The re-shaping of idiocy in the seventeenth-century church
Throughout the English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, churchmen disagreed about whom to exclude from taking holy communion, who should do the excluding, and how this exclusion should be imposed. The constant reclassifications of potential contaminants of church ritual fluctuated in tandem with larger socio-political processes. The ferocity of the debate in the 1650s reflects that decade’s social revolutionary chaos. Near the end of it, the label ‘idiot’ – whatever that may mean – arrives on the list, emerging from a dialectic of disputes which acknowledge the socio-political context. In that particular deployment of the label we start to see an outline of the modern psychological definition.
This collection explores how concepts of intellectual or learning disability evolved from a range of influences, gradually developing from earlier and decidedly distinct concepts, including ‘idiocy’ and ‘folly’, which were themselves generated by very specific social and intellectual environments. With essays extending across legal, educational, literary, religious, philosophical, and psychiatric histories, this collection maintains a rigorous distinction between historical and contemporary concepts in demonstrating how intellectual disability and related notions were products of the prevailing social, cultural, and intellectual environments in which they took form, and themselves performed important functions within these environments. Focusing on British and European material from the middle ages to the late nineteenth century, this collection asks ‘How and why did these concepts form?’ ‘How did they connect with one another?’ and ‘What historical circumstances contributed to building these connections?’ While the emphasis is on conceptual history or a history of ideas, these essays also address the consequences of these defining forces for the people who found themselves enclosed by the shifting definitional field.
The emergent critical history of intellectual disability
Intellectual disability is an unstable concept, and its fundamental instability is magnified when we track its history and relation to other concepts. This introductory chapter explores some of the challenges of investigating the forces shaping the concept of intellectual disability in Europe and Britain across the centuries: not only those generated by shifting language and terminology, but also the demands imposed by the interdisciplinary nature of this project, which takes us through histories of literature, religion, law, education, philosophy, psychology and medicine, in addition to engaging with cultural and social history. Further, the fundamental slipperiness of the idea of intellectual disability raises the question of whether it could even be said to exist in forms similar to that which it assumes today. This introduction also includes a review of literature exploring the history of intellectual disability, and an overview of the chapters to follow.