Madness and Civilization


The Great Confinement

Summary The Great Confinement


The classical age reduced madness to silence, after the Renaissance liberated it. The seventeenth century created enormous houses of confinement; one percent of the population of Paris was put there. From the mid-seventeenth century, madness was linked to confinement, which was a place for the unemployed, prisoners, the poor and the insane. 1656 is a key date; it represents the founding of the Hopital General in Paris. This was not a medical establishment; it had a semijuridical and administrative structure. It had absolute sovereignty over its inhabitants, and jurisdiction without appeal. The Hopital General is related to royal power. This kind of absolutist state extended throughout France and the rest of Europe; government and the Church worked together in a project of confinement. In England, the origins of confinement are less certain. Houses of correction developed in the late sixteenth century. They spread across the country in the seventeenth century.

Confinement became an amalgam of various elements, but at the beginning a certain unity must have existed. A particular group was chosen to replace the leper in places of confinement; we need to discover what constituted this group. Various themes are important in this new attitude to madness: a new attitude to poverty, new reactions to the economic problems of unemployment and idleness, a new work ethic and a new vision of the city in which moral obligation and civil law are linked within authoritarian constraint. These themes were present in the city of confinement and explain how the classical period perceived madness.

Confinement in eighteenth century Europe was related to the police. The police in this sense make work possible and necessary for those who cannot do without it. Confinement is not initially required for taking care the sick, but because of an "imperative of labor". Confinement is closely linked to the condemnation of idleness. From the Renaissance onwards, cities were concerned with ridding themselves of beggars and labor problems. Confinement edicts were aimed at the mass of unemployed population that was rejected and mobilized by the new economic developments. Confinement was one of the answers the seventeenth century gave to the problems of economic crisis. The houses of correction contained vagabonds, the idle and the unemployed. But confinement acquired another meaning outside the crisis period. It became a way of making the confined work and contributing to the prosperity of all. Houses of correction were economic institutions. The classical age used confinement in ambiguous ways to reabsorb unemployment and to reduce labor costs. Measured in these functional terms, houses of correction failed. But labor had ethical status in the classical period. It was a general solution to poverty and the opposite of poverty. They believed that idleness was the chief sin because the idle man feels he does not have to work.

A certain experience of labor formulated a demand for confinement. Confinement was a place of depraved idleness. Madness appeared in a space which a society that placed a high ethical value on labor created. Madness was first defined as another place in which work was sacred. What was new about the classical period was that men were confined to the city in which moral law was applied to all in a physical way. Morality was administered like trade and the economy. A strange moral city existed, in which representations of good were imposed on those who tried to avoid it. Houses of confinement aimed to instill a moral and religious order in their prisoners. The house of confinement was a symbol of a police that saw itself as the civil equivalent of religion for the edification of the perfect city. Confinement was an institutional construction peculiar to the seventeenth century, but it was also important in the history of unreason. It marked the point at which madness became one of the problems of the city. Less than half a century after madness was openly seen in King Lear and Don Quixote, it was confined and bound to reason and morality.


Madness and Civilization is organized around key shifts in the status of madness within society. The Great Confinement is one of these shifts. Confinement involves a series of measures—building houses of confinement and prisons, the creation of a new kind of social space, and the realignment of madness within this space.

Buildings were important as the means by which confinement was achieved. They also have great symbolic value. The Hopital General represents the beginning of confinement and the only place of confinement that Foucault analyzes. Taking one building or text as representative of a whole movement is typical of Foucault's approach.