Poor Families

Poor Families in the Renaissance

Poor families in the Renaissance had two options of where to send mentally ill family members: Bedlam (later known as Bethlem) or Bristol.  If the family chose not to send their family member(s) away, they usually roamed the streets as they were unable to help the family survive (Dickinson, 1990).

The mentally ill were treated the same as vagrants until the Vagrancy Act of 1714 allowed for their imprisonment.

Many families were unable to care for their loved ones at home due to the circumstances surrounding survival, but yet couldn’t bring themselves to send family members to overcrowded institutions where treatment would be limited.  The community therefore adopted the mentally ill members and treated them under the Poor Law, which they applied to vagrants (Dickinson, 1990).  Many of the mentally ill were accepted as members of the community and were supported and supervised by extended family and neighbors.  A few who were deemed too dangerous to be allowed on the streets were often placed in dungeons and jails, usually for life.  Very few of those seen as extremely dangerous were cared for by churches, hospitals, workshops, or penitentiaries (Mora, 1992).

Unfortunately, the Vagrancy Act passed in 1714 permitted the community to lock up the mentally ill (known then as lunatics and furiously mad) and chain them down if necessary in order to keep them under control.  In 1744 a new Act was passed where the community was allowed to charge the Parish for the amount it cost to rest (Dickinson, 1990).


Dickinson, E. (1990). From madness to mental health: A brief history of psychiatric treatments in the UK from 1800 to the present. The British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 53, 419-424.

Mora, G. (1992). Stigma during the medieval and Renaissance periods. In P. J. Fink & A. Tasman (Eds.) Stigma and mental illness, (pp. 41-57). Washington, D.C., US: American Psychiatric Association.

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