Troubled by Faith: Insanity and the Supernatural in the Age of the Asylum by Owen Davies - review by George Morris

George Morris

Sorcerers & Shrinks

Troubled by Faith: Insanity and the Supernatural in the Age of the Asylum


Oxford University Press 368pp £25 order from our bookshop

The asylum has become synonymous with Victorian culture. Television programmes show the mentally ill being dragged away for a lifetime of brutal incarceration. Academics theorise about the asylum as a site of social control. In 1900, there were more than a hundred thousand patients certified as insane in Britain. Given that around half of patients stayed in the asylum for less than a year, this snapshot figure indicates that the numbers of people who passed through them at some point in their lives must have been huge.

Overseeing them were the practitioners of a new branch of the medical arts, psychiatry. Psychiatrists looked at the world with an almost breathtaking confidence in what they could achieve. In an age of social, cultural and economic dislocation, psychiatry could shepherd the complex, flawed individual along the roads lain out by reason. It could illuminate human darkness and exorcise the demons that haunted the self, not through incantations and holy water but through the prescriptions of medical science. 

Psychiatry could make sense, too, of history, teeming as it was with ghosts, miracles and witches. Owen Davies opens his survey of the supernatural in the age of the asylum by revealing early psychiatry’s fascination with early modern witch trials. The records of these trials seemed to provide evidence of historical hallucinations, ‘demonomania’ and pathological behaviour. Psychiatrists could make sense of the past through retrospective diagnosis. In doing so, they could banish the supernatural from the historical record.

But not all supernatural belief could be dismissed as the curious or irrelevant remnants of a benighted past; in the 19th century, both Europe and America were characterised by widespread adherence to organised religion. Psychiatrists puzzled over a question to which there could never be a clear answer: at what

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