Madness in Cervantes’ Spain

by Joseph Jaynes Rositano

In reading Don Quixote, the greatest novel of “madness,” it is helpful to understand that Cervantes wrote in a culture whose social constructions of madness were no less nuanced — and in some ways no less humane — than our own. Dale Shuger’s Don Quixote in the Archives: Madness and Literature in Early Modern Spain illustrates this by examining documents from over one hundred legal cases in which the defense of insanity was invoked.

Madness (locura) played a complex and highly public role in the social life of Cervantes’ Spain. Though some of the “mad” (locos) were confined to institutions, most were not. And even the institutionalized were not hidden from public view: large groups of them were paraded daily through city streetssometimes in motley garb, riding on mules — to collect donations that defrayed the expenses of their confinement.

We often contrast contemporary treatment of the mentally ill with a hazily imagined barbaric past. The horizon of this imagined past is always receding: in the 1950s (the era made infamous by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), when a half million Americans were confined to state mental hospitals with few legal protections — — and lobotomy was a common practice, psychiatry saw itself as humane and progressive. Now, we might consider it evidence of progress that our mental hospitals hold less than a tenth of the numbers they once did; yet many of those who would have been hospitalized at midcentury are now in jail, prison, or homeless.

Just as those diagnosed with mental illness in our time are met with a mixture of sympathy and stigma, early modern Spaniards had ambivalent attitudes toward those they deemed mad. Locos were often excused for their deviant behavior; but they were also commonly targeted for open mockery, as happens constantly to Don Quixote.

In Cervantes’ Spain, madness was a legal defense both in secular courts and in the Inquisition. People accused of heresy often pled insanity — sometimes with success. But an official label of locura could result in curtailment of one’s legal rights — as a diagnosis of mental illness can in our time.

In early modern Spain, physicians testified in court as expert witnesses, claiming to discern true madness from malingering. Priests distinguished demonic possession from both — and from “legitimate” mystical experiences. Of course, there was nothing scientific about any of this; but then, psychiatric diagnosis still lacks an objective, biological basis today.

Asylum charters make it clear that, at least in theory, the mad were to be treated with compassion. Available evidence suggests that physical restraints (such as cages) were only used as a last resort. This is not to say there was no cruelty or maltreatment: confinement precipitates abuse — as the treatment of people diagnosed with mental illness in contemporary US prisons testifies.

Cervantes’ Spain, for all its cruelty, had its claims to compassion as well. Locura had spiritual significance, and charity toward locos was viewed as particularly meritorious. During the celebration of Holy Week, twelve asylum residents were chosen to play the Twelve Apostles. Asylum administrators washed these “Apostles’” feet.

In studying the history — and literature — of mental illness, we are better served by turning a skeptical eye on the practices of our own era than by a smugly superior attitude toward our predecessors.

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