Idiocy: A Cultural History


"Idiocy is an excellent book." Penny Richards, Times Higher Education. Read the review here.

"This is a fascinating and original work which considers the cultural expression and construction of 'idiocy' in the 19th century, with appropriate forays prior to and beyond this period to provide context and continuity. The term 'idiocy' may at first jar our contemporary sensibilities, but as the book will amply demonstrate, terms and concepts are not trans-historical, and to replace the language of the day with whatever term is today considered polite discourse would be to distort both history and the present.

The most intriguing aspect of McDonagh’s work is its range of sources, drawing on literary, popular, scientific and socio-political discourses to elucidate the myriad of forces which shaped the constructions of idiocy. The book shows how the construction of idiocy served as a metaphorical device to express a range of modernist anxieties and tensions." Tim Stainton, Australian Social Work


"This is the sweeping story of idiocy's shifting and twisting meaning through several centuries of (mainly) English culture, from the legally exempt 'idiota' of 16th-century dictionaries to the 'perfectly horrible' imbeciles in Virginia Woolf's diary, through William Wordsworth's romantic idiot boy and Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, among others.

Far from being a niche history of limited interest, McDonagh's careful and eclectic scholarship makes the case for idiocy as a crucial subject for readers interested in literature, medicine, psychology, gender, family, property, inheritance, romanticism, rationality, sensation fiction, technology, institution-building, religion, crime and civil society." - Penny Richards, Times Higher Education 


"Patrick McDonagh's Idiocy is a superb historical account of intellectual disability from the perspective of disability studies...

...McDonagh has set a new standard in the history of intellectual disability. This book should be in every library, and available to disability activists, advocates, allies and consumers. The book has an obvious appeal to scholars interested in disability studies and disability history, but it is also valuable to scholars of literature, social and medical history, the history of education, and gender studies. McDonagh's prose is far from breezy, but it is also far from pompous, and the book is as suitable for any persevering reader as it is for the specialist. In sum, Idiocy is an outstanding study of the representation of idiocy as a fluid, symbolic cultural force. McDonagh uses the best of disability studies and, in turn, contributes greatly to the field." - Lynn Rose, H-Disability, H-Net Reviews, July 2010.

"In Idiocy: A Cultural History Patrick McDonagh skilfully weaves historical events together with representations from fiction in an engagingly readable manner to provide an intriguing picture of the construction of intellectual disability from the medieval period to the early 20th century.... this work presents a thought-provoking investigation of a much neglected part of our history, which challenges the notion of intellectual impairment as a concrete, medical phenomenon and which raises questions regarding the way we conceive of and treat people designated as intellectually disabled today." - Linzi Carlin, Disability and Society


"The strength of Idiocy: A Cultural History undoubtedly lies in the clarity with which McDonagh brings to bear on the 'tensions' within specific cultural moments....

Overall, Idiocy: A Cultural History is an engaging and ambitious achievement. ... Most importantly, through showing the shifting and contingent nature of 'idiocy,' McDonagh allows us to glimpse that 'learning disability' need not always mean what it does today." - Helen Graham, British Journal of Learning Disabilities


"...Idiocy is a necessary read because attempts to inform our stereotypes of idiots are so scarce. What is an idiot? Anybody who has been deemed unfit to speak for his/herself. The term's amorphousness is precisely what has allowed its use in justifying the worst treatment by society of its weakest members. In reading Idiocy we may realize just how vulnerable our own claims to rights of dignity and self-government truly are." Richard Tseng, Rover: Montreal Arts Uncovered

You can buy Idiocy: A Cultural History from Liverpool University Press in the UK and Europe, and in North America through the University of Chicago Press

Reviews of Idiocy: A Cultural History:

Penny Richards in Times Higher Education, June 18 2009

Richard Tseng in Rover, August 2009

Helen Graham in British Journal of Learning Disabilities 37 (2009): p 239.

Linzi Carlin in Disability and Society 24.6 (2009): 804-805.

Tim Stainton in Australian Social Work 63 (2010): 134-135.

Lynn Rose on H-Disability H-Net Reviews, July 2010

Idiocy: A Cultural History was a finalist for the 2009 Quebec Writers' Federation Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction. According to the jury, Idiocy is "a fine blend of scholarly depth [and] eminent readability.... a unique contribution to a subject that most people would be hesitant to discuss in public or private for fear of demonstrating their ignorance, discomfort or fear. It has much to teach us about what it is to be human, about our recurrent fears of ourselves and others."

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