Emma de Beston, a suitable case for treatment….

We’re always inclined to think that medieval folk who fell mentally ill were treated barbarically. I think that accolade goes to a later period, when the inmates of Bedlam were laughed at by the paying public.

Here is a link to the National Archives to an account of an actual case from 1383, that of the unfortunate Emma de Beston, a widow of King’s Lynn, Norfolk.

The article commences:-

“…. People born with severe mental incapacity, but who were nevertheless heirs or heiresses to real or personal estate, were protected by law as part of the prerogativa regis (or royal prerogative). They had the status of wards of the Crown and their property would be managed on their behalf until they recovered. In most of those cases it was assumed that recovery would never occur. Provision should have been made for their welfare from the profits of the lands. Ensuring that those estates kept their value benefited the king too; not least because, once in Crown hands, possessions became parcel of the monarch’s resources available as royal patronage: the more productive and valuable the property, the higher the fee and annual rent that could be charged. The case of individuals in such a state of permanent mental incapacity is harder to judge because the evidence of their illness soon dries up as the government’s records focus on the land and not the person….

“….Those who became insane during their lives were to be provided for by the king without losing rights to their estates. This situation seemed to have evolved through custom and practice, rather than statute. There was also scope for regional and communal differences in how care was provided. Most often, those people who developed symptoms were left in the protection of their families and communities. Where the right level of care was not possible, some form of diagnosis was derived from interviews with the person’s kin and a process of inquest through a jury. It often involved examination of the ill person themselves. A major concern was to establish if lucid intervals occurred when estates could be managed in person. The solution was backed by force of the law….”

Then follows Emma’s actual case, which ends:

“….the examiners concluded that Emma was of unsound mind – in contemporary language, ‘having neither sense or memory nor intelligence to manage herself or her goods, with the face and countenance of an idiot’. As a result, her personal custody was confirmed with her then guardian, but her lands were assigned to four burgesses from King’s Lynn. The profits of her estates paid for her care, clothes and maintenance. Emma died in that state on 30 December 1386 and left her estate to her niece, Isabel….

“….Where possible, it was crucial that the ill person testified and had some agency in the process that would decide how their interests were safeguarded. While much of this methodology looked to secure the rights to lands and goods, it also provided for the individual at the centre of the process. Emma’s story shows that medieval institutions, the law, and communities were neither barbarous nor monolithic in their approach to those who could not care for themselves….”

So no, our less mentally fortunate medieval forebears were not treated barbarously. This entire article is well worth reading, not least because it’s a reminder that things weren’t always weighted against the individual.

But then again, of course, Emma was a woman of some means. I cannot vouch for the treatment of those much further down the chain….


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