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The Madness of Kings
Personal Trauma and the Fate of Nations
By Vivian Green
The History PressCopyright © 1993 Vivian H.H. Green
All rights reserved.
The Wilderness of the Mind
'Prithee, Nuncle,' the fool asks King Lear, 'tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman?' 'A king,' Lear replies, 'a king.' Made distraught by the stress brought on by the ingratitude of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, in the agony of his disturbed mind, garlanded by the wild flowers of fantasy rather than a golden crown, 'cut to the brains' as Lear describes his illness, Lear yet still remains the king:
Ay, every inch a king:
When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
Lear is confronted by the paradox which faces every mad king: how is it possible to reconcile the madness which is upsetting the balance of his mind with the act of governance, for which, by the very nature of kingship, he is responsible.
There have, of course, been kings so mentally unbalanced that they have been obliged to surrender their responsibilities and to acquiesce in the appointment of a regent or vicegerent to rule on their behalf. Among such rulers were Frederick William IV of Prussia after his health collapsed in 1858, King Otto of Bavaria, the brother of Ludwig II, who in a reign of nearly thirty years was kept in complete seclusion, the Empress Zawditu or Judith of Ethiopia for whom the future Emperor Haile Selassie acted as regent, and in his latter years the father of the Emperor Hirohito, the Emperor Taisho (Yoshihito) of Japan.
But most of the kings who have been called mentally deranged either only suffered from sporadic attacks of madness or were not so obviously insane that they were unable to exercise authority. Even those kings whose mental faculties had been permanently impaired continued, at least nominally, to act as head of their state, as, for instance, Charles VI of France and Christian VII of Denmark were to do. George III's attacks of so-called insanity were very intermittent and between such attacks he appeared to act normally. Although Henry VI of England experienced some degree of mental weakness, more specifically in the latter years of his reign, he was only critically ill for less than two years in a reign of thirty-nine years. Eric XIV of Sweden similarly had an acute and violent but comparatively short attack of schizophrenia from which he apparently recovered.
But what of those kings who were not clinically insane but who suffered from some imbalance of the mind and some degree of abnormality in their personalities which led contemporaries to describe them as mad? Plainly we are at once confronted with a problem which any discussion of madness inevitably raises and which needs resolution before we investigate the madness of kings. What, simply, does madness mean? Is madness less an illness than a breach of the conventional way of thinking and behaving, a piece of social engineering? Could it be that the mad are those who have chosen to look at the world and its problems in ways different from those of the mass of their contemporaries, dropping out of society or even protesting at the nature of the milieu in which they live? 'What the mad say', Roy Porter has written in a very perceptive book, 'is illuminating because it presents a world through a looking-glass, or indeed holds up the mirror to the logic (and psychologic) of sane society. It focuses and puts to the test the nature and limits of the rationality, humanity and 'understanding' of the normal.' 'Labelling insanity', he adds, 'is primarily a social act, a cultural construct ... a badge we pin on people displaying a rather subjectively defined bundle of sympathies and traits, but who at bottom are just mildly or severely "different" or "odd".
Such a view is not to be dismissed lightly, if only because the borderline between sanity and madness is thin and blurred. Robert Burton, writing in 1621, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, was aware that this was the case:
But see the Madman rage distraught With furious looks, ghastly sight Naked to chains doth he lie, And roars amain, he knows not why. Observe him: for as in a glass Thine angry portraiture it was His picture. Keep still in thy presence; Twixt him and thee there's no difference.
All of us have the aptitude to enter into the world of madness, if only to linger shortly on its fringes, as, for instance, when we momentarily give way to an explosion of anger; for though it is possible to use electric currents to stimulate anger in the brain, what actually induces feelings of rage in the brain remains mysterious. No wonder that the Angevin kings of England, much given to fury, were sometimes called 'possessed'. 'He is', the seventeenth-century Bishop Hall observed, 'a rare man that hath not some kind of madness reigning in him.' 'My father', Charles Darwin once remarked, 'says there is a perfect gradation between sound people and insane, that everybody is insane at some time.' 'In this sense,' Raskolnikov's doctor comments in Dostoevsky's novel, 'we all, in fact, very often act like madmen, with the slight difference that the people who are "mental" are a little madder than we are. A normal person, it's true, hardly exists at all.'
Yet it would be quixotic to deny that madness is not a fact. It may be very differently interpreted but there can be no doubt that madness exists. Whether it is an illness, what causes it and whether it is curable may be matters of debate, but madness is a condition that has been with us as long as society itself. As a descriptive term it covers a very broad spectrum of behaviour, ranging from the madman or mad woman who is so completely incapable of looking after him or herself that he or she has to be confined and, if given to unprovoked violence, even kept under restraint, to the persons who suffer from so comparatively innocuous a psychosis or neurosis that to all intents and purposes they appear as normal. There is still disagreement, for instance, as to whether the psychopath or sociopath can properly be called mad. Although the psychopath may not be classified as psychotic, either legally or according to psychiatric criteria, there can be hardly any doubt that he has an aberrant personality.
Madness in general represents a departure from the norm expressed by behaviour which in ideas, attitudes and activity is aberrant. Yet its constituents vary immensely, not merely because it is difficult to establish what constitutes normality but because of the very wide range of abnormal behaviour. The madman's most obvious feature might be described as his irrationality. In thirteenth-century England the jurist Henry Bracton described the madman as one who could be likened to a wild beast. Madmen were brutes who lacked the power of human reason. A lunatic, so Sir Edward Coke wrote, in the reign of James I, was a man 'that hath sometimes his understanding, and sometimes not ... is called non compos mentis, so long as he hath not understanding'. 'To have stronger and more vehement passions for anything, than is ordinarily seen in others', the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, 'is that which men call Madnesse.' The pioneer psychiatrist Kraepelin concluded that irrationality and passion were the mark of the insane. Yet it may be too simplistic to suppose that irrationality is the most obvious or even necessary ingredient in madness. Roy Porter's discussion of autobiographical writings of mad persons indicates that mad people are capable of communicating their feelings and ideas, occasionally showing genuine insight into their condition, and into the world in which they live.
There is, we may say, a method in their madness but they tend to argue from a false or distorted premiss, if in a pseudological way. An early textbook describes the case of the man who thought that his legs and buttock were made of glass and feared that he might break, a delusion from which King Charles VI of France and many another was to suffer. Another case spoke of a man who thought that he was made of butter and in danger of melting. A third, a citizen of Siena, would not urinate because he was afraid that he might drown the town; to cure him the doctor set fire to his house 'whereupon he pissed and was by that means preserved'. Madmen can act and speak rationally and show consciousness of their problems, yet there is a residue of irrationality with which the normal mind finds it difficult to cope or to argue.
In practice madness seems like a foreign country and its inhabitants aliens, either permanent residents or temporary visitors, and as a consequence treated in more recent centuries as social outcasts. It is perhaps most true of the madman that his grip on reality is fluctuating and transient, and that he easily crosses the border from reality into fantasy. He looks at the world in a topsy-turvy way as through a kaleidoscope of coloured spectacles. His imagination and thought patterns appear to be disordered. He is emotionally labile, moving from extreme excitability to apathetic immobility, and sometimes given to unprovoked violence. As early as the thirteenth century the physician, Gilbertus Anglicus, described his characteristic symptoms as depression, lack of appetite, insomnia, headaches, irrational fears (such as the belief that the sky might fall) and hallucinations. Though with the advent of psychiatry some attempt has been made to systematize and rationalize the madman's behaviour and thought-patterns, a strange and alien life-style, often irrational, still seems the basic symptom of madness, for peasant as for king.
But what caused madness puzzled early physicians as indeed it still does. Was it an illness, like a physical sickness, caused by an organic disease? Was it supernatural in its causation, something like lightning sent from the gods or a dispensation of divine providence? Or was it simply a moral trauma, produced by inner conflicts of the mind? It remains a question which even modern experts have been unable fully to resolve.
Those who looked for a semi-physical explanation found it in the so-called humoural pathology which, from the time of Hippocrates in the latter half of the fifth century BC, of Galen and Rufus of Ephesus in the second century AD to the Renaissance and beyond held more or less undisputed sway. Madness, like physical ill-health, resulted from an imbalance of the humours which conditioned man's temperament and explained the illnesses, mental and physical, by which he was afflicted.
'Man's body', so wrote the seventh-century Spanish encyclopaedist, Isidore of Seville,
is divided among the four elements. There is the quality of earth in the flesh, of moisture in the blood, of air in the breath, of fire in the vital heat. Moreover, the four-fold division of the human body represents the four elements. For the head is related to the heavens, and in it are two eyes, as it were the luminaries of the sun and moon. The breast is akin to the air, because the breathings are emitted from it as the breath of the winds from the air. The belly is likened to the sea, because of the collection of all the humours, the gathering of the waters as it were. The feet, finally, are compared to the earth, because they are dry like the earth. Further, the mind is placed in the citadel of the head like God in the heavens, to look upon and govern all from a high place.
The four elements did not merely prescribe the nature of man's complexion but accounted for the vicissitudes of his temperament. An excess of any one humour was thought to explain the onset of physical or mental sickness; but mental trouble was specifically put down to an excess of black bile, which generated the melancholy temperament, and so caused madness. It was believed that the vapours rose to the brain, affecting its activity, the fore part of the brain being the source of sense and sensory perception, the central part, of the reasoning power and the posterior, of the memory. Any imbalance between these functions produced the conditions for mental disturbance as the brain became overheated.
Even with the growth of a more scientific approach to mental and medical problems, the explanation of human ills proferred by humoural pathology was slow to die. 'Melancholy or blacke choler is a natural humor cold and dry, thicke, grosse, black and sharpe', Valentinus wrote in his Epitome of the whole course of physicke in 1612, 'when melancholy is burned, it becometh vicious and causeth madnesse.'
There were, however, always those who were convinced, whether or not the explanation for man's madness lay in his temperamental make-up, that the onset of madness could not be explained in purely physical terms, but only in supernatural and extra-terrestrial language. Madness resulted from a conjunction of the stars or was in the lap of the gods. The madman was made mad by forces external to himself; he became a man 'possessed', and was a victim of powers which took over or muddled his mind. Quem Jupiter vult perdere dementat prius. 'Whom God would destroy He first sends mad', as the seventeenth-century poet and dean of Peterborough, James Duport, put it. Madness was seen by some as a divine punishment. The tyrannical Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, was reduced to a condition of bestial madness, depicted by medieval illuminators as naked and hairy and in his madness reduced to subsisting on herbs and grass. King John was said by some contemporary chroniclers to be 'possessed', plenus daemonio. Both Charles VI of France and Henry VI of England were said to have been 'bewitched'. The bestowal of the nickname el hechizado on Charles II of Spain screened a bizarre scenario in which the physically decrepit king played a central part. Yet, contrariwise, madness might even be a sign of divine grace. The voices which the madman heard could be the voices of God. In an age of faith the madman might appear as the messenger of God. The history of the Christian saints as well as that of holy men of other religions is replete with the cases of men and women who suffered from deep psychological problems but who were revered as holy fools speaking with the voice of God. They were seers and prophets, their discordant and even incomprehensible incantations – speaking with tongues – bewildering their hearers and yet evoking admiration and even adulation.
The early physicians could only treat madness as they treated physical illness, with the limited range of prescriptions with which they were familiar, with blood-letting, by the application of clysters, with purges, in the hope that somehow they might be able to restore the true balance of the humours. 'To purge choler and melancholy after a nightmare', Chaucer advised, 'for Goddes love, take thou some laxatyf', such as 'lauriol, century, and fumitory or elles of elderbery.' Since the seat of madness was in the brain, surgeons made incisions in the head in the hope of relieving the pressure on the brain, so draining the poisonous fluids and vapours which were corrupting it. Charles VI of France had a cautery made at the occiput and Henry VI may have been similarly treated. An operation of a similar character was performed on Don Carlos of Spain. In his Livre de Seyntz Medicines (1354) Henry, duke of Lancaster, advised that a red cock recently killed should be applied to the head of a man suffering from frenzy in the belief that the warm blood of the dead bird would settle in the brain and rid it of the dangerous vapours by which it was afflicted. Treatment of a similar kind, in these cases of recently slaughtered pigeons, was given in the seventeenth century to help improve the mental and physical health of the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando dei Medici, and of Charles II of Spain.
Since in the Middle Ages many thought that madness might be supernatural in origin, more trust was placed in remedies that were more specifically psychological and spiritual than in those that were physical: in the offering of the Mass, in the application of relics to the afflicted and in the use of exorcism to drive away the evil spirits. Jesus Christ had himself expelled devils. St Cuthbert cured people 'from the troubling of foul spirits' by prayer, touching and exorcism. A woman suffering from calamitas insaniae, who was possessed of a devil, who moaned, ground her teeth and wept, was cured when she touched the reins of Cuthbert's horse. Cuthbert's contemporary St Guthlac treated a young man who, under the stress of immensa dementia, had murdered a man with an axe and then mutilated himself. Guthlac 'breathed the spirit of health into his face' after prayer, fasting and washing him, so driving out the evil spirit which had possessed him. Exorcism was used too on kings. Charles VI of France submitted to a series of strange rites involving exorcism which proved unavailing. Charles II of Spain was exorcised with apparently some temporary benefit to his health.
Excerpted from The Madness of Kings by Vivian Green. Copyright © 1993 Vivian H.H. Green. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
I The Wilderness of the Mind,
II Roman Orgies,
III Medieval Trilogy,
IV The Royal Saint,
V Happy Families,
VI Spanish Madness,
VII Great Harry,
VIII Swedish Saga,
IX Russian Bears,
X The Bewitched King and His Legacy,
XI Florentine Frolics,
XII Mad George,
XIII Danish Charade,
XIV The Swan King,
XV 'An Infirmity' of Politicians,
XVI Madmen in Jackboots,