Juan Huarte's Examination of Men's Wits (1594) and the historiography of mental disability


St. Catherine's College, Oxford OX1 3UJ, England
26 Townsend Road, Calcutta 700025, India


My paper seeks to examine and evaluate the role of Juan Huarte's Examination of Men's Wits, [translated into English from the Italian version of the originally Spanish text (Baeza, 1575) by Richard Carew in 1594] in our understanding of the social history of mental disability in Renaissance England. The current academic interest in the evolution of notions of idiocy is focused largely on the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although some work has been done on the legal (Richard Neugebauer) and institutional provisions (Peter Rushton, Jonathan Andrews) for idiots in the sixteenth century and on the literary representations of Renaissance folly (Enid Welsford, Sandra Billington), little or no account is taken of the medical discourse on mental deficiency prior to Thomas Willis' De anima brutorum (Oxford, 1672).

My paper will investigate how, many of the revolutionary changes in Enlightenment ideas about idiocy, generally attributed to Willis, have antecedents in sixteenth century medical thought, particularly in Huarte's influential treatise which was translated into seven languages and reissued seventy times before 1700. The work is remarkable in its attempts at rationalising unusual mental functioning by explaining it as a somatic rather than a spiritual condition associated with either divine protection or demonic possession. Although he is writing within the basic parameters of humoural psychopathology, Huarte suggests that the brain and its temperature determines levels of intelligence and in so doing, anticipates Willis' claims about the central role of the brain and the nervous system in mental disturbance and disability.

The aim of the paper is not merely to see Huarte as a progressive, even precocious precursor of Willis, but to locate important continuities between Humanist and Enlightenment thinking about idiocy. This would be done through a comparative analysis of the two English translations of Huarte, the 1594 version by Carew and the later 1698 translation by Edward Bellamy. The seventeenth century translation marks a revived interest in an older text containing ideas similar to those being discussed in contemporary debates about the medical causes of idiocy, the problem of categorising the mentally disabled and about their social role. Huarte's work bridges two ages. It is hoped that a discussion of his book and its afterlife would provide a caveat against Foucauldian historiography which sees the seventeenth century as marking an absolute watershed in the history of mental deviance.


Panel 9C   (Developing History)
Saturday, 18 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999