Madness on trial

A transatlantic history of English civil law and lunacy

Author: James E. Moran

This book reinterprets the history of madness by examining the powerful influence of civil law on understandings of and responses to madness in England and in the North American territory of New Jersey. The influence of civil law on the history of madness has not hitherto been a topic of major academic investigation. Lunacy investigation law (that body of laws encompassing trials in lunacy, chancery court proceedings, proceedings in guardianship and trials of traverse) had its origins in fourteenth-century England. By the eighteenth century, English architects of the civil law had developed a sophisticated legal response to those among the propertied classes who suffered from madness. Lunacy investigation law was also transported successfully along imperial pathways and built into the legal frameworks of several colonies, including New Jersey. In New Jersey a rare and extensive collection of lunacy trials are explored to uncover how customary understandings of and responses to madness were tightly connected to the structures of civil law. The richness of these legal documents allows for an assessment of how civil law, customary responses and institutional alternatives to caring for the mad were balanced in this North American setting before and during the asylum era. Through its analysis of historical precedent, the book also offers insights into on-going contemporary concerns about mental capacity and guardianship.

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‘James Moran has provided an important addition to the historiography of psychiatry and mental health provision in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His new book contributes significantly to shifting the historical emphasis away from asylums and towards extra-institutional approaches to the card of the insane.
Journal Social History of Medicine
February 2020

‘Madness on Trial, introduces a ‘treasure trove’ of an alternative archive, in the form of documents relating to civil proceedings in lunacy from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New Jersey. [it] is a welcome addition to the history of mental illness, and is a very useful and accessible work for anyone interested in mental health law and community or family practices of care.’
Journal of The Historical Association
August 2020

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