Sunday, August 16, 2015

Carole Frick: “Mad Tuscans”

Carole Collier Frick

Book Review

Elizabeth W. Mellyn, Mad Tuscans and Their Families: A History of Mental Disorder in Early Modern Italy. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2014), 304 pages, 8 illus. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4612-4 

1> Elizabeth Mellyn’s book Mad Tuscans and Their Families is a thorough investigation of communal efforts in Tuscany to restrain, contain, and control public safety and family property in the face of the threat of madness.  It looks at court cases from the fourteenth through the seventeenth century.  But this study is about money as much as it is about madness.  It is about the need to secure patriarchal lineage in the honor-based culture that was pre-modern Italy, about ensuring public order, and about balancing the concerns of the state with that of the family.  The cause or causes of mental illness is not as important to these families as are the effects of mental problems on family honor within the larger community.

2> The primary sources used by the author to explore her subject are taken from the court systems and other institutions of the city of Florence and its Tuscan domains.  Here, Mellyn investigates over 300 cases where desperate petitioners have asked the court’s relief in issues of guardianship, criminally insane behavior, or the reckless disregard for family property in the face of disruptive “mad” behavior by a family member.  (The author is careful to preserve the terminology of the sources, following Eric Midelfort’s use of that generic term in his The Mad Princes of Renaissance Germany of two decades ago.)  Here, the author shows how lay litigants (already in the fourteenth century) were using commonly-known descriptive terms for the mad such as “furioso” and  “mentecatto” (from the Latin), and more colloquially, “pazzo” or “matto,” in their pleas for resolution to whatever public institution was available to them at the time.

3> The courts being petitioned for relief in the face of crazy behavior on the part of a relative began with that of the Podestà and the Capitano del Popolo and after their dissolution, the office of the Pupilli, which was heavily involved in making decisions in cases of non compos mentis.  This responsibility then shifted partially to the Otto di Guardia e Balia, which took over criminal cases in Florence in 1502.  In other words, the public institutions charged with hearing cases of reputed insanity morphed several times over the three hundred year period the book covers. Eventually, especially after 1621-59 with the compilation of medico-legal terminology by Paolo Zacchia (1584-1659), medical terms entered official documents, and specific ailments such as melancholia, mania, frenzy and epilepsy occasionally appeared as forensic evidence to assert madness.  Even lay people by this time were using humoral language in their court appeals to establish insanity, especially in cases of  alleged melancholia.

4> Chapter one takes up the changes over time of the legal apparatus for insuring a family’s material assets.  In cases of mental incapacity, in general it was the mother who was the favored guardian of a troubled family member, and Mellyn points out that the naming of a guardian was a highly publicized event in order to vet any scurrilous motive behind the request.  The Office of the Pupilli was charged to provide for the proper guardianship of the mentally incompetent, but communal concern seems to have been primarily fiscal.  The court systems in place understood the worries of families grappling with unfit relatives squandering the family purse, and moved to intervene when necessary.  By the 1470s, the workload of the Pupilli had expanded its scope beyond the city to include the Tuscan domains governed by the commune, and by 1550, as Mellyn writes “the Pupilli had become a court with a significant amount of power to intervene in family affairs.” (38)  Female agency is addressed here, many litigants being women of rich families who played a major role in guardianship requests.

5> Following these relatively mild cases, chapter two takes up the question of what to do with the criminally insane who were often mixing it up in the street.  Unfortunately, this is one question that remains unanswered in this book, as family diaries (ricordanze) are mute on the subject of familial madness, and the decisions rendered by various magistracies dealt first and foremost with the legal status of the person accused of madness.  Rarely did the state see to the quotidian demands of his or her care, as there were few facilities equipped to house mad men or women.  The Florentine jail of the Stinche could house people for a while if their families could pay for their upkeep, but not for long.  Sometimes families sought help from the city hospital of Santa Maria Nuova where poor people out of their minds could get temporary help, but hospitals did not have the facilities to cope with the disruptive and potentially dangerous. Other times families of substance tried to gain admission to a convent or monastery for their mad relative; however, religious houses did not want to accept the insane. It was a cycle of street, prison, and hospital, with no end in sight.

6> And so, families had no recourse for the most part, to any outside assistance.  They enlisted the services of their domestic help; they tied the mad up with ropes or chains, or locked them away in a special room in their house that was secure, or put them in a separate habitation out in the countryside and left them there with a servant or two.  There was no adequate answer to the problem and the state did not intervene in treatment.  As Mellyn writes, “The podesterial gaze stopped at the door of the household.” (71)  It was, as Olwen Hufton first wrote, a “society of makeshifts,” which was not ameliorated until modestly in 1643, when Carmelite friar Alberto Leoni da Revere founded Santa Dorotea dei Pazzerelli, the first institution in Florence that provided custodial care for the severely mentally ill; an institution of only fifty beds.  Some forty years later, the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova added a ward for the mentally incapacitated poor.

7> Chapter three opens with the example of Francis of Assisi’s abandonment of all his material goods and how its meaning was seen in 1206 as the embodiment of apostolic poverty, not the act of a crazy man.  The author contrasts this with the way in which Renaissance society’s relationship to goods had so changed two hundred years later that a similar abandonment of property would be seen as “mad” and as potentially dangerous to the stability of the state.  Mellyn goes on to discuss the issue of family spendthrifts who threated what she calls “patrimonial rationality,” that is, the rational protection of patrimony that any sane person would seek to achieve. (22)  By 1415, the state could forbid an imprudent man from entering into legal contracts, and eventually by 1565, two ancient Roman legal categories, that of “spendthrift” and “mental incapacity” would be legally conflated into one.  She notes however that this conflation can be seen in the literature as early as the 1300s and writes that this fact captures “something of the anxiety families and civil authorities felt about the proper use and abuse of wealth.” (97)  In Florence, “failure to make sound financial decisions could be associated with mental incompetence in court.” (111)

8> In chapter four, the author engages the very language of madness as it changed over time from descriptive to pathological.  Here she provides an overview of the medical thinking of the day from Hippocrates to Galen—the structure of the four humors and what constituted mental stability.  Increasingly “mad” behavior was now linked to disease, and the key to mental stability lay in managing the six “non-naturals” (environment and climate, diet, evacuation and retention of bodily substances, exercise and rest, sleep and waking, and the passions of the soul) in order to balance the personality. Preachers also linked the “disordered soul” to the imbalanced body while others claimed that a demon could unbalance a body and that the devil might induce madness.  At the same time, the author is quick to remind the reader that “what constituted mental or physical incapacity was in part socially constructed.” (150)  Especially the term “melancholy” became a “useful catchall disease” applied to unsettled kin who were making a mess of the family patrimony.  The whole point of intervention in a family’s difficulty with an “unbalanced” person was to “maintain order in families and communities.” (145)

9> And finally, in chapter five, Mellyn takes up the case of the widow Maria de’ Placidi from 1567 whose sister Thommasa declared her “vexed by melancholy humors” due to the fact that she had deeded over family property in Rome to one Piero Mellini, who was unrelated to them, but with whom she had had a relationship.  This gift of property, Thommasa argued, would deprive their niece of her dowry and possibly ruin the family financially. What follows is the tricky back and forth between two sets of witnesses in court proceedings who argue both for and against Maria’s mental capabilities, and by doing, underline the difficulties in proving a state of “madness.” (166)  In court, the plaintiffs needed to be able to link madness to the specific time a contract had been made.  The issue of lucid intervals between bouts of madness also clouded the picture of Maria’s mental state.  Ultimately however, as in many of these early modern cases, the final disposition of this one remains unknown, due to the silence of incomplete source material.

10> In conclusion, this scholarly study is a well-documented overview of the cases of madness brought before the courts of early modern Tuscany that will be thought-provoking to anyone interested in social or cultural history.  Once the reader gets through the necessarily baroque legal structure of the commune, there are flashes of the actually afflicted which emerge.

Carole Collier Frick (Ph.D. History, UCLA, 1995) is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She works in early modern European history from a feminist perspective with a focus in Renaissance Italy. Research interests include material culture, the needle-trades, clothing and the semiotics of dress; art and images.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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