Perception of the Body and Psycho-Pathologization in the Eighteenth Century

(Last modified Febuary 2000)

Forensic medicine, at the beginning of the eighteenth century an inconspicuous branch of medical science, grew in importance in the following decades. Representatives of academic medicine increasingly employed a novel pedagogical method: university professors and town and rural physicians who were charged with drawing up expert opinions on criminal cases published collections of such authentic case histories.

The nearly 2000 case histories studied here generally include the expert opinion of the examining physician, court judgements, excerpts from the court files and, in some cases, records of the physicians' questionings of defendants. Some of the cases studied are so-called opinions on mental states which deal with the issue of defendants' criminal culpability. The analysis of this hitherto unknown group of sources illustrates the confrontation of normative scientific knowledge with the pragmatic necessities of the actual practice of examining. The study also illuminates the somatic and psychological foundations of psychiatry and how they are embedded and categorized in naturalized gender models. In the era of political emancipation movements, medical knowledge then served to irrefutably repudiate concepts of the female which were compatible with emancipatory aims as »unnatural.« This analysis, based on the perspectives of the histories of culture and the body, shows how both church courts and criminal courts increasingly turned to physicians to clarify questionable cases. »Scientific facts« distilled from a conglomerate of classic (the pathology of humors) and modern (anatomy, brain physiology) »styles of thought« (Ludwik Fleck) were transferred to spheres of deviant behavior, with diferentiations acording to gender and social class. The result was highly sexualized medicine of morals. Behavior labeled as amoral was attacked not only from the perspective of theology, but also from the vantage point of human biology, as a threat to both the individual and the state.

Beginning in the seventeen-eighties, this development fostered a double-edged role for the medical profession with respect to the Enlightenment's criminal law reforms. Whereas, on the one hand, the introduction of criteria for mental derangement and reduced criminal culpability lead to a significant reduction of death sentences, on the other, more and more individuals labeled as »dangerous lunatics« or merely as »a burden to the public« disappeared for indefinite periods in the various institutions of the early modern period.

The fact that, in the course of the eighteenth century, the courts increasingly accepted physicians' expert opinions – which, in the period around 1800, often differed greatly from the perspective of those affected, especially with respect to moral assessments – certainly contributed, in the long run, to the internalization of (new) concepts of the body. This development is illustrative of the growing political scope of physicians' powers of definition which accompanied medicine's rise, within a few decades, to a new »imperial discipline« (Michel Foucault) with the power of setting standards for what was to be normal, natural and unnatural.