Insanity Terminology in the 18th and early 19th century

Some terms used in historical records may now be considered derogatory or offensive but reflect the attitudes and language of the time. ‘Idiots’ were defined as natural fools from birth and ‘lunatics’ defined as sometimes of good and sound memory and understanding and sometimes not.

A residence for the care of patients with mental illness had different names over the centuries. The following were the common terms in Ireland
21st century it is called: mental institution
20th century it was called: lunatic asylum, district lunatic asylum. From 1920s it was changing to mental hospital
19th century it was called: lunatic asylum, district lunatic asylum
18th century it was called: madhouse

Until the 19th century the custody of ‘idiots’ and ‘lunatics’, as well as the ownership of their land and property, fell to the Crown. Wealthier people had to make private arrangements for the care of family members with a mental illness.

Lunatics defined as sometimes of good and sound memory and understanding and sometimes not.A lunatic, could be, ‘a mentally ill person with periods of lucidity’, lunacy as involving fewer impairments than ‘imbecile’ or ‘idiot’.

Idiots were defined as natural fools from birth.

Imbecile was used to describe a person who was ‘unable to take care of himself or herself’, and an ‘idiot’ as a person unable to protect himself or herself from common dangers.
It seems likely that the terms ‘imbecile’ and ‘idiot’ were used interchangeably. The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 defined an ‘imbecile’ as an individual unable to take care of himself or herself, and an ‘idiot’ as a person unable to protect himself or herself from common dangers

Melancholia-Melancholia is a state of mental depression, in which misery is unreasonable either in relation to its apparent cause, or in the peculiar form it assumes. It was regarded melancholia as a form of insanity, characterised by depression and an intensity of ideas. Often in cases of melancholia intense depression was for a considerable time free from any suicidal desire.
Simple melancholia constituted the incipient stage of the disease and was characterised by depression. Those afflicted with the condition experienced feelings of misery that were only a slight exaggeration of their natural state of mind, but nonetheless provided no pleasure in life.

Active melancholia as the confirmed stage of the condition. The patient was plunged into a deep state of depression that was accompanied by delusions or voices. Patients suffering from active melancholia repeatedly bemoaned their miserable existence rather than internalising their melancholy.Delusions and hallucinations were absent during the early stage of melancholia as the patient’s intellect was not disordered. The simple melancholic retained a calm, if pensive demeanor. Lunatics afflicted with simple melancholia were not completely free from the risk of suicide.

Suicide: Depression, delusions and a growing disdain for life pushed many melancholic patients towards suicide as the lesser of two evils. When the mind was absorbed in an intense depression, a dangerous propensity often pre-occupied the patient’s thought and so ‘he prefers severing the thread of life, to the endurance of its misery’ A strong determination to commit suicide developed as melancholia passed into its active stage.

Dementia in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century is different from present days’ meaning , “dementia” denoted any severe mental illness with delusions and hallucinations (e.g. schizophrenia), whereas currently the term refers to certain chronic brain syndromes chiefly seen in later life (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease).

Mania is marked by periods of great excitement or euphoria, delusions, and over-activity

IQ Definitions from 18th and early 19th century: Some terms do have a formal definition, although they are no longer used
Term Idiot IQ 0 to 25 Modern term Severe learning disability
Imbecile 25 to 50 Moderate learning disability
Feeble minded (moron) 50 to 70 Mild learning disability

Those with an IQ of less than 50 usually need care throughout life and are unlikely to educable in the formal sense


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