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October 2021

Soc Hist Med. 1998 Dec; 11(3): 361-80.

'It begins with the goose and ends with the goose': medical, legal, and lay understandings of imbecility in Ingram v Wyatt, 1824-1832.

Jackson M.

Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter, UK.

A number of historians have recently suggested that we need to get out of the asylum if we are to fully understand attitudes to insanity in the nineteenth century. Arguing that accounts of the medicalization of madness have ignored the importance of non-medical attitudes to lunacy and idiocy, recent studies have stressed the need to explore family attitudes and responses in more detail. Unfortunately, efforts to escape the asylum have to some extent been hampered by a persistent reliance on institutional records. This institutional dependence is understandable: certificates of insanity, reception orders, case-books, and asylum registers, together with published documents, constitute the major record of historical constructions of the lunatic and idiotic mind. However, there may be more resourceful ways of exploring both medical and non-medical attitudes to idiocy. In this paper, I want to use the records from a contested will case, Ingram v Wyatt, to demonstrate that records from the ecclesiastical courts can provide access to a domain where the definitions and meanings of idiocy and imbecility were routinely considered by lawyers, lay witnesses, judges, and doctors. I shall argue that such cases constitute a fruitful site for excavating lay, professional legal, and medical attitudes to imbecility, for exploring the complex relationship between medical and non-medical understandings of capacity, and for situating those understandings within the context of professional developments in law and medicine and contemporary concerns about inheritance.

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