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Madness and Society in the Modern Age

Course unit fact file
Unit code UCIL30832
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit? Yes



This unit introduces you to the social, cultural, intellectual and institutional history of madness, psychiatry and mental health. Through lectures, interactive workshops and reading a combination of primary sources and secondary analyses, you will gain an appreciation of:

  • How madness has been understood, by experts and by everyday people
  • How madness has been managed, socially and institutionally
  • How science, medicine, and culture interact in shaping responses to madness

Our focus is primarily on the period 1780 to the present, and primarily on the UK, but with some discussion of Western Europe and North America.



This unit explores the history of madness and psychiatry from the late eighteenth century to the present. It examines how insanity has been understood, treated, and represented within larger social, cultural, and intellectual frameworks. It also relates changing ideas and approaches to mental illness, health, and functioning to larger questions in the history of the medical and biological sciences.


Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit, you will be able to:

  •  Identify historical approaches to medical thinking and practice
  • Describe how approaches to madness changed from 1780 onwards, including changing definitions of both mental health and insanity
  •  Analyse historians' arguments, through exploration of primary sources and historical data
  • Contribute to informed group discussions and debate, including presenting your own arguments effectively
  • Write a short, structured report/essay combining a range of viewpoints





Topics covered in previous years:

  • The Birth of the Asylum
  • The Expansion of the Asylum
  • Theorising Insanity: Minds and Bodies
  • Gender, Madness and Society
  • Race, Madness and Colonial Psychiatry
  • Freud, Psychoanalysis and Culture
  • Shell Shock, Psychiatry and War
  • The Normal and the Difficult Child
  • The Psychiatrisation of Everyday Life


Teaching and learning methods

12 x 1 hour lectures

12 x 1 hour workshop seminars

Independent study


Employability skills

Analytical skills
Essays and workshop discussions require research and analysis of information
Group/team working
Weekly workshop seminars require students to work and discuss together in small groups
Students expected to engage in their own independent research for essays

Assessment methods

Essay (50%) and 2 hour examination (50%)

Feedback methods

Students will receive individual feedback on all of their written assignments as well as general feedback given to the whole class.



Recommended reading

Porter, Roy. Madness: A Brief History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Scull, Andrew. Madness in Cicilization: From the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Shorter, Edward. A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac. Chichester: Wiley, 1997.

Zaretsky, Eli. Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 12
Seminars 12
Independent study hours
Independent study 74

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Carsten Timmermann Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Madness and Society is offered through the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine