Medical text about madness


A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind is a medical text which primarily deals with mental illness and nervous disorders, and draws on case studies to support its theories. It was written in the 1830s by James Cowles Prichard, a respected physician and ethnologist based in Bristol. 

The work is significant because it advances the concept of ‘moral insanity’, a definition of madness that became influential within medical circles during the early 19th century. Modern psychiatry no longer uses the term. 

The definition of ‘moral insanity’ 

Prichard defines ‘moral insanity’ as: 

madness consisting in a morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, moral dispositions, and natural impulses, without any remarkable disorder or defect of the interest or knowing and reasoning faculties, and particularly without any insane illusion or hallucinations 

In short, a person suffering from ‘moral insanity’ displays an emotional or behavioural disturbance but appears otherwise rational, or ‘normal’. Their intellectual faculties are not impaired and they are unlikely to show obvious, outward signs of illness i.e. delusional episodes. Indeed, an individual may suffer from moral insanity for their whole lives without experiencing a serious episode. ‘Moral insanity’, therefore, established a very blurred, fine line between what constituted a sane or insane individual.

‘Moral insanity’ in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre 

In a letter to William Smith William, Charlotte Brontë reveals that she was familiar with the terms of Prichard’s work and used them to compose the character of Bertha. She writes: 

I agree that the character [of Bertha] is shocking, but I know that it is but too natural. There is a phase of insanity which may be called moral madness. 

Brontë implies that Bertha laboured under ‘moral madness’ in the early stages of her courtship with Rochester. Outwardly, she appeared normal; yet she led a ‘sinful life’ and sin, Brontë states, ‘itself is a kind of insanity’. Indeed, Prichard’s definition resonates with Rochester’s account of Bertha in Chapter XXVI: 'A female modest and circumspect becomes violent and abrupt in her manners, loquacious, impetuous, talks loudly and abusively against her relations and guardians …'.

Brontë may have also been influenced by Prichard’s implicit racism that linked people ‘who have black hair and eyes’ with becoming ‘violently maniacal … and more frequently terminating in a marked crisis than others’. 

Crucially, however, Prichard’s definition implies that anyone could suffer from ‘moral insanity’, regardless of their class: ‘there are many individuals living at large, and not entirely separated from society’. In Jane Eyre this is exemplified by the upper class John Reed. As a child he is a bully and cruel towards others; as an adult his life revolves around gambling and drunkenness. This self-destructive behaviour finally results in his early death.

Full title:
A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind
1835, London
Prichard James Cowles
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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