I’ve written a whole chapter on the link between the development of medieval legal processes and the conceptual genesis of the ‘idiot’ (in Latin: idiota) as someone deemed not mentally competent enough to take charge of their affairs. Because this is now in print in a book and, unlike this blog, can no longer be altered or added to, here is a little coda to that chapter.

Recently I have come across a small side-note in a fascinating but generally under-rated book, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, by Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders (London: Penguin, 1989). Here the concept of ‘juristification’ is described, except that Illich and Sanders did not use this neologism. Juristification is, like the perhaps more familiar term medicalisation, describing a process whereby something, in this case the law, increasingly penetrates society. In the Middle Ages laws, legislation, legal matters, jurisprudence all start pervading cultural mentalities and attitudes. As Illich and Sanders observed (p. 36), juristification started with topographical descriptions which had a legal usage before they were taken up by the language of science from the early modern period onwards.

What this means is best illustrated by way of an example: when earlier medieval charters and other documents pertaining to possession and landownership circumscribed the object of possession, they used natural phenomena to delineate the boundary. “From the old oak tree to the waterfall then past the big rock, the land belongs to X…” Since there are potentially many trees, it was important that this particular boundary tree was marked as an oak tree, and in addition not a small, thin young tree, but an old oak. This may not be as ‘scientific’ sounding a description as, say, the modern “Quercus robur” might entail, but it made a start. Thus the accurate observation and description of nature had a legal purpose in defining property boundaries centuries before similar observational language was used by natural science (which incidentally is also about ordering and rationalising the phenomena of the natural world according to a human-devised system).

Something similar happened in the case of medieval ‘idiocy’, where legal definitions and observations of ‘idiocy’ preceded medical ones. Legalism is a ‘first’ in that it introduced a way of thinking (ordering and rationalising) which only afterwards made its wider impact felt on society. So don’t blame the physicians for the excesses of medicalisation, blame the lawyers for the juristification which made it all possible in the first place.

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