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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > B > Bedlam

Bedlam

(An English abbreviation of BETHLEHEM).

A London hospital originally intended for the poor suffering from any ailment and for such as might have no other lodging, hence its name, Bethlehem, in Hebrew, the "house of bread." During the fourteenth century it began to be used partly as an asylum for the insane, for there is a report of a Royal Commission, in 1405, as to the state of lunatics confined there. The word Bethlehem became shortened to Bedlam in popular speech, and the confinement of lunatics there gave rise to the use of this word to mean a house of confusion. Bedlam was founded in 1247 as a priory in Bishopsgate Street, for the order of St. Mary of Bethlehem, by Simon Fitz Mary, an Alderman and Sheriff of London. This site is now occupied by the Liverpool Street railway station. In the next century it is mentioned as a hospital in a license granted (1330) to collect alms in England, Ireland, and Wales. In 1375 Bedlam became a royal hospital, taken by the crown on the pretext that it was an alien priory. It seems afterwards to have reverted to the city. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the word Bedlam was used by Tyndale to mean a madman, so that it would seem as though the hospital were now used as a lunatic asylum exclusively. In January, 1547, King Henry VIII formally granted St. Bartholomew's hospital and Bedlam, or Bethlehem, to the city of London, on condition that the city spend a certain amount on new buildings in connection with St. Bartholomew's. In 1674, the old premises having become untenable, it was decided to build another hospital, and this was erected in what is now Finsbury Circus. This came to be known as old Bedlam, after the erection of a new building in St. George's Fields, which was opened August 1815, on the site of the notorious tavern called the Dog and the Duck.

The attitude of successive generations of Englishmen towards the insane can be traced interestingly at Bedlam. Originally, it was founded and kept by religious. Every effort seems to have been made to bring patients to such a state of mental health as would enable them to leave the asylum. An old English word, "a Bedlam" signifies one discharged and licensed to beg. Such persons wore a tin plate on their arm as a badge and were known as Bedlamers, Bedlamites, or Bedlam Beggars. Whenever outside inspection was not regularly maintained, abuses into the management of Bedlam, and in every century there were several commissions of investigation. Evelyn in his Diary, 21 April 1656, notes that he saw several poor creatures in Bedlam in chains. In the next century it became the custom for the idle classes to visit Bedlam and observe the antics of the insane patients as a novel form of amusement. This was done even by the nobility and their friends. One penny was charged for admission into the hospital, and there is a tradition that an annual income of four hundred pounds was thus realized. This would mean that nearly 100,000 persons visited the hospital in the course of a year. Hogarth's famous picture represents two fashionable ladies visiting the hospital as a show place, while his "Rake," at the end of the "Progress," is being fettered by a keeper. After an investigation in 1851, the hospital came under regular government inspection and has since been noted for its model care of the insane. It accommodates about three hundred, with over sixty attendants. Its convalescent home at Witley is an important feature. The management is so good that each year more than one-half of the patients are returned as cured.

Sources

TUKE Bethlehem Royal Hospital in British Journal of Men of Science, 1876; BURDETTE, British Hospitals and Charities Annual, 1905.

About this page

APA citation. Walsh, J.J. (1907). Bedlam. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02387b.htm

MLA citation. Walsh, James Joseph. "Bedlam." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02387b.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by the Cloistered Dominican Nuns, Monastery of the Infant Jesus, Lufkin, Texas. Dedicated to the Agony of Jesus in Gethsemane.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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