When most people hear the word “bedlam,” they think of Merriam-Webster’s third definition: “a place, scene or state of uproar and confusion.” (Or you might, like me, think of the occasional state of your child’s bedroom.) But the definition before that (“a lunatic asylum”) gives a clue to the word’s interesting origin.
“Bedlam” is actually Middle English slang for Bethlehem, and referred to the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem in London, which housed the mentally unsound (or those considered to be so) from the middle ages to modern times. From a combination of general lack of knowledge and basic greed, for hundreds of years the patients at Bedlam were not so much treated as mistreated. They were chained and manacled, practically starved, and the hygiene was so terrible that even the rest of Victorian London--hardly known for being a clean city at the time--took notice. During the 1700’s and early 1800’s, you could buy penny tickets to come stare at the inmates, a *delightful* entertainment that proved so popular that it’s estimated about 96,000 viewers came in just the year 1814.
You may recall the term “Bedlam Beggar” from Shakespeare’s King Lear, where Edgar dresses as one to prevent detection when he is banished. This term referred to former inmates of the hospital, who were oh, so generously given license to beg in the City when they were released.
Bedlam (now called the Royal Hospital of Bethlem) is still open today--under new management, I’m happy to report. You may no longer purchase tickets to see the inmates, but according to their website, you can visit their art gallery where they display artwork created by some of the patients who have been treated there.
Happy Monday, everyone! I hope your day is bedlam-free!