Conference Agenda

2D: Faith and Mental Illness in the Nineteenth Century
Wednesday, 08/Sept/2021:
10:45am - 12:00pm

Session Chair: Prof. Herve Guillemain, U of Le Mans, France


Between Faith and Mental Illness: the Lazzaretti Case in Post-Unification Italy

Musumeci, Emilia

University of Teramo, Italy

The aim of this paper is to retrace a peculiar case of religion and mental pathologies occurred in the complex context of the decades after Italian Risorgimento and the Italian unification (1861). In particular, it will be analysed the case of David Lazzaretti a poor carter from Tuscany, self-proclaimed “Christ, Duce, Judge” and “the Second Son of God come to earth”, considered a heretic and excommunicated from the Catholic Church due his blasphemous writing. He founded the “Giurisdavidic Church” based on a sort of mystical and utopian socialism (his motto was: “The Republic is the kingdom of God”). His figure has given rise to lively controversy between those who considered him a martyr and who reputed him a mad visionary or, more prosaically a charlatan. In any case, Lazzaretti’s movements are emphasized above all for his tragic end: on the morning of August 18, 1878, while he was driving a peaceful procession from Monte Labbro to Arcidosso, a little town in Tuscany, he was killed by Italian carabineers who opened fire on the helpless population during the religious ceremony. After his death, medical science and in particular positivist psychiatry, also called “alienists”, described Lazzaretti not as a sacrilegious impostor but as a mentally ill person, who would have benefitted more from treatment than prosecution. In particular, under the aegis of Lombroso, the Positivist School of Criminology helped stigmatise religious deviant behaviour that manifested itself in alternative forms of spirituality, which in post-unification Italy were especially widespread on the countryside.

‘God the Great Physician’: Religious Activities in Nineteenth-Century British Asylums

Oswald, Ute

University of Warwick, United Kingdom

Our perception of the nineteenth-century asylum has largely been shaped by images of shackles, leeches and padded cells. Yet this obfuscates a very different side of these institutions; proponents of the then pioneering ‘moral treatment’ put a particular emphasis on kindness, location and occupation. Alongside traditional employment and recreation, the provision of religious services garnered increasing importance and support with a view to effecting a lasting cure or, if this was not possible, at least some level of amelioration and self-control.

This paper aims to interrogate the largely unexplored -and purportedly contradictory- relationship between religion and mental science in Scottish and English asylums, as diagnoses of religious insanity seemed at odds with the healing powers ascribed to religious activities and beliefs. It will show how different aspects such as sermons, bible-practice and hymns were adapted to suit an asylum population of varied religious persuasions and mental afflictions, taking into consideration the rise of evangelicalism and its implications inside and outside the asylum walls. It will further explore the role of the chaplain, highlighting his influence on the patient body and discussing his position alongside the medical superintendent. A wide range of primary sources such as treatises, annual reports and articles in the popular and scientific nineteenth-century press will reveal the complexities of these relationships and the extent to which religion was understood as a therapeutic as well as a management tool, despite an arguably increasing secularisation outside the institutional walls.

‘A few months in the solitary cell renders a prisoner strangely impressible’: Prison chaplains, the separate system and mental breakdown in English and Irish prisons, 1842-1860

Marland, Hilary1; Cox, Catherine2

1U of Warwick, Great Britain, United Kingdom; 2University College Dublin, Ireland

As the separate system was introduced to English and Irish prisons in the mid-nineteenth century, prison chaplains played a key role in supporting and implementing a system of extreme solitary, cellular confinement. They claimed an expertise above and beyond that of prison medical officers in understanding the minds of prisoners, and asserted their ability to improve the mental status of prisoners and to produce deep-seated reform and redemption, largely through cell visitations. Such cellular encounters, intended to extract confessional statements from the prisoners, enacted an early, somewhat sinister, form of ‘psychoanalysis’, producing self-reflection and repudiation of sin, as prisoners shared ‘their deepest anxiety and guilt in their isolated cells’. The optimism of the chaplains and their vigorous support of the separate system, however, would soon be challenged, as prisons adopting the discipline witnessed an increased incidence of mental breakdown among prisoners, marked by delusions and hallucinations, extreme excitement, irritability, depression, anxiety, and religious mania provoked by over-zealous brethren. At some Dublin prisons, it was alleged that ‘fanatical’ evangelical chaplains exploited these encounters to ‘unsettle the belief of a Catholic Prisoner' and coerce mentally fragile inmates to convert. Drawing on English and Irish prison archives, official reports, and the publications of the prison chaplains, this paper will explore the chaplains’ enthusiastic pursuit of prisoners’ reformation and mental improvement. It will also examine the increasing self-doubt of Reverend Kingsmill at Pentonville about the ability of cellular confinement to produce mental improvement and his acknowledgement that the system itself might trigger mental breakdown.