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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Insanity of the Aged in the Regency Period

By Guest Blogger Bliss Bennet 

When I was in the planning stages of my latest novel, I decided to have one of my secondary characters, the father of one of my protagonists, be afflicted by early onset Alzheimer’s disease. But was Alzheimer’s disease, particularly in its early onset version, known during the Regency period? A dip into the history of medicine was clearly in order.

Alzheimer’s disease as we currently understand it—a neurodegenerative disease that leads to dementia—was not described until the early twentieth century. But cognitive decline in the elderly had been recognized as an affliction far earlier. One of the earliest references to such failing in old age can be found in the works of the ancient Greek physician Pythagoras, who lived during the 7th century B. C. Pythagoras divided a human life into five distinct stages, the last two (63 to 80, and 81 and older) of which he named the “senium,” or what we would now call old age. During the final stage of life (an age to which only a very few of ancient peoples survived) Pythagoras noted, “the system returns to the imbecility of the first epoch of the infancy.”

Our word “senile,” which originally only meant “belonging to, suited for, or incident to old age,” stems from the Greek term “senium.” The first medical man to use the term “senile” in reference to the cognitive decline of the aged was the Scottish pathologist William Cullen, who in 1776, proposed classifying all diseases into four groups, one of which he called “Neuroses,” or nervous diseases. One such neurosis, Cullen proposed, is “Amentia senilis,” or decay of perception and memory in old age.

The word “senile” defined in this more narrow way, though, did not come into common usage until the middle of the nineteenth century. But even if people did not have an exact medical term during the Regency period to describe mental decline in the elderly, such decline was clearly recognized by both the medical community and the public at large.

In order to understand how my protagonist would react to her father’s sudden mental decline, I also wanted to know how were people afflicted by senile dementia might be treated during the Regency period. I learned that before the nineteenth century, people judged mentally insane were typically incarcerated in prisons, not hospitals, and were subject to what today we would deem horrific treatment—shackled, bled, purged, blistered, beaten. In his 1806 book Treatise on Insanity, French physician Philippe Pinel was the first to take issue with such practices, arguing that madness was not a crime, but a disease, and those suffering from it should not be imprisoned or treated with violence. Such arguments proved controversial, both to governments and to the public at large; many thought Pinel himself insane for making such claims, and argued that he should be imprisoned, along with other madmen. But over the course of the nineteenth century, Pinel’s humanitarian reforms gradually became more widely accepted.

 Pilippe Pinel at the Salpêtrière by Tony Robert-Fleury (1876) 
Pinel orders the removal of chains from patients at the
Parish Asylum for insane women. Credit: Wikipedia
My story, set in 1822, fell right in the midst of this major cultural shift in the treatment of the mentally ill. Some people might believe that a madman should be incarcerated, treated like a criminal.  Others might believe that his fall into mental illness was a punishment for sin. Still others might take a more kindly view, and suggest asking for medical advice. But not much was known, medically, about the causes of mental decline, and little could be done medically to curtail or prevent it.

If you were living during the Regency, and your own father suddenly began to show signs of mental decline, how would you feel? Afraid that someone would want to put your father in an institution, or even a prison? Resentful that someone might judge your father a sinner, because he had been afflicted with insanity of the aged? Would you try to hide the signs of your father’s decline, even take on some of his responsibilities to keep his growing weakness hidden from those who might judge him? Even from his employer, the aristocratic owner of a landed estate?

And thus the kernel of my story, A Lady without a Lord, was born . . .

A Lady without a Lord
Book #3 in The Penningtons series

A viscount convinced he’s a failure

For years, Theodosius Pennington has tried to forget his myriad shortcomings by indulging in wine, women, and witty bonhomie. But now that he’s inherited the title of Viscount Saybrook, it’s time to stop ignoring his responsibilities. Finding the perfect husband for his headstrong younger sister seems a good first step. Until, that is, his sister’s dowry goes missing . . .

A lady determined to succeed

Harriot Atherton has a secret: it is she, not her steward father, who maintains the Saybrook account books. But Harry’s precarious balancing act begins to totter when the irresponsible new viscount unexpectedly returns to Lincolnshire, the painfully awkward boy of her childhood now a charming yet vulnerable man. Unfortunately, Theo is also claiming financial malfeasance. Can her father’s wandering wits be responsible for the lost funds? Or is she?

As unlikely attraction flairs between dutiful Harry and playful Theo, each learns there is far more to the other than devoted daughter and happy-go-lucky lord. But if Harry succeeds at protecting her father, discovering the missing money, and keeping all her secrets, will she be in danger of failing at something equally important—finding love?



Bliss Bennet writes smart, edgy novels for readers who love history as much as they love romance. Her Regency-set series The Penningtons has been praised by the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Reviews as “a series well worth following”; its books have been described by USA Today as “savvy, sensual, and engrossing”; by Heroes and Heartbreakers as “captivating,” and by The Reading Wench as having “everything you want in a great historical romance.”  The latest book in the series is A Lady without a Lord.

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1 comment:

Lil said...

Well, sometimes the insane were locked away in the attic. But I would imagine there were solutions much like those we use today. Sometimes aged parents suffering from dementia are cared for at home, sometimes with the assistance of home health aides and sometimes not, and sometimes they are put in nursing homes which may or may not bear some resemblance to the prisons and asylums of yore.
However, I'm sure your heroine does an excellent job of caring for her father. After all, she's a heroine!