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Mad Princes of Renaissance Germany.

H.C. Erik Midelfort's "modest volume" on the subject of aristocratic madness in sixteenth-century Germany brilliantly eludes the many teleological and voyeuristic traps inherent in such a subject. From the beginning, his is not an anachronistic study of insanity or mental illness but a very purposeful exploration of "madness." The very subjectiveness of such terminology in turn permits him to escape our presentist scientific diagnoses (including facile genetic determinism) and start from the inside out, or in this case, from sixteenth-century perceptions and treatments of madness. The result is a highly lucid and scholarly narrative of three chronological groupings of German aristocrats - in total over thirty nobles and one emperor (Rudolf II) - told largely from sixteenth-century accounts and diagnoses. The details of these tortured souls' travails in themselves make for interesting general reading, but the historical significance they carry is an even better story.

In surveying his subject from about 1490 to 1610, Midelfort is struck by two especially dramatic developments. The first has to do with the rise of the medical profession and with it the bolstering (rather than presumed decline) of Galenism. Whereas his earliest accounts of mad princes tend towards general non-technical diagnoses, such as "not right in the head," by the middle of the sixteenth century the turn toward professional medical opinion and therapy is ubiquitous. Midelfort considers the case of Philip of Mecklenburg (1514-57) the earliest and best example of neo-Galenic influence, leading to a treatment of extended sleep, soothing music, and a largely vegetarian diet. By the end of the century even many lay observers had adopted the appropriate technical jargon and assumptions in their descriptions of disturbed rulers. Battles continued, of course, between followers of Galen and of Paracelsus (the latter derisively labeled "chemical doctors") but at least in the courts of the Holy Roman Empire, professional medicine's triumph was complete.

The other significant historical development detected by Midelfort over the course of the century is in fact closely related to the first. While early sixteenth-century court and family members ruthlessly deposed and often imprisoned mad rulers, their later counterparts desperately tried every means available to cure and maintain deranged princes. The reason, Midelfort argues, was a "new importance of the dynastic prince to the legitimacy of the early modern state, a legitimacy that was slowly shifting from feudal contract to true dynastic right" (92). The house of Julich-Cleves and particularly Duke Johann Wilhelm (1562-1609) provide especially convincing proof of the new attitude. In their repeated attempts to cure the heir apparent and later ruler of madness and infertility, ducal counselors brought in first a Galenic doctor (who followed Hippocrates on the dangers of too much sex), then a local cunning woman, followed by the internationally-renowned miracle-working Dr. Lumkin, and ultimately an exorcist. All failed, yet Midelfort considers it a tribute to early modern politicians that neither this nor any of the cases of mad rulers he examined led to violent conflicts or war. At least one of the king's two bodies could be saved even if the other couldn't.

Madness, as Foucault and others have argued, is of course a relative thing. For Midelfort, though, it represents not just simple political hegemony but also an amazingly fluid and syncretic variety of discourses, obvious in the wildly catholic treatments of mad dukes such as Johann Wilhelm. Whatever the social prominence gained by doctors and other professionals, madness (and not just those presumed mad) continued to hear many voices. At the same time, we can gratefully acknowledge what a sensitive listener to those voices can achieve in making the cacophony comprehensible to twentieth-century ears.

JOEL F. HARRINGTON Vanderbilt University
COPYRIGHT 1996 Renaissance Society of America
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Author:Harrington, Joel F.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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