Civil law and mental incapacity in historical fiction

Historical fiction, when underpinned by rigorous research and an informed understanding of context, can be a useful way to explore individual issues.  As the subject of this week’s podcast is civil law and mental incapacity, Rab explores a favourite example which deals with the issue in 1530s England.

Law and mental disorder were closely linked in the past as they are in the present day. Some of the best documents historians have are legal rather than clinical ones because legal documents often give the testimony of family, friends, neighbours – and sometimes even the person alleged to be mentally incapable. Blend law, history, and mental illness and you have a potent cocktail. Add in a gifted writer of fiction and you have the series of historical novels by C J Sansom.

Their hero is a barrister from the time of Henry VIII, Matthew Shardlake. I have read all of them and am a huge fan of Sansom, who has a Ph.D. in history. His novels are thrilling and historically honest; they also show a forensic knowledge of early modern law (Sansom re-trained as a lawyer before turning to writing full time). In ‘Revelation,’ Matthew is investigating the death of an old friend, but he is also involved in a more human mystery: doing pro bono work for the parents of a teenager who inexplicably begins to rant and rave about salvation and has been locked away in Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) for his own protection.

Religion is a hot potato in the 1530s and 1540s because the king’s policies fluctuate so much and anyone who speaks out against the current orthodoxy risks being tried for treason and facing a horrible death. Why has the boy suddenly gone mad? Is he really mad? Is he a prophet? Who knows or cares? What was Bethlem really like to live in and what controls were there over what went on inside its walls? Did the law take away civil rights or did it offer a measure of respite and security to the mentally disordered, against something worse? How did families deal with the madness of a loved one?

Sansom’s treatment is both humane and profoundly affecting, bringing out the texture of the young man’s obsession with prayer (he spends almost all his time on his knees), Shardlake’s attempts to protect him against evil both inside and outside Bethlem, and to help his distraught parents. The story may sound grim and the sense of place, menace, and fear in the book is palpable, for Bethlem, the royal court, and the streets of London. But it is ultimately uplifting.

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