Disability History Month Poster 5: Childbirth and Mental Illness, Past and Present

Mental illness following childbirth has a long history, and our understanding has changed according to social circumstances and dominant medical frameworks, as has the way in which postpartum mental illness has fitted into our lives.

In the nineteenth-century, the term ‘puerperal insanity’ dominated descriptions of mental illness associated with childbirth in medical literature, but a lay understanding and accepted discourse also existed within families and communities. A body of ideas about postpartum mental illness was built on a collaboration of medical knowledge, acquired through interactions with doctors, and ‘homespun’ ideas and understandings. Women were supported by their families, who interacted with doctors and were consulted in the treatments given, making them active consumers of healthcare.  Families were often able to maintain an effective level of patient care, but sought help when women’s behaviour became unmanageable, dangerous or public.  Once admitted to an asylum, postpartum patients often responded well to a regime of rest and nourishment – Isabella, pictured on the poster, a blacksmith’s wife who lived in St Andrews, was admitted to Dundee Royal Lunatic Asylum in March 1903 but was discharged, recovered, after only two months.  In criminal cases, there was often considerable sympathy for women who were seen as suffering from ‘puerperal insanity’ and not responsible for their actions.

Today it is estimated that postpartum depression affects around ten to fifteen women to every hundred births and postpartum psychosis occurs in about one in one thousand women who have a baby in the United Kingdom, while some estimates suggest that one in five childbearing women are affected by some form of postpartum mental disorder worldwide.  These figures are likely to be underestimates. The last few years have seen a growing interest in these conditions, but postpartum mental disorders remain underrepresented, misunderstood and shrouded in stigma.  Examining the experiences of women and their families in the past contributes to the ongoing conversation about mental illness and parenthood in the present.

This poster is based on the research of, and was written by, Morag Allan Campbell, a PhD student in the School of History.

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December.

Further reading: 

Brockington, Ian. The Psychoses of Menstruation and Childbearing. Cambridge University Press, 2017

Campbell, Morag Allan. ‘‘Noisy, Restless and Incoherent’: Puerperal Insanity at Dundee Lunatic Asylum.’ History of Psychiatry 28, no. 1 (2017/03/01 2016): 44- 57.

Cossins, Annie. Female Criminality: Infanticide, Moral Panics and the Female Body. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 

Kilday, Anne-Marie. A History of Infanticide in Britain, C. 1600 to the Present. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 

Marland, Hilary. Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830- 1980. Penguin Books, 1987.

Disability History Month Poster 3: Benjamin Lay

Benjamin Lay (January 26, 1682 – February 8, 1759) was a Quaker and an early campaigner for the abolition of slavery.  He was born in Essex, England and died in Abingdon, Pennsylvania, having followed a variety of professions including sailor and glovemaker. He achieved notoriety through his outspoken life-long protests against the enslavement of Africans. He spent most of his life in Philadelphia writing against slavery, haranguing Quaker slave-owners and attempting to get them to recognize the error of their ways.

The son of an Essex yeoman of modest means, Lay first encountered slavery when he and his wife spent two years between 1718 and 1720 living in Barbados. It was this experience that planted a deep hatred of slavery in Lay and, following his emigration to Pennsylvania in 1732, prompted his determination to speak out against it. In Philadelphia Lay kept up his opposition by a variety of means. He persuaded Benjamin Franklin to publish his anti-slavery book,  All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates (1737). He also engaged in what might best be described as ‘guerrilla theatre’. Lay’s stunts included kidnapping the child of a Quaker slaveowner so that his co-religionist might understand what it was like as a parent to lose offspring to the slave trade. By placing a sheep’s bladder filled with pokeberry juice in a Bible, Lay also seemed to make it bleed when he stabbed it with a sword during a speech against slavery at a Quaker meeting in Burlington, New Jersey.

Lay stood at a little over four feet tall and, as his portrait shows, had a hunched-back and a protruding chest. His wife, Sarah, was also a person of short stature. His disability, along with his outspoken opposition to slavery, made him a curiosity in his time. He rejected mainstream society as much as it shunned him, and he spent the final third of his life living in a cave, making his own clothes, maintaining a vegetarian diet, and boycotting consumption of anything produced by slave labour. As Marcus Rediker has underlined with his recent biography, Lay was ‘a radical for our time’.

Suggestions for further reading: 

Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker dwarf who became the first revolutionary abolitionist (Verso, 2017)

Richard Vaux, Memoirs of the lives of Benjamin Lay and Ralph Sandiford, two of the earliest public advocates for the emancipation of the enslaved Africans(Philadelphia, 1815)

Lydia Maria Francis Child, Memoir of Benjamin Lay, Compiled from Various Sources (New York, 1842)

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December

Disability History Month Poster 2: Will Sommers


Disabled History can be found at the centre of Renaissance court life in the form of natural court fools, neurodiverse individuals who acted as entertainers and companions to royalty. Will Sommers (d.1560 Somer, Somers), one of the most famous fools of the Renaissance, was King’s Fool to Henry VIII. The importance of Sommers to Henry is demonstrated by his presence in the king’s private psalter which he commissioned French artist Jean Mallard to create between 1540-41. On folio 63v we see a realistic miniature that portrays the Psalm 52 passage: Dixit insipiens in corde suonon est Deus or The Fool Hath Said in His Heart, There is No God. Fool miniatures for this Psalm had traditionally not taken inspiration from real and natural court fools – this image, therefore, is a good example of the subversive nature of Henry’s psalter. Here, and throughout, Henry depicts himself as King David, comments in the margins and creates a book both signifying his faith and his power over England’s spiritual affairs. Henry’s choice to have Will portrayed here is another act of revolt against typical psalters in its depiction of a real fool. 

This was not the only image of Will produced:  the 1545 The Family of Henry VIII portrait used Will’s image for dynastic purposes. By contrast, in the psalter he is depicted, stooped back and all, mirroring the ageing king.  This image is not just artistically accomplished, but intimate as Will is inserted into Henry’s devotional practice: between ruminating over his Christianity and reading his psalms the King can see the face of his beloved fool.  This bond between King and Fool was remembered as late as 1608 when Robert Armin’s Foole Upon Fool related of Sommers,  “few men were more belou’d, then was this foole, whose merry prate kept with the King much rule” and through jokes, riddle and rhymes the king and fool would exile “sadnesse many a time”. The psalter’s depiction of the two men evokes one of these back and forth exchanges.  Will remained appreciated beyond Henry’s lifetime and through the reigns of his three children. Payments to Will’s keepers (like modern carers) continued, he participated in Edward VI’s Christmas 1551 festivities, was purchased a green silk coat by Queen Mary between 1554-1555 and attended Elizabeth’s coronation. He passed away on June 15th 1560 and was laid to rest at St. Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. Sommer’s immortalisation in everything from the psalter to literature and portraiture would ensure his legacy as one of history’s most important court fools and neurodiverse people.

This poster is based on the research of, and was written by, Jessica Secmezsoy-Urquhart, a PhD student in the School of History.

Disability History Month runs from 22nd November to 22nd December

Further reading:

D.J. Gifford, “Iconographical Notes towards a Definition of the Medieval Fool”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes,37 (1974) 336-342.

Patrick McDonagh, Idiocy: A Cultural History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008).

John Southworth, Fools and Jesters at the English Court (The History Press Ltd., New Ed. 2003)

James Gairdner and R H Brodie eds. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 20 Part 2, August-December 1545, (London, 1907) 488-504. British History Online, < http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol20/no2/pp488-504

Enid Welsford, The Fool (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935).

William Willeford, The Fool and his Sceptre (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969).

Disability History Month 2019

This week marks the beginning of Disability History Month, which runs from 22nd November to 22nd December. To celebrate this, the School’s Equality & Diversity Committee has put together a series of six posters, each one dedicated to a historical figure or figures who lived with physical and/or intellectual disabilities or neurodiversity. These will be displayed in and around teaching rooms and staff offices in South Street, St Katherine’s Lodge, and the Arts Building. See if you can spot them all!

We hope that the posters will fire your interest to find out more about the fascinating people they describe, so we’ll also release blog posts here over the course of the month which will set out some further reading related to each case. The first one – on the mutilation of Justinian II – is below.

Disabling an Emperor: The Mutilation of Justinian II

The poorly-struck gold tremissis coin visible on the poster was minted in Constantinople between 705 and 711 CE. The two figures on the reverse, both clutching a cross, are named in Latin [I]USTINIANUS ET TIBER[IUS], identifying the emperor Justinian II and his young son, and co-emperor, Tiberius. Someone however has deliberately damaged the nose of the Justinian figure, clearly an act of dissidence and opposition, but also of artistic correction, for Justinian II had had his nose cut off and his tongue split when deposed in 695. His return to power a decade later was accompanied by great brutality and the intervening emperors were both beheaded. Why did Justinian II lose his nose rather than his head?

Contrary to popular belief, there was no long-standing tradition of nose-cutting – as opposed to the ubiquitous blinding – in Byzantium. The earliest instance involves the punishment of Athalarikos and Theodore magistros, respectively the illegitimate son and nephew of the emperor Heraclius, for plotting to murder the emperor and his sons in 637. Justinian II’s father Constantine IV had mutilated his two brothers, Heraclius and Tiberius, in 681 in the same way. This action may be connected to the prohibition found in Leviticus 21:18 on imperfect men serving as priests and it is striking that all of the figures who suffered this fate down to Justinian II were descended from Heraclius. Nose-cutting therefore may have been a form of permanent, visible disfigurement intended to delegitimise rather than to kill, intimating a remarkable respect for the Heraclian line. The tradition that Justinian II obtained a golden prosthetic appears only in a later eighth-century Italian source which maintains that Justinian II lost his arms and ears as well; this should be treated with caution. 

Suggestion for further reading: Patricia Skinner, ‘The Gendered Nose and its Lack: “Medieval” Nose-Cutting and its Manifestations’, Journal of Women’s History vol. 26 no.1 (2014): 45-67

Celebrating Black History Month 2019

Black History Month logo from https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/

Today is the first day of Black History Month.  This year we are celebrating Black and African diaspora histories in a number of ways. 

Our research seminar programmes for October include speakers presenting topics that intersect with Black histories:

On Thursday 10th October, Dr Claire Eldridge from the University of Leeds will speak to the Modern History seminar about ‘Conflict and Community in the Trenches: Military Justice, Colonial Soldiers and the French Army during the First World War’ at 5.15pm in room 1.10, St Katharine’s Lodge.

On Monday 14th October, Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones from the University of York will speak to the Medieval Studies seminar about ‘The Swahili world in the medieval globe: writing history with things’ at 1.15pm in the Old Class Library, St John’s House.

Later that day (Monday 14th October), at 4pm Dr Kate Law from the University of Nottingham will speak to the Modern History seminar about ‘”A delicate subject”: Family Planning and Apartheid, South Africa c. 1974-1994’ in room 1.10, St Katharine’s Lodge.

Other research seminars relevant to Black histories will also be held further into the academic year – for a full programme see here.

Finally, those of you who are not newcomers to the School may remember that last year we marked Black History Month by compiling a reading list of ‘essential texts’ on African and African Diaspora (including Black British, African American, and Afro European) histories. Many staff members pledged portions of their library allowance to buy any books on the list that were not held by the library.  When we compiled this reading list last year we acknowledged that by its nature it would always be a ‘work in progress’, which would require revising and updating as time went on.  This year, again, we would like to invite all students and staff to look through the reading list and let us know if there’s anything that’s not on there, that you think we should add.  Maybe you are new to St Andrews and are seeing the list with fresh eyes.  Maybe you’ve been here a while but have encountered a book in the past year – newly published or a classic in a field that’s new to you – that you think is now ‘essential reading’.  Please email any suggestions to Dr Kate Ferris (kf50) by the end of the month.  We’ll add these to the reading list, and if any are not already in the library’s collections we’ll do our best to purchase these.  In this way you’ll be making a tangible and lasting difference to the university’s holdings in the fields of Black and African diaspora histories that will help inform our research and teaching for years to come!

LGBT History Month 2019 – Reading List

LGBT History Month for 2019 comes to a close today. Around the school this month we have posted seven posters to celebrate the occasion and hopefully you had a chance to see them reproduced here online: Same-sex relations in the Vienna Bible moralisée, James VI & I – King of Scotland, England and Ireland, Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, ‘Taste in High Life’, William Hogarth, 1746, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall, and The Indian Penal Code (Section 377).

This month we asked our staff members in the School of History to share their top recommendations for reading about LGBT history and the history of sexuality. Altogether we assembled a reading list of over a hundred books and articles covering the wide geographic and chronological range of our historians. You may download our reading list as as PDF or read below the fold to see the list directly online here.

Read more of this post