Research Seminar TT23

We are delighted to announce our research seminar in Trinity Term (April–June 2023), which will be on 'Madness in Premodern and Early Cultures'.

Humans experiencing mental distress have been attested throughout all regions and time periods. However, when discussing these experiences, our lexicon is often bound to modern psychological and medical jargon such as 'illness', 'disorder' and 'mental health'. Yet Madness was—and can be—conceived of in a plethora of different ways. Disability Studies, Anti-psychiatry and the burgeoning discipline of Mad Studies offer new useful paradigms with which to conceptualise Madness in the modern age, but how should we discuss Mad people in history?

This series seeks to explore presentations of Madness from early and pre-modern time periods. From the widespread practice of trephination in numerous cultures of North Africa and South America, to medieval models for understanding mental distress in Foucault's seminal Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (1961), Madness is a key theme within pre-modern studies. This series hopes to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing about new lenses with which to engage with texts.

The sessions will be held online, on Wednesday 2-3 pm (UK Time). Please note that the third session comprises two talks and will begin at 11 am, ending at 1 pm.

Please register here to receive Zoom links on the day of each session.


Session §1

Week 5, 24 May

Alex Johnston (Oxford): Classics

Divine Possession and Language in Homer and Sophocles

This paper explores how divine possession can affect human speech and communication in Homer and Sophocles. Focusing on a few key episodes - notably Athena’s interventions on the Suitors in the Odyssey, and on Ajax in Sophocles’ Ajax - it offers a phenomenology of ‘possessed’ language, and examines its connections with oracular communication, notably cledonomancy, a form of divination where voices and sounds function as vessels of a divine message.

Session §2

Week 6, 31 May

Avital Rom (Cambridge): Chinese

The Epistemology of Madness in Ancient China

In recent years, studies have emerged that discuss the nature of madness, or kuang 狂 in Chinese antiquity. Kuang is discussed as a mental state hinting towards unusual high or low levels of moral cultivation (McLeod); as a medical disorder (McLeod, Milburn); or even as a consciously manufactured (feigned) behaviour that makes for a political statement (Schwermann). 

 In this talk, I first offer a brief overview of some of the works that fall under the umbrella of what may be called ‘Kuang Studies’ (after the contemporary sub-discipline of ‘Mad Studies’). Then, I will propose a specific analysis of the term that focuses on its relationship with aspects of knowledge and with the heart-mind (xin 心). Among other things, I will discuss madness in light of its curiously common grouping alongside blindness (mang) and deafness (long) as a condition that affects a human’s ability to perceive and gain knowledge of the world around them. 

Session §3 (11:00 -13:00)

Week 9, 21 June

Prof. Toby Brandon, Phil Saint, Gillian Weatherstone & Natasha Downs

11:00 - 11:45

Prof. Toby Brandon, Phil Saint and Gillian Weatherstone (Northumbria): Mad Studies
Introducing Mad Studies

This talk was created jointly by researchers with lived experience of mental distress and an academic professor. 

We intend to introduce the specificities of the relatively new discipline of Mad Studies, and how it relates to other fields such as Disability Studies, the Survivors Movement and Antipsychiatry. Its critical importance is then shown through two key points. First, who tells the mad history? This will be explored in regard to the difficulty of reconstructing voices of ‘Mad people’ in premodern times, plus issues of intersectionality and questions regarding who should use the ‘Mad lens’. Second, the idea of the cultural relativity of Madness is explored. Questions of how these cultural divergences can be discussed in a Mad-positive way will be considered.

11:45 - 12:30

Natasha Downs (Edinburgh): Chinese and Japanese
A Mad-positive reading of Japanese translations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Building upon the previous session, my paper will utilise the Mad Studies lens, elucidating its applicability to the study of premodern and early modern texts. Using my own research into Japanese receptions of China’s Three Kingdoms period 三國時代 (220 – 280 C.E.) as a case study, the Mad-lens is applied in relation to three aspects. First, I introduce debates regarding Mad-positive language and their implications for my analysis. Second, I discuss the loss of Mad voices in the time periods during which my texts were composed. Third, I discuss how engaging with Mad knowledge has broadened my understanding of the texts I work with, adding a new level of understanding to the conceptualisation of Madness during the periods where my assorted texts would have been received. The process illustrates the benefits of a Mad approach, elucidating how Mad Studies offers a useful angle from which to engage with the study of premodern and early modern literature.

12:30 - 13:00