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240 × 160 × 30 mm
352 pages
62 illustrations
09 Nov 2020

Those They Called Idiots The Idea of the Disabled Mind from 1700 to the Present Day Simon Jarrett

Those They Called Idiots traces the little-known lives of people with learning disabilities from the communities of eighteenth-century England to the nineteenth-century asylum and care in today’s society. Using evidence from civil and criminal court-rooms, joke books, slang dictionaries, novels, art and caricature, it explores the explosive intermingling of ideas about intelligence and race, while bringing into sharp focus the lives of people often seen as the most marginalized in society.

‘In his recent magisterial history, Those They Called Idiots, Simon Jarrett describes the foundation in 1855 of "the world's first purpose-built asylum for idiots", renamed the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in 1926. As Jarrett observes, the names have changed, but "there has always been the 'idiot', repackaged and represented by varieties of professionals over time" . . . Jarrett celebrates the success of the "great release" of people with learning disabilities from long incarceration . . . Yet he recognises that the task of society is still "to adapt to all its human members".’ — Michael Fitzpatrick, Daily Telegraph

‘Meticulously researched and well written, the book highlights a section of society that has always been present, but has received scant attention before now. The author has worked with people with learning disabilities for many years, and his empathy for them shines through . . . very well illustrated’ — Who Do You Think You Are? magazine

‘This is a stunning book . . . this is the first time I have read an account which delves into the pre-institutionalisation era in such depth . . . Simon Jarrett is a talented historian who writes beautifully. At no point in its 352 pages does he indulge in the obscure jargon which delights too many academics. It is a readable book . . . we are gradually discovering the value of disability history to give new ways of thinking about the past. This book is a great illustration’ — Disability and Society

‘Jarrett’s exceptionally readable – and beautifully illustrated – history describes in meticulous detail the way that this group has been treated by a largely uncomprehending world . . . The history of learning disabilities matter to us all because in our response we can see a mirror for who we are and what we care about. We should be grateful to Simon Jarrett for telling this complex, compelling and frequently troubling story with such tremendous clarity and style. I can’t recommend this wonderful book highly enough, even if—especially if?—you have no lived experience of the subject.’ — Stephen Unwin, writer, playwright and director

‘Simon Jarrett is a mesmerising historian. He has an ear for tender, and sometimes even funny, stories about people with learning disabilities, while never shying away from the shocking abuse and casual indignities they experienced in the past and continue to be subjected to today. Jarrett overturns many assumptions about the history of disabled people and their interactions with different communities. His book is a history of medicine, science, law, philosophy, and psychology. Most of all, though, it is a history of lived experience. Jarrett’s story is not only a nuanced analysis of the lives of “idiots” from 1700 to the present; it is also a tribute to their struggles, needs, and desires.’ — Joanna Bourke, Professor of History, Birkbeck, University of London

‘Simon Jarrett’s elegant and provocative book brings into focus for the first time the history of people with intellectual disabilities over three centuries. Drawing on a fascinating set of sources, Jarrett traces the ‘idiot’s' journey from community life to institutionalisation and back again, and in the process uncovers the richness and variety of lives lived by people with intellectual impairments in the past. This is a history marked by cruel stereotyping and harmful policies underpinned by the pseudo science of eugenics, but it is also a history of love, protection and integration. This humane history teaches us how society can adapt to accommodate all its members.’ — David Turner, Professor of History, Swansea University and author of 'Disability in Eighteenth-Century England'

‘Simon Jarrett’s Those They Called Idiots is a major re-thinking of intellectual disability, from eugenics and the views of institutional authorities of the late nineteenth century to the thoughts and practice of our modern society. Jarrett examines new sources to argue that, while recognized as different in the social structures of a preindustrial or transitional age, there have always been accommodations for the ‘idiot'. Thus our present view of mental incapacity is in fact a continuation of a long-standing awareness of how those with intellectual disabilities can be integrated into society.’ — Sander L. Gilman, Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University

‘This is one of the finest history books I’ve read and a much-needed force for good.’ — Tom Almeroth-Williams, author of City of Beasts: How Animals Shaped Georgian London

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


Part One: Idiocy and Imbecility in the Eighteenth Century, c. 1700–1812
1 Poor Foolish Lads and Weak Easy Girls: Legal Ideas of Idiocy
2 Billy-noodles and Bird-wits: Cultural Ideas of Idiocy
3 Idiots Abroad: Racial Ideas of Idiocy

Part Two: New Ways of Thinking, 1812–1870
4 Medical Challenge: New Ideas in the Courtroom
5 Pity and Loathing: New Cultural Thinking
6 Colonies, Anthropologists and Asylums: Race and Intelligence
7 Into the Idiot Asylum: The Great Incarceration

Part Three: From Eugenics to Care in the Community, 1870 to the Present Day
8 After Darwin: Mental Deficiency, Eugenics and Psychology, 1870–1939
9 Back to the Community? 1939 to the Present

Selected Secondary Reading
Photo Acknowledgements