Phantasmata or Illusions and Fanaticisms
Richard Robert Madden
1857 AD

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  1. In 1857 AD, Richard Robert Madden observed many historic cases of a kind of mass hysteria. What is interesting about this phenomena, is that it is clearly induced by freewill choices of the minds of a large number of people at the same time. This proves that such mass delusions and hallucinations are not caused by the body, but the mind. Madden understood that if the mind of a single person could induce insanity, so could it happen on a mass scale: "It is with individuals as with nations, they are controlled and restrained by the same influences, or corrupted and perverted by the same wild impulses of passion . . . Hallucinations of various kinds ensue; and imagination dominated by disease will eventually give a being, shape and form, 'a local habitation, and a name', to fixed ideas and chimeras which are the productions of the brain." (Phantasmata or Illusions and Fanaticisms, Richard Robert Madden, 1857 AD)
  2. "The history of psychiatry, concerned with the care and treatment of patients and advancement of knowledge of mental disease, reflects society's relation and reaction to its insane. It has less to say about the social, cultural and economic factors which may produce circumstances favourable to the rise and spread of mental illness through groups, communities and even nations. Such epidemics of insanity are usually not recognised for what they are when they occur (comparable perhaps to the lack of insight shown by patients) but are diagnosed in retrospect and so become the province of the social historian. Whether these outbreaks manifest themselves in abnormal behaviour or delusional beliefs with or without actions flowing from them, they furnish interesting points of comparison with mental illness in individuals : 'The madness of the various forms of fanaticism is not confined to individuals, it extends to communities . . .' so that study of the one may lead to better understanding and prevention of the other. Dugald Stewart [q.v.] recorded frankly his own experience that 'the incoherent ravings and frantic gestures of a madman have a singularly painful effect in unsettling and deranging the thoughts of others' and suggested physicians might with advantage give more attention to the influence of insane on sane mind in order to elucidate 'whether certain kinds of insanity have not a contagious tendency'. J. F. K. Hecker in his account of 'the dancing mania' went further and suggested that study of epidemic insanity would 'afford a deep insight into the workings of the human mind in a state of society', that is into the group mind (The epidemics of the middle ages, 1846, translated by B. G. Babington). But because of the complex field of observation which presents itself when historical events are viewed through psychiatric eyes, most accounts have been anecdotal rather than analytical: 'Popular delusions began so early, spread so widely, and have lasted so long' wrote Charles Mackay, 'that instead of two or three volumes, fifty would scarcely suffice to detail their history . . . in the great and awful book of human folly which yet remains to be written . . . a mere list of ['religious manias'] would alone be sufficient to occupy a volume' (Memoirs of extraordinary popular delusions, 1841, 3 vols.). Like mental illness they present in all degrees of severity from the mildest and most harmless outbreaks of 'hysterics' like dancing, jumping, shaking, trembling and barking, from short lived episodes of anxiety or panic in a multitude provoked by spread of a delusional conviction such as that the end of the world is imminent, to the most vicious, violent and prolonged cruelties and persecutions induced by mass delusions which abound in the histories of nations and religious movements. Madden combined an interest in mental aberration (he also wrote The infirmities of genius, 1833, 2 vols.) with a philanthropic concern for the welfare of the underprivileged and maltreated whether they were Jamaican negroes, Australian aborigines or starving Irish peasantry. This led him to undertake this historicosociological study 'of some of the principal Epidemic Disorders of the Mind, which have formerly prevailed in Europe' in order to determine the circumstances under which such epidemics arose, and especially to what extent they were dependent on ignorance, superstition and the backwardness of the masses, as 'It is said that, "man ignorant and uncivilised, is a ferocious, sensual, and superstitious savage" '. But contrary to what was generally believed Madden found that 'The greatest fanaticisms this world ever saw have not originated with the poor, the unenlightened and uneducated; they have originated with the educated classes, with those who do not labour manually for their bread'; and behind the veneer of intellect and education he saw 'a great deal of savagery in the heart's core of civilisation'. This made him ask, almost as if he had prevision of the events of the twentieth century : 'have we such sure grounds for our considence in its [nineteenth century] civilisation that no fears may be entertained of any recurrence of those bewilderments of reason, widely spread, under which multitudes of people laboured in "the dark ages"?'" (300 years of Psychiatry, Richard Hunter, 1963, p 1039)

Phantasmata or Illusions and Fanaticisms, Richard Robert Madden, 1857 AD

Richard Robert Madden (1798-1886)
F R C S, surgeon, man of letters, philanthropist

Phantasmata or illusions and fanaticisms of protean forms productive of great evils, 1857 London, Newby 2 vols Vol. I, pp. v-viii, x-xi, 7-8


The subject of this work has largely to do with the failings and infirmities and passions of mankind and their accompanying disorders of the imagination, for to these sources must we attribute the epidemic fanaticisms which we meet with in history and elsewhere, simulating at one time an ardent zeal for religion, at another a glowing love of liberty, now a laudable ambition to rise in the world, to attain to power, to obtain wealth, to add field to field, possession to possession, dominion to dominion; anon a strong wish and settled purpose to dominate over others, to master their wills, to invade their rights, to trample down their inferior intelligence, weaker powers, or feebler energies of mind or body.

Striking illustrations will be found in these pages of epidemic fanaticisms, which bring men insensibly from morbid conditions of mind into monomaniacal states of being, into the practice of delusion, and eventually into familiar acquaintance with illusions and hallucinations of a sense or of all the senses.

We are accustomed to regard passing events of an extraordinary character which disturb society, as indications of rather too much political excitement or polemical heat, sectarian strife, competition in trade, monopoly in patronage and preferments, an insufficient police force, an inadequate representation, too little rationalism in religion, or reverence for law, or devotion to material interests, or knowledge of the true principles of political economy.

We find it saves the trouble of thinking deeply, to fall into this way of viewing remarkable outbreaks of popular phrenzy like those of the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, in the years 1792 and 1793 : outbreaks of intolerance and immanity in Spain and Portugal in the times of the Inquisition: outbreaks of barbarity in England and Scotland and the New England States of America, in the proceedings against witches; outbreaks of superstition in various countries in regard to new revelations of pseudo saints, pseudo 'spiritualists', pseudo seers of mesmerism claiming prophetic gifts .. .

The madness of the various forms of fanaticism is not confined to individuals, it extends to communities, at times and intervals more or less widely separated, and seizes on the minds of nations at periods, of greater intervening distances, that have been terminated by great wars, or other grievous public calamities. Such fanaticisms have all the distinguishing characteristics of epidemic mental disorders. They are manifested in a ferocious spirit of intolerance, or a fierce and reckless zeal for party interests, or the triumph of extreme political opinions shaped or influenced by some evil passion or selfish motive . . . or in an inordinate ambition and imperial pride, lust of power, and military renown, and territorial aggrandizement on the part of mighty states; or in a furious impulse to acts of violence and injustice, brutal and sanguinary on the part of great numbers of people .. .

It is with individuals as with nations, they are controlled and restrained by the same influences, or corrupted and perverted by the same wild impulses of passion . . . Hallucinations of various kinds ensue; and imagination dominated by disease will eventually give a being, shape and form, 'a local habitation, and a name', to fixed ideas and chimeras which are the productions of the brain . . . In the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, various commotions which affected the moral sentiments, and the intellectual powers of a considerable number of persons, took place in the principal countries of Europe, in various communities; and signally in the convents of several of the religious orders in France, Spain, and Germany. These disturbances seemed to be of a contagious character, and they prevailed epidemically in particular localities at the same period.

The subject is one of deep interest, and not without its salutary teachings and warnings, for fanaticism, fixed ideas, and delusions of all sorts in our own times : though civilization has advanced, and many branches of learning and physical science have made rapid strides of improvement, and dispelled some of the darkest clouds which obscured the intellect and bewildered the reason of vast numbers of people in former ages. The signal advancement especially of medical science directed to the pursuits of physiology and pathology, in connexion with the study of cerebral disease, has contributed largely to this important result. But manifest as the progress of civilization has been, particularly in the last century and a half, it is very doubtful, if the progress of enlightenment among the masses of any country in Europe, has been of so genuine a character as may be commonly imagined; or if the same predisposing causes were again to come into operation namely, public calamities on a large scale, civil commotions, protracted war, famine, pestilence, religious strife, fanaticism, and oppression they might not produce epidemic mental disorders, as terrible as any which have occurred in past times under the names of Theomania, Demonolatria and Demonopathy, including all the forms of mental illusions connected with witchcraft, communication with spirits, divination, and diabolical possession. The prevailing ideas of modern times, the predominant influences of their politics, polemics, forms of government, industrial pursuits, modes of life, competitions, struggles, sufferings, and privations of the industrious poor, and their influences on the health, morals and energies of the community, would naturally modify the character, and determine the type of those diseased conditions of mind and body which might be expected to arise from widespread calamities in our times. The panics of a community, like the terrors of an individual when they strike deep and are of long continuance . . . are equally likely now, as at any former period, to be followed by mental disorders connected with the prevailing ideas, interests, and speculations of the age . . . Have we such sure grounds for our confidence in its civilization that no fears may be entertained of any recurrence of those bewilderments of reason, widely spread, under which multitudes of people laboured in the 'dark ages' ?

Are we forgetful of the epidemic delirium of the followers of Mr. Thorns in Canterbury and its vicinity, of the belief in his divinity, of the sincerity of that belief, sealed with the blood of several of his followers? Can the theomania of the followers of Johanna Southcote be forgotten ? the information of an extensive sect, deriving their doctrine from the hallucinations of an illiterate, repulsive, dropsical old dame, dreaming in her dotage of the instincts of maternity, and of a divine mission being given to her ? or the delusions of those followers, which were so strongly manifested in the preparation of a costly cradle and swaddling clothes of the finest texture for the expected offspring of an infatuated old woman ? Has the enlightenment of the 19th century so entirely dissipated the dark thick mists of demented superstition that no traces of it are to be found in modern English and American records ?




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