In the 1850s, visitors to the Earlswood Asylum, also known as the National Asylum for Idiots, in Reigate, Surrey, wrote about their experiences for publication. Frequently, these reports were presented as forms of travel writing, with the narrator recounting the customs of the asylum natives. The middle-class, sane and (one assumes) intelligent target audiences lived far beyond the asylums, in terms of identity if not geography. The asylum inhabitants, meanwhile, are resolutely ‘other’, subjected to the visitors’ inquisitive, evaluative gaze. This chapter draws on primary documents including works by Charles Dickens and asylum propagandists such as Joseph Parkinson, Cheyne Brady and the Reverend Edwin Sidney, as well as numerous anonymous pieces, to explore how these asylum travelogues, through their own representations of ‘idiocy’, helped shape ideas of idiocy and inform social policy that affected the lives of people identified as ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ in the 1850s, 1860s and after.
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.