A latent historiography? The case of psychiatry in Britain, 1500-1820

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Both empirically and interpretively, extant histories of psychiatry reveal a vastly greater degree of difference among themselves than historical accounts of any other field. Scholarship focuses on the period after 1800 and the same is true of historiographical reviews; those of early modern British psychiatry are often brief literature studies. This article sets out in depth the development of this rich and varied branch of history since the 1950s, exploring the many different approaches that have contributed to understanding the mad and how they were treated. Social, cultural, philosophical, religious, and intellectual historians have contributed as much as historians of science and medicine to understanding an enduring topic of fascination: ‘disorders of consciousness and conduct’ and their context. Appreciating the sometimes unacknowledged lineages of the subject and the personal histories of scholars (roots and routes) makes it easier to understand the past, present, and future of the history of psychiatry. The article explores European and North American influences as well as British traditions, looking at both the main currents of historiographical change and developments particular to the history of psychiatry.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)289-310
Number of pages22
JournalThe Historical Journal
Issue number1
Early online date29 Jan 2014
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014


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