A return journey in three images

In this blog about his new book, author Simon Jarrett explains his journey in writing Those They Called Idiots: The Idea of the Disabled Mind from 1700 to the Present Day in three images.


My book tells the history of people with learning disabilities or, as they have been called, idiots, imbeciles, morons, cretins, mental defectives, sub-normals, the mentally handicapped and the retarded. The language makes you pause for thought, doesn’t it?

As I wrote I realised that this was not just a book about the history of a group of people. I was writing about some of the most fundamental questions we grapple with. What constitutes belonging?  What makes us human, and what makes us see the human in others? Why do we at times deny personhood to some? Are our human communities built to include or exclude?

The book charts a 300-year journey made by this group over three centuries. It begins with the communities of eighteenth-century England, when those who were called idiots were for the most part surprisingly accepted, supported and loved. They did not live in institutions but in family homes and communities, where they belonged.

In the nineteenth century things took a darker turn as, now labelled mental defectives, the group were consigned to asylums, seen as a danger both to themselves and to others - ‘the great incarceration’.

In the late twentieth century a further change took place as the old asylums, now known as mental handicap hospitals, were closed and people returned to what we call care in the community - ‘the great return’.

I track this 300-year journey from community to the institution and back again, and try to understand it in terms of social beliefs about belonging and humanness. I examine how these changed, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, over time.

The journey is best captured by three illustrations in the book. The first is a humorous print, Very Slippy Weather (1807) by James Gillray. An intellectual gentleman slips on the ice, so preoccupied with checking the temperature on his new-fangled thermometer that he fails to see the actual hazardous weather in front of him. Behind him, standing slightly aloof from the crowd peering into the print shop window, is a small idiot figure.

We know he is a so-called idiot because he has all the characteristics that were thought to apply to idiocy at this time – drooping lips, sloping jaw, low forehead, small upturned nose, slightly bent knees, sloped back, and scruffy demeanour. He carries under his arm a pair of skates. The joke is that he is better equipped against the weather, and understands its risks far better than the supposedly clever gentleman.

For me this sums up the eighteenth-century attitude to those they called idiots. He is there, in the crowd, somewhat apart, possibly something of a figure of fun, but very much present, in his community, even admired for his common sense in bringing his skates.

The next illustration, Edmund Whymper’s ‘Cretin of Aosta’ from 1871, could not be more different. This person from the Swiss Alps region with congenital thyroidism is presented as a hideous, frightening, threatening figure, barely human. In the year that Whymper was producing this illustration two huge 1,000 bed ‘imbecile asylums’ opened outside London. The message was clear – idiots were not a type of human communities could accept– their fate must be incarceration behind the high asylum walls.

The final image is a photograph from the period since the ‘Great Return’. A young couple with Down syndrome lie in an embrace. The world has clearly moved on. They are in their own home. They are in a relationship – something unthinkable in the asylum era. They are free at last, reflected in the relaxed smile of the man. But the woman looks more pensive. How secure is their place in this new world to which they have been readmitted? Will there be another return – and will it be not so great?

– Simon Jarrett

To read more about the history of disability, order Those They Called Idiots from our online shop now.

Simon Jarrett is an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the editor of Community Living Magazine.