Woods (1906) is the (rare) authoritative source on madness and idiocy in noble families in Europe, including some of the ruling houses. Midelfort (1995) wrote more specifically on families of the high nobility in Germany ca. 1490–1610. A weakness of both books is that they were more concerned with mental abnormality per se than with whether the abnormality was an intellectual one from birth or early age or a true “madness.” This problem is particularly strong in Wood, who was very sloppy in his terminology, and in adducing evidence for one of these conditions versus the other. He contended that 35 of his 671 “subjects” were imbecilic.

These two sources (Woods and Midelfort) are full of factual details: names, places, dates, relationships, actions taken in individual instances, etc., but there is very little interpretation. Midelfort (1995) covered his material very selectively. Scores of pages were devoted to a single case, while hundreds of potential other cases were given minimal mention. It seems that there is a goldmine of unworked material.

This article is an effort to come up with what appear to be some reasonable interpretations, especially in light of Social Role Valorization (SRV) theory (Wolfensberger, 1991, 1998, 2000; Wolfensberger & Thomas, 2007).

How nobles treated their mentally afflicted family members varied widely. Much was at stake: who would rule, and who would inherit estates. Some families quietly removed their mentally afflicted relatives from any public role, for example, by sending them off to lonely castles, putting them into monasteries, imprisoning them in miserable dungeons, or outright murdering them. Others sought cures, sometimes of heroic form and at great expense, involving whatever physicians were then famous. Yet others accepted the person's affliction and tried to “work around it” via special helpers and special provisions. These might include preventing the person from taking the public office the person ordinarily would have taken, but not preventing the person from a public and honored role at court.

From a Social Role Valorization perspective, the most successful solution was the role worked out for the imbecilic King Carlos II of Spain (who lived from 1661–1700 and reigned from 1665–1700), and there was a very good reason why this happened in Spain and at that time.

For centuries in the late medieval and post-medieval period, the Spanish royal court was in the habit of adopting many handicapped, dependent, or orphaned children, including some of the lowest birth and of low intelligence. Many of these children were literally raised at the court, and hence were called niños palaciegos (i.e., children of the palace). Many children thusly adopted were taken in upon the pleading of their desperate parents who wanted a better life for them. The Spanish royal court during the 16th and 17th centuries created a role identity for its bodily deformed and mentally impaired people that was called hombres de placer (i.e., people who please or who give others pleasure). These replaced what at other courts would have been court fools. Thus, many of the niños palaciegos were accorded the role of hombre de placer and were sometimes even called (in the singular) gentel hombre de placer (Tietze-Conrat, 1957), that is, genteel.

For hundreds of years, well into the 18th century, the Spanish court at any one time swarmed with scores of handicapped, malformed, and/or mentally impaired hombres de placer. The palace records of King Philip IV (1605–1665) recorded 110 by name and scores more without name. A whole wing of the royal palace, the Escorial, was allotted to them. Wherever there were members of the royal family, they were accompanied (“attended”) by hombres de placer, and “attending” was one of their functions. Some were playmates of the royal children, some served as grooms of the court's hunting dogs, some were ladies-in-waiting to the princesses. Others were not able to play any practical functions and might do no more than lend their well-attired, dignified, instructing, and sanctifying presence to the king, queen, or other members of the royal family, especially on public occasions. Their presence was seen as instructive insofar as they stood for reality and truth, in contrast to the duplicity and pretense that was often affected at court; and it was seen as sanctifying via their innocence, and by bringing others to service to the lowly. King Philip IV is said to have gone nowhere without his hombres de placer (Tietze-Conrat, 1957, p. 691). When the Spanish royal family dined, it was more likely to do so in the company of hombres de placer than of courtiers (Clair, 1968).

In 1568, King Philip II (ruled 1556–1598) appointed as his court painter one Juan Fernandez de Navarrete who had the surname El Mudo, because he was a deaf-mute man. When this man died in 1579, he was buried with great honors, and the prominent Spanish writer Lope de Vega composed his tomb inscription to the effect that even though he was mute, his works still spoke after his death (Kamen, 1997; Werner, 1932, p. 96).

Similarly, Prince Carignano (1628–1709) was a deaf-mute, but he had learned to communicate in writing and seemed to have had a good deal of sense. He was an officer in the Spanish army, participated in several military campaigns, and served as vice regent and governor of various principalities (Werner, 1932).

Thus, over the centuries, all of Spain had become used to seeing handicapped people in valued court roles. And so, when the only surviving child of King Philip IV of Spain and his second wife, the crown prince Carlos, was definitely of impaired intellect, and feeble health, he nevertheless assumed the throne as Carlos II in 1665, at age 4, and surprised everybody by living to the age of 39. Generations of familiarity with impaired people in valued roles is bound to have played a role in the Spanish nobility letting a person of very low intelligence rule as king for 35 years. In most other countries, his accession would have been prevented by legal or illegal means, and maybe even by murder. Indeed, we can contrast the Spanish practice of accepting the mentally impaired heir as the legitimate king, and crowning him Carlos II, with the British practice as late as into the 20th century of hiding away their handicapped heirs to the throne and other members of the royal house in institutions and announcing that they had died.

The evidence of Carlos' severe mental impairment includes information such as the following. He had been so feeble as a child that no attempts were made to educate him for fear that this would overtax him. He reportedly did not talk until he was 4 years old. During his lifetime, others did the work of state for him. He was described as “bewitched”— history often referred to him as “Charles the Bewitched” (Encyclopedia Britannica) or El Hechizado— “enchanted,” as having “a feeble mind,” and being “empty-headed,” even as he was also said to have had a childlike innocence and piety. His conversation was said to match that of a 6-year-old child, and he spent only about a quarter hour per day on affairs of state and the rest in childish games with his charming and spirited first wife, such as picking strawberries and counting and recounting them endlessly or running back and forth through the palace. She died after reporting secretly to her family that the king was impotent, and he was, in fact, the last of his branch of the family.

The Spanish example greatly impressed other European courts. For instance, the other courts largely discontinued the practice of dressing court fools in traditional fool costumes, and instead they began to vest them in expensive tailor-made clothes of the highest quality, comparable to the clothes of nobles and court officials in Spain.

As to the situation in German lands, many retarded or insane German rulers were deposed by their relatives. One can be amazed at the large number of insane German princes during the Renaissance, but one can also infer from this that there was much more madness in German houses of nobility than one would have guessed even from Woods' (1906) extensive classic book. The amazing thing is how some princely houses managed to rule while having madness in their families for generations. One of Woods' conclusions was that both the good and bad genes in European royal houses had come from a small number of royal families who then widely intermarried.

Excessive intake of alcohol seemed to have played a big role in the instability of German princes. Perhaps wine was too easily accessible to them and its use little censored. Also, Protestant princes no longer had the consolations of the Catholic practices of confession and penance.

One of the few interpretive nuggets that came out of Midelfort was the interesting observation that the nobles of the Renaissance era became more merciful toward their mentally afflicted members, and more respectful, in contrast to the brutality that often preceded it. Perhaps the Spanish influence played a role here. Previous to the Renaissance era (ca. 1490–1610), mad princes were commonly murdered or “disappeared.”

There is very little on mental retardation by Midelfort. Three exceptions are Duke Philip I of Mecklenburg (1514–1557), who had suffered an early head wound in 1534; Friedrich, prince of Saxony (1504–1539); and Duke Johann III (1490–1539) of the line of Jülich-Cleves on the lower Rhine, who was nicknamed “The Simple” and was said to have “little brain.” (His great-grandfather, Johannes II [1458–1521], was nicknamed “the baby-maker” [proletarius] because by age 31, he had begotten 63 children out of wedlock.) More equivocal was the situation of Duke Albrecht Friedrich of Prussia (1553–1618), who may have been mentally disordered rather than mentally retarded (von Kühn-Steinhausen, 1958). Another prince of an earlier line of dukes of Jülich-Berg, Duke Johann Wilhelm (died 1609), was also called “feeble-minded” (by the historian von Kühn-Steinhausen, 1958, p. 13).

It seems to me that there are good reasons why it is more difficult to (a) identify mental retardation in noble households than among other people and (b) distinguish it from mental disorder.

1. As explained in Social Role Valorization teaching, when people are of noble status, greater allowance is made for their deviant behavior to begin with (this is true for other kinds of valued people as well), so that the behaviors of madness and those of low intelligence easily got mixed up.

Mentally retarded members of noble houses were often indulged, and as a result they learned all sorts of bad behaviors. For instance, unrestricted consumption of wine often covered up the sources of their bad behaviors. And a temper tantrum by a disturbed child and a retarded one can look pretty much alike. Therefore, it also became more difficult to distinguish between low intelligence and mental disturbance. In fact, bad behaviors often looked more disturbed than retarded.

2. The evidence suggested to Midelfort that noble families found the behavior of their unintelligent members more challenging than the symptoms of their mentally disturbed ones.

Among the nobility (especially ruling houses), low intelligence is much more stigmatizing than mental disorder, but with the means available to the nobility, it was easier to cover up the signs of low intelligence, if they desired to do so. For example, all sorts of things could be done to enhance the personal appearance of persons of low intelligence and to support their normal behaviors via the use of tutors, governors, competent companions, etc.

3. Signs of mental abnormality were easier to interpret as idiosyncrasies or illnesses, thereby reducing their stigma. Earlier scholars had often declared their theoretical loyalties by referring to mad people either in legal, medical, or vernacular terms. The abnormalities of princes were often interpreted as either madnesses or illnesses (Midelfort, 1995, p. 46). Sometimes, two domains overlapped, as in furor or melancholia, or schwermütig (“heavy-minded”), nicht richtig (“not right”), or unsinnig (“irrational”). There are a great many vernacular German terms for mental disorder.

Also, many princes whom we would consider insane were not so thought of in their day; rather, they were seen as reckless, untrustworthy, idiosyncratic, etc. (Midelfort, 1995).

The above speculations suggest that more attention should be paid to how social class impacts today on the behavior (in the sense of comportment, conduct, and manners) of mentally retarded persons. At one time, researchers seemed to have given a lot more attention to this, but in recent decades, this attention seems to have faded—though members of societally devalued and powerless classes are always more likely to be made the subjects of research than the wealthy and mighty, as one is likely to learn in the more advanced teaching of Social Role Valorization (Wolfensberger, 1998, 2000). One place to look at the comportment of mentally retarded persons of higher classes is in private residential schools and in affluent public school districts. One could hypothesize that the growing crudeness in society today is more expressed among the lower classes than the upper—one more good argument for belonging to the latter.

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Author notes

Wolf Wolfensberger, PhD, Emeritus Professor, Syracuse University Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership & Change Agentry, 518 James St., Ste. B3, Syracuse, NY 13203. (Phone: 315-473-2978, Fax: 315-473-2963)