Roy Porter

Roy Porter, the only child of a jeweller, was born in London on 31st December 1946. After obtaining a double first in history at Cambridge University (1968) he was granted a junior fellowship at Christ's College.

In 1972 he began work as director of studies in history at Churchill College, Cambridge. Five years later he was appointed dean of the college. His PhD thesis was published as The Making of Geology in 1977.

Porter moved to the Welcome Institute for the History of Medicine in 1979. Elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1994, he was also made an honorary fellow of both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Porter wrote or edited over 100 books. This included English Society in the 18th Century (1990), Gibbon (1994), Disease, Medicine and Society in England, 1550-1860(1995), A Social History of Madness (1996), Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1999), London: A Social History (2000), Bodies Politic (2001), Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000) and Madness (2002).

Roy Porter, who retired as professor of the social history of medicine at the Welcome Institute in 2001, died in Hastings in Sussex on 4th March, 2002.

The witch report

Roy Porter ends his short history of madness with a teasing question: 'Is Folly jingling its bells again?' More people 'are said to be suffering - indeed claiming to be suffering - from a proliferation of psychiatric syndromes, in a "victim culture" in which benefits may appear to lie in buying into psychiatric paradigms.' Madness is no longer the domain of the witch, the religious seer, or the poetic genius it is now - as neurosis, trauma, anxiety - the domain of nearly everybody. Those who profess themselves to be unencumbered by mental fragility are seen to be as untrustworthy as the gibbering lunatics of Bedlam, who claimed they were sane.

Porter is no stranger to the mad, having previously written and edited various books on the theme, including the wonderfully cluttered Mind-Forg'd Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency. In Madness: A Brief History he widens the historical remit - to pretty much the Whole of Time - and shortens the book. The result is not quite, as Oliver Sacks suggests in the puff on the back, 'scarcely short of a miracle', but is rather the thrilling rigour of Mind-Forg'd Manacles in expansive holiday-mode - a montage of Porter's favourite lunatics, poets, psychiatrists and phrase-makers.

Porter moves from the 'rational and naturalistic thinking about madness developed by Graeco-Roman philosophers and doctors' to the Christian interpretation of madness as the rage of the divinely inspired or demonically possessed.

He dallies briefly in the lurid realms of medieval witch-hunting, before arriving in the bursting dawn of the Enlightenment, where 'religious madness' was 'pathologised' and understood in medical terms. After ploughing through literary and artistic presentations of insanity, Porter turns to the vogue for institutions, dips briefly into the eighteenth-century cultural fascination with Bedlam, and emerges to discuss the rise of psychiatry and prescription drugs.

Cleverly, Porter suggests that any attempt to define madness is doomed to failure, recycling a favourite quotation from Polonius: to 'define true madness,/ What is't but to be nothing else but mad?' This dispels any need for quibbling over definitions and diagnoses, and allows him to move into a vivid series of case studies, of heroes and villains on both sides of the straitjacket.

Robert Burton is given his due: a mournful seventeenth-century don, who spent his life writing and re-writing The Anatomy of Melancholy , an obsessive account of the depressive disposition, inspired by a sense that 'to live in this sordid, base world, surrounded by despots, tyrants, misers, thieves, slanderers, adulterers, and whole broods of knaves and fools was a melancholy matter'.

William Blake enters for an unsurprising cameo. Blake dreamed that the poet William Cowper - hardly noted for his steely grip on reality - came to him and pleaded: 'O that I were insane always. Can you not make me truly insane. You retain health and yet are as mad as any of us all - over us all.'

Madness recurs, in its innumerable manifestations, but the understanding of madness is conditioned by time and place. A few theories are rejected: Foucault's whispering theory of the 'great confinement' - incarceration as state power games, not medicine - is dismissed as 'simplistic and over-generalised', disproved by the example of England, where 'not until 1808 was an Act of Parliament passed even permitting the use of public funds for asylums'. Freud is neatly summarised as a 'materialist', 'lionised by the avant-garde as the conquistador of the unconscious'. Porter dismisses retrospective psychoanalysis, suggesting in the case of the fourteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe that 'modern attempts to pin contemporary psychiatric labels on her' will flounder in the absence of a 'master key to Margery's mind'.

Porter appears generally to prefer the eccentric and raving to the experts who fastidiously chained, electric-shocked, doped or hypnotised their patients, depending on the medical consensus of the time.

Treatments nearly as strange as their recipients are held up for gentle ridicule: one of George III's doctors, Francis Willis, ran a Lincolnshire madhouse where the miracle cure lay in the compulsory wearing of 'black coats, white waistcoats, black silk breeches and stockings, and the head of each bien poudrée, frisée, and arrangée'.

Zooming energetically towards the present day, Porter suggests that the rich history of theoretical insights may have all been bluster to no real end: confusion remains. Clinics abound: treating eating disorders, psycho-social problems, sexual dysfunctions.

One generation's obsession with the modish necessity of psychoanalysis becomes the next generation's reliance on the seratonin-kick of Prozac. Mental hypochondria becomes conventional, as the 'idioms of the psychological and the psychiatric replace Christianity and humanism as the ways of making sense of self'.

But, despite the 'ship of fools' ending, Porter stops short of forecasting the decline of the West. His interest is less in commanding polemic, than in the extraordinary variety of attitudes to madness across the centuries.

Through the enthusiastic density of the preceding pages, Porter answers his own question: 'Folly' has never stopped jingling its bells, but we hear different tunes, depending on where we're standing in history.

The greatest benefit to mankind : a medical history of humanity

Introduction -- The roots of medicine -- Antiquity -- Medicine and faith -- The medieval west -- Indian medicine -- Chinese medicine -- Renaissance -- The new science -- Enlightenment -- Scientific medicine in the nineteenth century -- Nineteenth-century medical care -- Public medicine -- From Pasteur to penicillin -- Tropical medicine, world diseases -- Psychiatry -- Medical research -- Clinical science -- Surgery -- Medicine, state and society -- Medicine and the people -- The past, the present and the future

"Roy Porter explores medicine's evolution against the backdrop of the wider religious, scientific, philosophical, and political beliefs of the culture in which it develops, and he shows how our need to understand where diseases come from and what we can do to control them has - perhaps above all elseinspired developments in medicine through the ages. He charts the remarkable rise of modern medical science - the emergence of specialties such as anatomy, physiology, neurology, and bacteriology - as well as the accompanying development of wider medical practice at the bedside, in the hospital, and in the ambitious public health systems of the twentieth century. Along the way the book offers up a treasure trove of historical surprises: how the ancient Egyptians treated incipient baldness with a mixture of hippopotamus, lion, crocodile, goose, snake, and ibex fat how a mystery epidemic devastated ancient Athens and brought an end to the domination of that great city: how lemons did as much as Nelson to defeat Napoleon: how yellow fever, carried by African mosquitoes to the Americas, led the French to fail utterly in their attempts to recover Haiti after the slave revolt of 1790: and how the explorers of the South Seas brought both syphilis to Tahiti and tuberculosis and measles to the Maoris."--BOOK JACKET

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A history of unsatisfactory diagnoses

This, his eighty-somethingth (tallies vary), is Roy Porter's last book. He wrote on numerous subjects - the 18th century, gout, medicine - but madness was the topic he kept returning to. It is certainly one he knows his way around, where the fruitful stories lurk. Are we meant to catch an echo of Porter's productivity in the case, described here, of Clifford Beers, who in 1903 dictated his asylum autobiography (80,000 words long) in 90 hours?

The title of Beers's work, A Mind that Found Itself, is not an example of deranged wishful thinking. It was a cry of protest from his own personal experience, was read by William James, and served as a blueprint for his organisation, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. It marked one of the rare times when the testimony of the insane was taken seriously. Which seems as good a point as any to remind you that Porter's (by all accounts electrifying) plenary address to the first conference of the European Association of the History of Psychiatry was titled "Listening to Insanity".

That is the very subtly addressed agenda behind this book, it would appear. The delusions of the insane can stretch our definitions of the word. Porter tells the story of a Parisian tailor during the reign of terror who became unhinged with fear when he challenged the execution of Louis XVI and then misconstrued an overheard conversation. All perfectly understandable under the circumstances, but he ended up being incarcerated in an asylum. Only the enlightened approach of a Dr Philippe Pinel saved him: he dressed up three of his colleagues as magistrates representing the revolutionary legislature and had them pronounce the tailor's patriotism beyond reproach, which resulted in an immediate end to his symptoms.

This is a short book - brief enough, as Dr Oliver Sacks remarks, to fit in the pocket - but a dense one. In this we hope it is denser than the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association , which Porter drily notes "requires energetic revision every few years". The second edition was 134 pages long the latest, published in 2000, runs to 943. The APA voted to remove homosexuality from its list of psycho-pathologies in 1975.

So, clearly another title for this book could have been "a history of unsatisfactory diagnoses and treatments in the field of mental illness". You can incarcerate in the hell-holes of Bedlam, or you can claim that insanity is merely a normative construct of the establishment, as Laing and Foucault did. You can believe that the conditions are physical or mental in origin responses to internal or external pressures yet the problem of classification and treatment persists.

It is as much a problem of definition as anything else. Porter is a lucid pragmatist, laying all the salient facts and interpretations out before us in as unbiased a manner as possible, although he has time enough for Richard Hunter and Ida Macalpine's 60s overview of the matter to quote it at some length: "Aetiology remains speculative, pathogenesis largely obscure, classifications predominantly symptomatic and hence arbitrary and possibly ephemeral physical treatments are empirical and subject to fashion, and psycho-therapies still only in their infancy and doctrinaire." This is not going quite as far as to say, like Thomas Szasz, that psychiatry is a "pseudoscience" - but it's not far short of it.

This is a distillation of many productive years' thinking about the subject, and should you want a short, readable, and possibly unarguable overview of the subject, here it is. As a frighteningly high proportion of us will suffer some kind of mental illness in the course of our lives, you may find it a good idea to keep this to hand. Just in case.

2018 Roy Porter Student Essay Prize Winners

Congratulations to Mateusz Zatonski (LSHTM) for his winning entry: ‘Lighting up under the “No Smoking” sign: tobacco control regulation in Communist Poland’.

Shortlisted entries, which will also be invited to be submitted to the journal, were received from: Sara Caputo (Cambridge) for ‘Treating, preventing, feigning, concealing: sickness, agency and the medical culture of the Georgian naval sailor’ Jack Greatrex (HKU) for ‘The rat, the cow and the cockroach: Hong Kong and the vanishing animals of plague research’ and Brianne Wesolowski (Vanderbilt) for ‘Knowledge in motion: the practices, technologies and mentalities of Joseph H. Pilates’.

Madness: A Brief History by Roy Porter

Through the course of recorded history no other domain of illness has underwent such frequent theoretical upheavals and revisions as had mental illness. This is best borne by the fact that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (considered the prevailing authority on classifying psychiatric conditions) is constantly revising its manual. In a manner similar to how software companies release updates to their applications on an annual basis, the same set of symptoms could lead to different diagnostic conclusions on two different years. This is a statement on the confusion within the profession rather than making case for the rapid evolution and metamorphosis of the human mind. For centuries, if not millennia, the elements of human psychology have remained the same. As we learn from ancient through recent history, humans are possessed of the same set of emotions such as envy, jealousy, love, hatred, anger, fear, lust, compassion, etc. In this regard, the frequent periodic revision to the diagnostic manual betrays the immaturity of modern psychiatry as a rigorous scientific discipline.

2. How does Roy Porter illustrate the ambiguity surrounding the idea of madness?

An important message contained in the book is how one man’s madness might be another man’s conception of genius. Employing an anecdotal style, Roy Porter recounts several historical instances of designated ‘madness’ which turned out to be either feigned or misunderstood. Moreover, when the same set of symptoms enlisted in each case are evaluated using dominant diagnostic models from various eras, the interpretive outcomes turn out to be very different. This can either be taken as a critique of the profession of psychiatry or the complexity of the human mind. Porter presents arguments for both points of view, which only heightens the aura of ambiguity surrounding psychiatric disorders. Porter also treats the perennial contrarian viewpoint that psychiatry is a grand conspiracy by the political establishment to keep people under control.

3. Which literary and stylistic devices does the author use to make palatable an otherwise gloomy subject of mental illness?

One of the primary devices through which Roy Porter grabs the attention of the reader is humor. It also helps that mental disorders’ association with social taboo lends itself to humorous, embarrassing or confounding situations. Employing an anecdotal style that is natural Porter conveys the most depressing of events and cases with an element of dry irony. For example, we read about the story of a Parisian tailor who got sent to an asylum during the tumultuous days of the French Revolution. His was a case of mental disintegration, all based on a rumor he heard about the execution of Louis XVI. The doctor attending to him, understanding the untrue nature of the news that caused his delirium, designed an elaborate staging (re-enactment) of the original event to bring the tailor out of his madness. The book has plenty of such gripping narratives, some of which are even stranger than fiction. It is these components of the fantastical or the bizarre which make accessible the rather forbidding task of reading about mental illness.

Porter, Roy. Madness: A Brief History, Oxford: New York, Oxford University Press, 2003

The Drinking Man's Disease: The ‘Pre-History’ of Alcoholism in Georgian Britain

Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 183 Euston Road, London NW12NP.

Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 183 Euston Road, London NW12NP.


Drinking played an extremely important social role in eighteenth century England, and heavy drinking was considered manly. At times, especially during the ‘gin craze’ of the 1730s and 1740s, consumption levels rocketed alarmingly, creating vast social and medical problems and perturbing public opinion. The medical writers of Georgian England had no doubt that heavy alcohol consumption was often responsible for ill-health and disease, and not least was one of the triggers of madness (and for this reason much health advice literature was at pains to moderate consumption). But was habitual drunkenness itself seen as a disease? Conventional wisdom amongst historians is that the disease concept of habitual drunkenness (which later became labelled ‘alcoholism’) essentially stems from the writings of Benjamin Rush and Thomas Trotter. Scrutiny of earlier writers on the subject, however, particularly those of Lettsom, Cheyne and Mandeville, indicates no substantial differences between their outlooks and those of Trotter. Trotter was part of a continuing tradition, rather than the beginning of a new one.


This dazzling and yet intimate book is the first modern one-volume history of London from Roman times to the present. An extraordinary city, London grew from a backwater in the Classical age into an important medieval city, a significant Renaissance urban center, and a modern colossus. Roy Porter paints a detailed landscape&mdashfrom the grid streets and fortresses of Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror to the medieval, walled &ldquomost noble city&rdquo of churches, friars, and crown and town relationships. Within the crenelated battlements, manufactures and markets developed and street-life buzzed.

London&rsquos profile in 1500 was much as it was at the peak of Roman power. The city owed its courtly splendor and national pride of the Tudor Age to the phenomenal expansion of its capital. It was the envy of foreigners, the spur of civic patriotism, and a hub of culture, architecture, great literature, and new religion. From the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, London experienced a cruel civil war, raging fires, enlightenment in thought, government, and living, and the struggle and benefits of empire. From the lament that &ldquoLondon was but is no more&rdquo to &ldquoyou, who are to stand a wonder to all Years and ages&hellipa phoenix,&rdquo London became an elegant, eye-catching, metropolitan hub. It was a mosaic, Porter shows, that represented the shared values of a people&mdashboth high and low born&mdashat work and play.

London was and is a wonder city, a marvel. Not since ancient times has there been such a city&mdashnot eternal, but vibrant, living, full of a free people ever evolving. In this transcendent book, Roy Porter touches the pulse of his hometown and makes it our own, capturing London&rsquos fortunes, people, and imperial glory with brio and wit.

Awards & Accolades

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From Our Blog

Rounding out our blog posts for Pride Month is an excerpt from Heather Love&rsquos Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, which looks at the cost of gay assimilation into mainstream culture and makes an effort to value aspects of historical gay experience that now threaten to disappear. Queers face a strange choice: is it better to move on toward a brighter future or to hang back and cling to the past? &hellip

Blood & Guts: a short history of medicine, by Roy Porter

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Not so long ago, the history of medicine was something that doctors worked on during weekends or after retirement. Although the histories they produced had many admirable qualities, their gaze was not always broad enough to encompass themes beyond the narrowly scientific. The history of medicine, even for the best historians of that generation, was the story of scientific progress. Few "real" historians showed much interest in such technical matters and the doctor-historians didn't expect them to.

All that has changed radically over the last three decades or so. The history of medicine – in its broad sense as "the historical interaction of people, disease and healthcare, set in context of societies and their beliefs", to steal Roy Porter's succinct definition – has become a thriving area of full-time scholarship. Historians have discovered the body, as have literary scholars and sociologists. Although doctors have not surrendered their historical interests, the centre of gravity has moved to the humanities and social sciences.

This "new" history has little interest in the technical and scientific, and charting of progress is not on its agenda. It concentrates, instead, on the social, cultural and human dimensions of health, illness and healers. As with most academic endeavours, hardly any of this research ever makes it to the public domain. In spite of the ever-increasing popular interest in topics such as sexuality, genetics, addiction and mental illness, relatively few medical historians have contributed as ably to public discourse as political and cultural historians.

Perhaps the sole medical historian to defy academic purdah regularly was the author of this book. Roy Porter, who died suddenly on 4 March this year at the age of 55, was one of the earliest and best-known professional historians of medicine. Over the decades he spent at the Wellcome Institute, part of University College, London, he became legendary for his industriousness and for the generous, erudite and inspiring leadership that he provided to students, postdoctoral fellows and visiting scholars.

His research on every aspect of healthcare in 18th-century Britain galvanised a whole generation of students and researchers, conquering vast new domains – from madhouses to quack remedies, from gout to melancholia, from famous doctors to unknown patients – for the evolving discipline.

Committed as he was to the history of medicine, however, narrow specialisation was anathema to Porter. Nothing gave him more joy than to finish a book on gout and turn, without pause, to the history of the British Enlightenment. Or, for that matter, to take up the history of the Bedlam Hospital (the best-known British insane asylum) as soon as he had completed a vast social history of London.

Although he spent his entire career in the groves of academe, Porter never forgot that there was a real world out there, with an audience no less stimulating than his professional colleagues. He wrote copiously for his peers but always remained a public intellectual in the highest sense. Scorning jargon, earnestness and condescension, he communicated the excitement of history, the joy of ideas and the sheer exhilaration of thought to people everywhere, whether to the listeners of Radio Four, the readers of The Independent and other papers' review pages, or the students at schools and adult-education institutes.

Historians of medicine will come and go many will contribute profusely to the discipline in their own ways. Roy Porter's personal blend of learning, generosity and near-universal accessibility, however, is unlikely ever to be matched. They just don't make them like that any more, as I realised again while leafing through this book.

Those of us who teach medical history have long lamented the lack of suitable introductory surveys – not textbooks, but brief, wide-ranging and fluently written overviews of the field that one could recommend to students who had no previous knowledge. The available texts were either too old, too dull, too arcane, or, as with Porter's own The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, too long. With Blood & Guts, however, we finally get the perfect pocket-sized introduction to the history of medicine, the perfect refresher course for professional historians who have forgotten some of the basic facts and issues (or are looking for a quick crib-sheet), and the perfect mind-stretcher for doctors who wonder where they came from. Beginning with ancient Greece, Porter shows not only how medical science and the medical profession have grown over the centuries, but also how the healer's art, initially concerned with individuals and their bodies, gradually became not only big science but also the object of enormous economic and political battles.

In eight beautifully crafted chapters, Porter deals with the evolution of diseases, the development of the medical profession, the growth of anatomy, physiology and therapeutics, the history of hospitals and the growing socio-political significance of medicine. Each of these topics has been addressed in isolated ways by scholarly monographs, but this little book provides the big picture that one must master before approaching those tomes. Despite the occasional factual error (beriberi is not caused by a deficiency of Vitamin A) this is an impressively researched, generously imagined and superbly written introduction to a grand subject affecting us all. It should, ideally, be read with Madness: a brief history (Oxford), published shortly before Porter's death and providing an equally compact and luminous synthesis of its own complex subject. The brilliance of these valedictory works will be a revelation to those unfamiliar with Porter's work, and remind the rest of us of the extent of our loss.

Chandak Sengoopta teaches in the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Manchester

Reading is Bad for your Health

Roy Porter, in his Longman/History Today lecture, warns of the bad eyesight, poor posture, incomprehensible babblings, addled wits, depravity and worse that may befall those who immerse themselves too much in books.

A good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit', writes John Milton, proleptically puffing the Everyman series. Or listen to Doris Lessing on learning to read: 'The delicious excitement of it all. the discoveries. the surprises. I was intoxicated a good part of the time'. Or Sue Townsend: 'Reading became a secret obsession. I went nowhere without a book – the lavatory, a bus journey, walking to school'.

The propaganda is endless. Ignore it! Caveat lector, I say – and don't pretend you weren't warned, 'Much learning doth make thee mad', cautions the Acts of the Apostles a long time back, while the Greeks well knew the dangers. Plato's Phaedrus, you will recall, recounts an Egyptian myth concerning the invention of writing. Thoth offers the gift of writing to King Thamus, claiming it will 'make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories'. The real effect, counters Thamus, will be the opposite: writing 'will implant forgetfulness in their souls [and] they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written'. Knowledge may thus wax, but wisdom will wane. Writing, moreover, is a deceiver as the reading habit grows, love of the real atrophies.

And since Antiquity there have been countless cautions against the pride of the pen. Foolish beyond belief 'are those who strive to win eternal fame by issuing books', declared Erasmus in the Praise of Folly:

. watch how pleased they are with themselves when they are praised by the ordinary reader, when someone points them out in a crowd with 'There is that remarkable man', when they are advertised in front of the booksellers' shops.

Such exposés accompanied post-Gutenberg misgivings about the perils of print. 'How poor is the proficiency that is merely bookish!', declared Montaigne. The Moderns in the Battle of the Books proclaimed truth was to be found in Nature, through observation and experiment. So poring over books was pointless.

In short, an honourable dissenting tradition has fired off books against books, and such fusillades have been echoed by others of different ideological stripes, fearful of books sapping virtue and piety – hence the setting up in 1559 of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The salutary idea that people are better off illiterate has had its political champions too. 'Reading, writing and arithmetic are. very pernicious to the poor', argued the Dutch-born satirist Bernard Mandeville, since they would get uppity. Indeed, positively criminal, according to the nineteenth-century French psychiatrist, Lauvergue, who observed that 'the most unreformable criminals are all educated'. His compatriot Hippolyte Taine similarly drew attention to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons were the sole people in Europe among whom criminality was declining. Why was that? It was because the British education system was so bad.

If book-learning were dangerous in general, it was doubly so for the weaker vessel. The seventeenth-century poet, Alessandro Tassoni cautioned:

There is no doubt, but that study is an occasion of exciting lust, and of giving rise to many obscene actions. Hence, as I suppose it is, that we find, in Euripides and Juvenal, that the learned women of antiquity were accused of immodesty.

Of course, all such wholesome reasonings have now been hopelessly compromised by today's politically-correct nostrums of human rights, democracy and feminism. That is why it is so important for me to get across the true dangers: the medical ones. Reading is, quite literally, disastrous for your health. Now that T-bone steaks have been banned in Britain, I look to government action.

Let me explain. Every occupation has its maladies: housewife's knee, athlete's foot. Authors too have their afflictions. One of course is writer's block. Joseph Conrad despaired:

I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours every day. In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair. It takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. I want to howl and foam at the mouth but I daren't do it for fear of waking the baby and alarming the wife.

The diametrically opposite disorder is writer's itch. 'Scribble, scribble, scribble, Mr Gibbon', George III (or, some say, his brother, the Duke of Gloucester) famously buttonholed the historian of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Linked to the libido sciendi, this cacoethes scribendi had already reached epidemic proportions by the Renaissance. Robert Burton confirms in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):

'Tis most true, there is no end of writing of books, as the Wise-man found of old, in this scribbling age especially, wherein the number of books is without number, (as a worthy man saith) presses be oppressed.

Overall, however, the perils of writing were judged but a fleabite compared with those of reading. Having your nose in a book, as any Renaissance doctor would inform you, was bad for the humours. 'Students', thought Burton, are commonly troubled with

. gouts, catarrhs, rheums, wasting, indigestion, bad eyes, stone, and colick, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting.

'The scholar', he concluded, 'is not a happy man'.

Poring over books moreover ruined the posture. That risk was poetically expressed by William Wordsworth:

Up! Up! my friend, and quit your books!
Or surely you'll grow double.
Up! Up! my friend and close your books
Why all this toil and trouble?

To forestall such physical troubles, the nineteenth-century German doctor and pedagogue Moritz Schreber developed a variety of orthopaedic devices to force children to sit straight and keep their chins up. Take his 'straightener' (Geradehalter), a device that prevented its wearer from bending forward while writing, which he claimed had done the trick with his own offspring. Or the 'headholder', meant to promote proper posture by pulling the wearer's hair as soon as the head began to droop.

The evils of enforced book-learning had long been stressed. Samuel Johnson's friend, Mrs Thrale, told the tale of a fourteen-year-old who had been bashed over the head by his Master with a dictionary,

. which so affected his health that his powers of Study were straingely impaired, his Memory lost, and a perpetual pain pressing the part. Physicians of course were called in, who blistered, bled and vomited him but the Complaint continuing obstinate he was actually Trepanned.

Only the sublimely witless would escape unscathed. One such was Gargantua. In Book One of the History of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais related how

. they appointed as Gargantua's tutor a great doctor and sophist named Thubal Holofernes, who taught him his letters so well that he said them by heart backwards and he took five years and three months to do that. Then the sophist read to him Donatus, Facetus, Theodolus, and Alanus in Parabolis, which took thirteen years six months and a fortnight. [and so forth] by the reading of which he became as wise as any man baked in an oven.

But our Gargantua was proof against all these malign influences!

He studied for a miserable half-hour, his eyes fixed on his book, but – as the comic poet says – his soul was in the kitchen.

Gargantua was fortunate, because clever pupils had their wits warped by the nonsense the pedants dinned into them, as his own son Pantagruel was to discover from his fellow students:

'So you come from Paris', said Pantagruel. 'And how do you spend your time, you gentlemen students at this same Paris'?

'We transfretate the Sequana at the dilucule and crepuscule we deambulate through the compites and quadrives of the urb we despumate the Latin verbocination and, as verisimile amorabunds, we captate the benevolence of the omnijugal, omniform, and omnigenous feminine sex.

At which Pantagruel exclaimed: 'What devilish language is this? By God, you must be a heretic'.

That other Rabelaisian hero, Panurge, was to note a further hazard of reading hard matter: constipation.

I happened to read a chapter of the stuff once, at Poitiers, at the Scotch Decretalipotent doctor's, and devil take me if I wasn't constipated for more than four, indeed for five days afterwards. I only shat one little turd.

The rectum was thus at risk, but that was not the only vulnerable part of the anatomy. 'On Tuesday last', reported the Glasgow Journal on June 21st, 1742, 'as an Old Man was lying in the Green reading a Book, he was attack'd by the Town Bull, who tore two of his Ribs from the Back Bone, and broke his Back Bone. His Life is despair'd of'. The price of learning can be high indeed.'

Above all, reading, as everyone knows, was murder on the eyes – Milton blamed it for his blindness, and Samuel Pepys too thought he was going the same way. '19 March 1668: So parted and I to bed, my eyes being very bad – and I know not how in the world to abstain from reading', he lamented to his soon-to-be-discontinued diary.

Alongside the physical damage, psychiatrists have long urged upon the harm reading could also do to your mind. For one thing, it encouraged hypochondria. In his Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases (1730), the aformentioned Bernard Mandeville laid bare the psychopathology of print through a dialogue between a physician, Philopirio, and his patient, Misomedon.

Misomedon relates his sad history. A well-bred gentleman, he ruined his constitution by 'good living'. He then consulted a gaggle of learned physicians but none of their treatments worked. Convinced he was sinking from every sickness known to scholars, he developed 'a mind to study Physick' himself – but his studies merely made bad worse, until finally he persuaded himself that he had the pox – 'when I grew better, I found that all this had been occasion'd by reading of the Lues, when I began to be ill which has made me resolve since never to look in any Book of Physick again, but when my head is in very good order'.

If not hypochondria, too much reading would certainly induce exhaustion or what would today be called ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – a condition versified by that eminent Victorian, Matthew Arnold:

But so many books thou readest
But so many schemes thou breedest
But so many wishes feedst
That thy poor head almost turns.

Reading addled the brain, a situation exacerbated as books multiplied. Anxious about that 'horrible mass of books which keeps on growing', Leibniz called for a moratorium back in 1680. To no avail. According to the late eighteenth-century Bristol physician, Thomas Beddoes, his era was suffering from chronic information overload – all those pamphlets and periodicals, novels and newspapers befuddling the brain! 'Did you see the papers today? Have you read the new play – the new poem – the new pamphlet – the last novel?', was all you heard: 'You cannot creditably frequent intelligent company, without being prepared to answer these questions, and the progeny that springs from them'. The consequence?

You must needs hang your heavy head, and roll your bloodshot eyes over thousands of pages weekly. Of their contents at the week's end, you will know about as much as of a district through which you have been whirled night and day in the mail-coach.

The inevitable result was that you blew a fuse. 'He might be a very clever man by nature for aught I know', wrote Robert Hall of the compiler of encyclopaedias, Dr Andrew Kippis, 'but he laid so many books upon his head that his brains could not move'. Bookishness was recognised as addictive, psychopathological, as the Manchester physician John Ferriar versified in his Bibliomania:

What wild desires, what restless torments seize
The hapless man, who feels the book-disease,

'Beware of the bibliomanie', Lord Chesterfield counselled his son. He might also have had Walter Shandy in mind. But the classic fictional case-history of reading precipitating madness is, of course, Don Quixote. Cervantes explains how his hero got into tilting at windmills:

The reader must know, then, that this gentleman, in the times when he had nothing to do – as was the case for most of the year – gave himself up to the reading of books of knight errantry which he loved and enjoyed so much that he almost entirely forgot his hunting, and even the care of his estate.

. he so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn till dark and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.

Small wonder, then, that madhouses had their bibliomaniacs, surrounded by books, reading obsessively. On visiting Bethlem in 1786, the German novelist Sophie von la Roche found an unnamed man, doubtless a historian, 'in the lowest cells, with books all around him'. She also met Margaret Nicholson, George III's would-be assassin, sitting reading Shakespeare.

Visiting Ticehurst asylum in Sussex in 1839, Mr and Mrs Epps came across a certain Joshua Mantell, seated in a large, comfortable room, by a good fire, encircled by books and papers. They had a long talk concerning a book Joshua said he was about to publish. Only later were the Eppses informed that he was suffering from delusions of authorship.

Such cases abound. At the Gloucester asylum, one Sarah Oakey, a Cheltenham laundress, was admitted in 1826 suffering from melancholia, 'supposed to be brought on by reading novels'. At the Nottingham asylum, John Daft – nomen est omen – 'was bought in by the Overseer. his father reports that he has been sober and industrious and ascribes his morbid mind to the reading of Carlisle's [sic] works'. Or take the Reverend William Thomson, admitted in 1817 to the Glasgow Royal. 'For ten months previous to his illness', states his record, 'he had been engaged in publishing a book'.

Sometimes it worked the other way round: the mad took to reading. In 1872, Dr William Chester Minor, a Connecticut surgeon, was sent to Broadmoor. While there he became a collaborator in compiling the Oxford English Dictionary. Permitted to turn his rooms into a library, with a writing desk and floor-to-ceiling teak bookshelves, he was even able to buy books from London antiquarian dealers, which were briefly brought to him by the woman whose husband he had murdered.

The pathology of print became all too familiar. Novel-reading among fashionable young ladies was said to lead to hysteria or the vapours. 'If women who spent their energies on their brains married', warned the Victorian pyschiatrist Thomas Clouston, 'they seldom had more than one or two children', and 'only puny creatures at that, whom they cannot nurse, and who either die in youth or grow up to be feeble-minded folks'. 'Beware, oh beware!, mocked Frances Power Cobbe, the feminist, 'Science pronounces that the woman who – studies – is lost!'

All agreed that, of all the harmful trash, 'NOVELS undoubtedly are the sort most injurious'. Romances, Beddoes noted, 'increase indolence, the imaginary world indisposing those who inhabit it in thought to go abroad into the real'. Above all, they provoked vicarious sexual arousal. Hence 'a variety of prevalent indispositions. may be caught from the furniture of a circulating library'.

So what was to be done? Beddoes was convinced that what was needed was good healthy activity – 'Botany and gardening abroad, and the use of a lathe, or the study of experimental chemistry at home'. Stressing how self-abuse 'often ends in a lunatic asylum', Lord Baden-Powell later advocated scouting for boys. But the favoured remedy for nervous prostration was the rest cure, pioneered by Dr Silas Weir Mitchell in the US. This involved total bed rest and a complete ban on all stimulus. His most famous patient was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, later author of The Yellow Wallpaper. In 1887, suffering from chronic acute depression, she had consulted Mitchell, who enforced the rest cure for a month and then discharged her, commanding her to lead a domestic life, to cut her reading to two hours a day, and to give up writing altogether. 'I went home', she related, 'and obeyed these directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin'.

The same treatment was also prescribed for the young Virginia Woolf by the psychiatrist Sir George Henry Savage. Forced to stay bookless in Cambridge with an aunt, she rebelled:

London means my own home, and books, and pictures, and music, from all of which I have been parted since February now – and I have never spent such a wretched eight months in my life. And yet that tyrannical, and as I think, shortsighted Savage insists upon another two. I long for a large room to myself, with books and nothing else, where I can shut myself up, and see no one, and read myself into peace. This would be possible at Gordon Sq: and nowhere else. I wonder why Savage doesn't see this.

The reason is plain. Savage judged reading one of the key causes of female derangement.

Books indeed can kill. The saddest story is related by Dr James Currie of Liverpool around 1800. It concerns a mental patient whose mind gave way after he indulged in visionary speculations on the perfectibility of man. To put him right, the kindly Currie explained Malthus' principle of population. His response, however, was to produce 'a scheme for enlarging the surface of the globe, and a project for an act of parliament for this purpose, in a letter addressed to Mr Pitt'. To show that even this fantastic measure could not provide a way out of the Malthusian trap, Currie actually handed the young man Malthus' Essay. This he read twice, aloud the second time, not omitting a single word, and then, after a few distressing days, he quietly lay down and died. 'At the moment that I write this', Currie concluded, 'his copy of Malthus is in my sight and I cannot look at it but with extreme emotion'.

So Disraeli was right. In his early novel Lothair, one of his characters exclaims:

Books are fatal they are the curse of the human race. The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing.

Yet I must not end on a negative note. Occasionally at least the printed page has been positively therapeutic. Many suffering from the toothache, Rabelais recorded,

. after expending all their substance on doctors without any result, have found no readier remedy than to put the said Chronicles between two fine linen sheets, well warmed, and apply them to the seat of the pain, dusting them first with a little dry-dung powder.

Sterne offers his variant in Tristram Shandy. When Phutatorius' membrum virile is frazzled by a roast chestnut which plops off his plate down into his breeches, cure is effected by application of a leaf from a new book, still damp and inky from the press. 'No furniture so charming as books', quipped Sydney Smith, while Grub Street writers reflected that sheets from unread books at least achieved some utility as pastry cases or paper bags.

That might, however, be sacrilege, if the work in question were theological. One of Rabelais' clerics observes that when a holy book was used as wrapping paper, 'I renounce the devil if everything that was wrapped up in them did not immediately become spoiled'. The most sacrilegious use of such spare sheets was as bum fodder – and naturally this had the direst repercussions:

'One day', said Friar John, 'when I was at Seuilly, I wiped my bum with a page of one of these wretched Clementines that John Guimard, our bursar, had thrown out into the cloister meadow, and may all the devils take me if I wasn't seized with such horrible cracks and piles that the poor door to my back passage was quite unhinged'.

The secular Lord Chesterfield, however, had no hesitations about treating literature as bumf. Urging time-discipline upon his recalcitrant son, he told a little tale:

I knew a gentleman, who was so good a manager of his time, that he would not even lose that small portion of it, which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained and I recommend you to follow his example. It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments, and it will make any book, which you shall read in that manner, very present in your mind.

Try that perhaps, but, above all, don't get hooked on books. Heed the immortal words of the superintendent in Joe Orton's Loot: 'Reading isn't an occupation we encourage among police officers. We try to keep the paper work down to a minimum'.

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