Margery Kempe and the Meaning of Madness

'Living high above her bodily wits' - but was the 'madness' of a 15th-century English gentlewoman divine folly, marital stress or the stirrings of a self-conscious feminist?

The history of madness must surely form part of the 'history of mentalities'. It poses, however, obvious problems of documentation. Amongst the most fascinating yet enigmatic kinds of historical sources are the autobiographical writings of 'mad people'. Hundreds of these are available in print, the bulk of course, deriving from the last two centuries. Using them presents certain grave problems to the historian; for the very fact that they were written by deluded, or supposedly deluded, people demands even greater scepticism than that required by autobiography in general, a genre itself always to be approached with the utmost caution.

Psychiatrists have often claimed that mad people's writings have no- thing meaningful to say about external reality, being only the symptoms of sickness. But this is too dismissive: for they frequently afford privileged insights into the secret mental cultures of the past, the extreme fantasies and fears commonly shared, yet standardly censored by polite culture.

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