Edited By Chris Mounsey and Stan Booth
Laughing about and Talking about the Idiot in the Eighteenth Century
The position of the ‘idiot’ in eighteenth-century public discourse cannot be dismissed as marginalized and liminal. Idiots lived before the eyes and in the minds of their communities. They were often the butt of jokes and mocked in slang language, but in an age where raillery and ‘rattle’ (mockery) were valued and universally applied to all sectors of society, this was more a signal of community visibility than an indicator of objectification. In this period, to be seen as lacking in mental faculty was not an inevitable precursor to social exclusion, as it would become in the nineteenth century.
When the Prussian military man, historian and social commentator Johann von Archenholz visited England in the 1780s, he was impressed with London’s street lighting, the affluence of the poorer classes and the growing industrial power of the country. However, he was particularly struck with something more ephemeral: the good humoured tolerance shown towards those who ‘stood out’ in appearance or behaviour. He commented, ‘There, [in England] as everywhere else, they laugh at a ridiculous person, but they treat him with a great deal of indulgence; and they do not esteem a gentleman less on account of his oddity, provided he hurts no one.’ ← 99 | 100 → 1
It was an insightful point. In Britain, which saw itself as the epicentre of a golden age of ridicule and satire, the citizens seemed at times to value and practice above all others...
You are not authenticated to view the full text of this chapter or article.
This site requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books or journals.
Do you have any questions? Contact us.Or login to access all content.