimonial rationality, an ethical bent that considered the relative appropriateness of material expenditure in the context of a web of social relationships and obligations. In the fourteenth century, the spendthrift was a sinful man. By the sixteenth century, he was a patrimonial saboteur; he was a mad man.
Chapters 4 and 5 address the organic or medical turn that the history of madness in Florence took in the mid-sixteenth century. Prior to the reforms of the 1540s, traditional Roman law categories for incapacity sufficed; the mentally impaired were generically referred to as furiosi, mentecapti, fatui, and dementes in Latin, and, in Italian, pazzi, matti, and mentecatti. After 1540, lay petitioners began for the first time to put learned medical ideas that originated in professional or pedagogical settings in the service of the complex social realities of their households. By the sixteenth century, madness had become more explicitly an illness and one thought adversely to affect proper brain function.
The learned medical tradition offered several ways of resolving legal ambiguities in cases of alleged mental illness. Physicians had made an art of reading the signs of the body on the assumption that madness was a disease of the brain with physical manifestations. The Roman doctor-jurist Paolo Zacchia (1584-1659) argued forcefully in favor of medical expertise in certain types of cases, including those involving mental incapacity. Between 1621 and 1659, he issued the Quaestiones Medico-Legales, a monumental analysis of medico-legal topics and case studies that would continue to appear in multiple editions throughout Europe until 1789. In light of these developments, historians have spoken of the emergence of "legal medicine" in seventeenth-century continental Europe.
But the focus on the doctor in court has obscured other key players in the history of medico-legal relations. Lay litigants and their witnesses were far more central than historians of medicine and law have led us to believe. This shift in thinking and talking about mental incapacity is part of the history of the medicalization of European society, that long and complex process by which medicine was increasingly woven into the social, cultural, institutional, and legal fabric of European life. Until relatively recently medical practitioners took center stage in the history of the medicalization of European society. By contrast, new scholarship has refocused the spotlight on patients/consumers as key players in molding the growing market for health care during the later Middle Ages and early modern period.
Building on these studies, the principal dramatis personae here are lay petitioners who successfully used medical language in court—often without the help of medical practitioners. Formal medical-legal writing that privileged the expertise of the physician in cases of mental illness echoed a conversation that had already been taking place in the households and courts of Florence for at least a century, and one that was not necessarily driven by physicians, lawyers, judges, or magistrates. What is more, lay petitioners advanced medical explanations for madness in court and courts tended to accept them without recourse to medical testimony or explicit certification by a medical practitioner.
The book closes with the opening of Santa Dorotea and Santa Maria Nuova's "pazzeria" in the mid- to late seventeenth century. These institutions could not house large numbers, but they provided a new answer to an old question: what on earth should we do with our severely disturbed kin? These new answers were not crowning moments in state-building or professional progress narratives. They were rather the culmination of a long and dynamic sociocultural process that saw ordinary Tuscans struggling sometimes with and sometimes against professional and civic authorities to find long-term care solutions for their vulnerable or unmanageable kin. At no point did learned men operating in their professional milieux enjoy unique authority in describing madness specifically and incapacity more generally. The categories of madness were instead hammered out in practical arenas like the courts where litigants and judges together forged pragmatic solutions to the range of problems madness visited on their households and communities.
As the title suggests, Mad Tuscans and Their Families tells a Tuscan story. But Tuscany shared with the rest of Italy and Europe common legal and medical traditions and, until the cataclysmic religious upheavals of the sixteenth century, a more or less common theological tradition as well. In this respect, the history of madness told here reflects larger European trends. Though other regions may follow the same general patterns of thought and action, the particular contours of the political, economic, and institutional history of Florence and her Tuscan domains distinguish her from her Italian and European counterparts who had different institutional and governing arrangements as well as different experiences of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious reformations. Variations in frameworks of care existed throughout early modern Europe. The history of madness in Spain, for example, would perhaps begin rather than end with the foundation of hospitals devoted to the care of the mad. It is for this reason that Mad Tuscans is a rather than the history of mental disorder in early modern Italy. It is intended not as a universalizing narrative but one that forms a base from which other Italian and European comparisons can be made.
Some may take issue with the use of the phrases "late medieval" and "early modern" to refer to the period covered by this study, from roughly the mid-fourteenth to roughly the mid-seventeenth century. Other historians have used the category "early modern" to cover the period beginning in the mid-fifteenth century and extending as far as 1789. This book does not set out to solve what Randolph Starn called the "early modern muddle." The term remains an awkward and imperfect solution to the problem of periodizing the time between medieval and modern history without falling back on restrictive and value-laden categories like Renaissance and Reformation that limit a study's temporal and regional scope. Where the term "Renaissance" suggests the literate, classicizing, urban-based culture of lay elites, the term "early modern" is socially inclusive. Most of the families who went to court were from elite or at least middling backgrounds, but the whole social spectrum appears. This reason warrants its use here.
Ways of Seeing
In The God of Small Things Arundati Roy speaks of an old, abandoned place that her characters call the History House. The fleshy, life-worn Chacko explains to his young niece and nephew that "history [is] like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit. And ancestors whispering inside." "To understand history," he tells the children, "we have to go inside and listen to what they're saying. And look at the books and the pictures on the wall. And smell the smells." "But," he admits, "we can't go in because we've been locked out. And when we try and listen, all we hear is a whispering."
Social historians have long tried to gain entry to the History House. They have used tax records to re-create the structure of families. They have rifled through letters, diaries, day-to-day domestic scribbling, and court records to conjure up the beliefs and practices that animated social life in the home and public square. They have examined or imagined the furniture, objets d'art, textiles, jewelry, trinkets, and baubles that people from the past made or purchased to furnish and decorate their rooms, to dress and adorn their bodies. They have pored over recipe collections, medical books, and self-help manuals that were stashed in drawers or sat on shelves in private households in order to observe men and women in the act of caring for and treating their bodies, minds, and souls.
This book also endeavors to cross the threshold of Tuscan households to try to observe what families did when faced with a mentally impaired relative. The documentary record, however, tends to confront the historian with a grimy if not completely shuttered window. Histories of madness are in some respects histories of invisible people. Seldom do mad men and women appear, for example, in the stemma that the great nineteenth-century Italian genealogists Pompeo Litta and Luigi Passerini made of Italy's oldest families. The three mad Martellis that we meet in Chapter 1 are invisible boughs on these celebrated ancestral trees. One wonders how much fuller the foliage would be if all of the invisible people came into view.
Social historians have typically sought information about family life in the account books and family journals (ricordanze) that many Tuscans left behind. On the subject of their mad relatives, they are practically mute. In a rare entry of 1466, Domenico Cambini spoke of a cousin who asked that he assume the care of his sister Caterina who "had a lack of mind and intellect." He tells us that she stayed in his house for three years before moving in with her brother Berto. What those three years were like he did not say. In 1522, the notary Piero Bonaccorsi mentioned an "infirm and mad" sister whose care he and his brothers took turns assuming. She seems to have been a handful. She made a mess of the house he kept her in so much so that he would not bring his family there and kept her locked up. Except for these brief mentions, I know of no private accounts written by mentally incapacitated individuals, their caretakers, or their abusers.
In the absence of direct access to the social experience of madness, we must proceed obliquely. In the absence of a coherent demographic, we must seek sources that open up a broad catchment area. The entry point for this study is the civil and criminal courts of Florence from roughly 1350 to about 1670, our principal (though by no means only) sources, the legal records that these institutions produced in the course of daily practice and the statutes that regulated them. The mentally disturbed first appear in the records of the civil and criminal courts of Florence in the fourteenth century. At this point, they are few, far between, and buried in the heavy caseloads of several different courts whose jurisdictions overlapped. In order to proceed as systematically as possible, I took two-year soundings of the Podestà and Capitano del Popolo, republican Florence's principal civil and criminal courts, for every decade beginning with 1350 until 1502 when these courts were abolished.
After 1502, the Otto di Guardia e Balia picked up the criminal jurisdiction in Florence; it is this court that supplies the bulk of criminal cases. Although many of these records have succumbed to time, a fairly regular document run can be put together from 1470 to the 1680s with occasional lacunae of a year or two. By contrast, the records of Florence's main prison, the Stinche, provide some additional examples, but they are not as revealing as one might hope. The entry and exit registers refer in the briefest of terms to people who ended up there per pazzo (for being mad). The records of the Stinche's infirmary are similarly reticent. Unless an inmate appeared also in the Pupilli or the Otto, there is simply no way of giving these men and women personalities or back stories. Whether the charge that someone was pazzo stuck or merely marked the beginning of litigation arguing the contrary remains obscured from view.
The records of Florence's court of wards (the Magistrato dei Pupilli ed Adulti) have furnished the largest sample of civil cases. With the exception of some missing registers, I was able to consult most of the extant records of the Pupilli from its foundation in the 1390s through the 1670s when the mad become less numerous in the documentary record. I cannot account for this diminution except to say that it corresponds with the reign of the penultimate Medici duke, Cosimo III (r. 1670-1723), who reconfigured and expanded the Tuscan system of justice. The mad resurface in the Pupilli during the 1720s, but by that point the context has changed markedly.
For ducal Tuscany, there are examples of mentally disturbed men and women in the records of an executive council established in 1532 called the Magistrato Supremo. Composed of a luogotenente chosen by the duke and four counselors who were elected every three months, this magistracy served also as a tribunal of first instance and appeal. The Magistrato Supremo directly controlled the Pupilli, which could not declare a person mentally impaired without its consent.
On the whole, the courts of the Capitano and the Podestà for the republican period and those of the Pupilli backed by the Magistrato Supremo and the Otto for the duchy were the legal arena in which petitioners and authorities met to deal with the practical problems that severe mental or physical incapacity generated in their households and on their streets. All told, these sources yield about three hundred cases in which a term indicating mental impairment was pinned onto a person by a civic official, a petitioner, an accuser, or, in rare instances, by the very person him- or herself.
Cases of mental and physical incapacity are rare relative to the usual business of Florence's criminal and civil courts. Surely there were a good deal more than three hundred mentally disturbed men, women, and children in Florence and its Tuscan domains between the mid-fourteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries. That number reflects only the number of times Tuscan families went to court or ended up there. Allegedly mad men and women tend to leave archival traces only if they posed a serious threat to their families or communities. To put it another way, these three hundred or so cases generally show families and communities in desperate situations using the courts to restore or maintain order. Without a doubt a great many more lived in obscurity behind the closed doors of households, some may have been lucky enough to secure temporary beds in hospitals, others may have ended up in foundling homes, monasteries, or convents, or, having been turned out, some likely joined the ranks of the homeless poor.
Whether or not we "hear" a case involving madness seems to have been contingent on regime. The great bulk of the three hundred cases were prosecuted between 1540, when the newly fashioned ducal system of justice was fully operational, and about 1609, when power devolved to Cosimo II (r. 1609-1621), who, owing to ill health, left much of the administration of the duchy to his ministers. Beginning around 1610, cases involving mental and physical incapacity grow less numerous. After the 1650s they fade yet more until the second quarter of the seventeenth century when they break the documentary sound barrier again. The instability of the record particularly after 1650 made the foundations of Santa Dorotea and the mad ward at Santa Maria Nuova good notional end points for this study. After 1670, some of our best evidence for the lived experience of madness in Florentine society comes from Santa Dorotea itself, but there begins a very different play acted on an alien stage. It is a tale worth telling but a different tale from the one I tell here.
Making these cases speak is also difficult. If history is an act of translation involved in making the objects, images, and texts created and used by past peoples intelligible in the here and now, court records are written in a queer cipher. Their decoding warrants a good deal of care. Historians have long warned of their power to fascinate and mislead. As Arlette Farge and Trevor Dean artfully put it, judicial records create a "reality effect," that is, the false sense that we have direct access to the experiences of real people and their real problems or struggles. But court records are artifacts of the courts that produced them. The interpretation of judicial documents must begin with an understanding of the formal apparatus and language of the courts that necessarily shaped and limited the way parties could present and argue their cases. The structure, procedure, and language of Florentine justice changed a great deal between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Each chapter establishes the institutional context in which cases were argued with particular attention to what type of language petitioners used to frame their arguments and judges drew on to make their decisions.
There is also the problem of what Sara Tilghman Nalle has called the "negative spaces of the historical text." Sometimes it's not so much what was documented but what was not recorded—those important details that were too obvious, too mundane, or perhaps too dangerous to write down—that holds the key to understanding a family's situation. I have tried where possible to include peripheral documentation to add further layers to a family's story. For the most part, though, what we have here are the tantalizingly imperfect records from courts.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider language, the most obvious and problematic of transformations that took place in Florentine courts for the "reality effect" it introduces into judicial sources. Republican courts operated in Latin, ducal courts in Italian. Prior to the 1530s, when petitioners and litigants brought cases to court, lawyers or recording notaries had to translate the vernacular words they used to describe the mental state of their relatives into preexisting legal categories and concepts as they existed in Latin—a task that necessarily involved linguistic distortion. Jurists and magistrates plucked these terms from Justinian's sixth-century compilation of Roman law, the Corpus iuris civilis, where the opinions of a range of Roman jurists on the problem of mental incapacity and its legal consequences were scattered throughout. This was no easy task.
Roman jurists recognized that madness did not reside only on the outer extremes of human behavior. They acknowledged that its manifestations stretched across a spectrum, ranging from immaturity and foolishness to complete mindlessness, and that these internal conditions produced a range of different behaviors. They captured the breadth of this spectrum in terms and phrases that generally described the lack of reason (intellectus) and intent (animus, voluntas, affectio).41 The mad were likened to children, a person who is asleep, and a person who is absent or not properly present in mind. Roman jurists called states of madness furor, dementia, insania, alienation of mind (alienatio mentis), to lack one's senses (intellectu caret), and not being in possession of one's mind (non suae mentis or non compos mentis). Those suffering from these impairments they called furiosi, dementes, insani, mentecapti, and fatui. The term furiosus generally referred to an unaccountably violent or wild person while demens, mentecaptus, insanus, and fatuus usually suggested a nonviolent but feebleminded person. These were not hard and fast distinctions; categories often overlapped.
Learned legal ruminations on the matter by medieval jurists did little to clarify the situation. The famous Italian jurist Bartolus da Sassoferrato (1313-1357) systematically analyzed Roman law categories for mental incapacity in a treatise in which he listed the qualities a witness necessarily had to possess for his or her testimony to be considered valid. Like his Roman counterparts, Bartolus broadly distinguished between the furiosus who raved and the mentecaptus who showed an innocuous inability to make sense of or judgments about the world. Dementes, insani, fatui, and stulti were specific types of mentecaptus. Bartolus went to some length to make finer distinctions between these states in an attempt to link abnormal thought and its consequent behaviors more accurately. But he did not ultimately change the categories handed down by Roman law or do much to solve the problem of ambiguity between them in the courts.
After the 1530s, Italian replaced Latin as the language of legal record. Florentines did not abandon Roman law vocabulary; they Italianized it to create the terms furioso, mentecatto, insano, dementia, fatuità. They added colloquial vernacular terms like pazzo and matto, both roughly meaning a person out of his or her senses with pazzo on the more aggressive and matto the more docile sides of the spectrum, though again, these generalizations often overlapped. Both sets of terms, the technical Latinate and colloquial vernacular, were effective in court.
Freed from restrictive Roman law terminology, petitioners in ducal Tuscany also employed a rich array of terms and modifying adjectives to identify as precisely as possible the particular nature of the mental disturbance at hand. They described their incapacitated kin as being completely out of mind ("non in cervello," "non sta in cervello," "non in sè," "mancamento di cervello"); of limited or tending toward bad judgment ("poco cervello," "poco ingegno et cervello," "pochissimo cervello," "debol mente," "poco capacità d'intelletto," "difecto di mente," "mezzo matto"); or having a childlike commerce with the world around them ("scemo di cervello," "semplice," "leggier di cervello," "semplice che altro," "uccellabile," "meschino"). There are also many examples of people who were called by terms that generally suggested mental incapacity but who also seem to have had accompanying sensory or motor impairments. Muteness and stuttering were commonly thought to indicate mental as well as physical disability. Tuscans also described the mental states and explained the unaccountable behavior of their impaired relatives by drawing on vocabularies of honor, economy, and medicine.
Fine categorical distinctions were important in cases where a petitioner may have wished only to excuse strange or unruly behavior without depriving a person of legal agency once and for all. In other words, linguistic shading gave magistrates and laypeople a way to accommodate a broad spectrum of incapacity as they experienced it in the hopes of achieving the legal outcome they sought. For historians, such distinctions are slippery. It is imperative to try to establish whether what looks like a real transformation in the ways Florentines talked about their mentally disturbed kin were the result of substantive social or cultural changes or merely an unveiling phenomenon attributable to changes in the way the courts operated and the language they employed. It is, in part, for this reason that I have left many terms in their original Latin or Italian. The purpose is to invite the reader to experience the fluidity, malleability, and subtlety of language—in this case, I think it fair to use the term "discourse"—as Tuscans struggled to explain mental, emotional, and behavioral states that made little sense to them.
It is also for this reason that I use the term "madness" throughout the book. Like Erik Midelfort, whose lead I follow on this point, there is a certain methodological utility in the ambiguity of the term precisely because it forces historians to pay close attention to the language historical actors used to describe people whose thoughts, feelings, and actions made no sense to them. Readers will also notice that I sometimes refer to physical disabilities. This study is full of examples of people who were called by terms that generally suggested mental incapacity but who might also have had accompanying sensory or motor impairments as well. Disability is a capacious category of historical analysis; in modern usage it includes a range of mental, cognitive, sensory, and physical impairments. Madness here functions as a subset of disability, referring specifically to the impact abnormal cognitive, emotional, and behavioral states had on families. Moreover, in Florentine courts, the ability to exercise reason was the sine qua non of legal agency. The mad may have suffered from some kind of physical impairment, but the physically impaired were not necessarily considered mad.
I have also used the term "mental" in combination with incapacity, impairment, and disorder to describe instances in which families believed sickness, injury, or some external cause had adversely affected brain function and consequently a person's rational faculties. This is not a modern but a late medieval and early modern distinction. It is also not meant to evoke a philosophical notion of mind. In the twenty and twenty-first centuries, the problem of madness has raised a host of questions about the relationship between mind, soul, and body, competing biological and psychological theories about the brain, the nature of selfhood, consciousness, and identity that lie outside the purview of this study. Medieval and early modern Europeans, who had a worldview that incorporated philosophical, medical, and religious ways of thinking about the relationship between mental and physical states, found these modern problems less discrete.
As for numbers, I have analyzed these cases qualitatively rather than quantitatively, but some important patterns emerge. Mad men and women constituted a complex, heterogeneous population that defies easy categorization. They were young and old, male and female, rich and poor. They also exhibited varying degrees of incapacity. Some never developed the rational faculties of adults while others matured more or less in line with social expectations but repeatedly made poor or disastrous decisions. Some were chronically vegetative or wild while others swung in and out of lucidity, wavering between periods of high and low functioning.
Many of them were not marginal but deeply networked. As carriers of patrimony, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, kith, kin, and neighbors, they were entangled in the social, economic, and political webs that bound society together. They were not universally considered "bambini innocenti," or innocent babies as Enrico Stumpo called them. Most of them were not children but adults for whom there were no obvious custodial institutions. In other words, these were not necessarily people who had slipped through holes in the social web. In many cases, they were the threads that constituted it.
Broadly speaking, a little less than half of the three hundred cases that make up this study are civil suits, a little more than half are criminal. Since the Pupilli was a patrimonial court, civil suits tended to involve people who had property to protect. That said, where well-heeled families tend to make up the bulk of civil cases prior to1540, after that point, people from middling and even humble backgrounds availed themselves of the courts in greater numbers. A larger cross-section of the social world appears in criminal courts. The poor and socially unconnected tended, as they typically do, to fare worse than their wealthier neighbors in criminal cases. They were, for example, more likely to be sent into penal servitude or exiled; they generally tended to pay for their crimes with their bodies rather than their purses.
Numbers are most revealing when we consider gender. From 1540 to roughly 1600, men are identified as mad in 84 percent of civil cases and women 16 percent. Similarly, men appear as mad in 89 percent of criminal cases and women only 11 percent. Where were the mad women in medieval and early modern Tuscany? Surely they existed. They are underrepresented there because Roman and Florentine law considered sex a limiting factor on legal status. A woman, by virtue of her sex, enjoyed the same privileges and limitations as a minor even after she had attained her majority. Men were the primary social, political, and legal actors in their communities, the primary guardians and transmitters of patrilineage, and the principal bearers of honor. A man's descent into madness threatened to send shock waves through his family especially if he were the head of the household. The implications of a woman's madness were much less significant.
The courts tell us little about the madness of women but rather a lot about how it affected them since their social and legal vulnerability made women big stakeholders in the problem of male madness. They were the primary caretakers of mad kin; and, like children, they tended to suffer the most when a man could not perform his occupation or manage patrimony. That said, vulnerability did not mean automatic victimhood. Where women were rarely brought to court for being mad, they frequently appeared in court records as petitioners. In civil cases, male kin accounted for 46 percent of the petitioners named in civil cases and female kin made up 42 percent, roughly the equivalent.
Of the 42 percent of female petitioners who brought civil cases, the great majority were widowed matriarchs—mothers and aunts—who, in the absence of a strong male presence in the household, often policed the social and economic behavior of their sons and nephews. Practically speaking, the loss of a husband was not universally a bad thing. It left some women with liberty and leverage to manage their estates or meddle in the estate management of their relatives. In cases involving madness, we are just as likely to see women acting as guardians of patrimony, savvy navigators of the courts, and even shameless exploiters of vulnerable relatives as we are to see them as victims. Here a woman's ability to act was determined more by her socioeconomic status than her sex.
This is an important point to make because some historians might interpret what I call patrimonial rationality in Chapter 3 differently. In a recent study of gender and charity, for example, Philip Gavitt spoke of lineage ideology, by which he meant a rigidly patriarchal view of the Tuscan household that came to prominence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The culprit, according to Gavitt and historians of similar mind, was a profound economic crisis that reshaped the system of inheritance especially to the detriment of women. To soften its effects, elite families vigorously promoted the patrimonial interests of their eldest male heirs. As a result, boys and girls who might dilute a patrimony were sent to foundling homes, orphanages, and convents. Women had little chance of marrying out of this system and increasingly came to spend their lives in institutions that were not originally meant to house them. To add insult to injury, these institutions fashioned themselves according to the domestic metaphors that shaped lineage ideology. In other words, they foisted onto their wards the very ideals that had marginalized them in the first place.
While lineage ideology is a useful concept for thinking about the poor and poor relief, it tends to break down in the face of the intractable realities or golden opportunities that madness brought to better-off Tuscan households. The maintenance of patriarchal inheritance schemes was counterproductive in the extreme if the person diluting or dissipating patrimony was the man controlling the family's purse strings. The case studies that appear throughout this book do not necessarily demonstrate the immiseration of relatives, especially women, at the hands of male heads of households. Rather, they tend to show the unseating of those addled heads in the interest of the family as a whole. To put it another way, patrimonial rationality was simultaneously a standard against which people measured a person's spending habits and a practical strategy that we see in action when the material integrity of a line was in peril. Unlike lineage ideology, patrimonial rationality could empower women. Through it we see the society of makeshifts at work.
The title of this book is meant to evoke David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber's revolutionary study, Tuscans and Their Families, a massive analysis of the Florentine population as seen through the lens of the 1427 tax census known as the Catasto. I could not have written this book without that monumental work and the scholarship it inspired. According to Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber, the Catasto had the power to "scan the land like the rays of the summer sun," so rich was it in demographic and social detail. The cases that form the basis of this study are more akin to three-hundred-odd spotlights of varying strength and breadth flickering across Tuscan domains over a three-hundred-year period. In some cases, the spotlight centers on a person while also capturing a complex network of relatives, neighbors, and civic authorities as they interacted at home, on the streets, and at court. In other cases, the light is narrow and dim, making a person seem like an inscrutable glow surrounded by darkness.
But the situation is not as grim as that. Generations of scholars have shed light on the social, political, economic, and cultural landscape of medieval and early modern Italy. This book helps populate that already bountiful space with a group of people who are usually invisible in the histories of premodern European societies, not just the mentally and physically impaired but those who watched, cared for, and struggled with or near them.
Used properly, legal sources have a great deal to tell, not least of all that late medieval and early modern Europeans did not routinely, as it was once claimed, push the mad outside of cities and towns. They were not shut up in prisons, hospitals, monasteries, or convents or crammed onto fictional ships of fools. Far from being marginal or merely satirical in medieval and early modern Tuscan society, they lived in households; they inherited property that had to be managed and passed on; they had legal rights and obligations that they may or may not have been competent to exercise. They did not live as cultural artifacts but as parents, siblings, neighbors, citizens, and subjects. When they appear in court records, they are often at the center rather than on the fringes of family struggles over property, patrimony, and household management. Perhaps there were some, perhaps many who wanted to cast their disturbed relatives out, throw this one in jail, send that one off to a convent—in other words, make a mentally disturbed person someone else's problem. Surely that happened. It happens now. Archival records tell a more complex and compelling story.