Historical views and treatment
Madness, the non-legal word for insanity, has been recognized throughout history in every known society. Some traditional cultures have turned to witch doctors or shamans to apply magic, herbal mixtures, or folk medicine to rid deranged persons of evil spirits or bizarre behavior, for example. Archaeologists have unearthed skulls (at least 7000 years old) that have small, round holes bored in them using flint tools. It has been conjectured that the subjects may have been thought to have been possessed by spirits which the holes would allow to escape. However, more recent research on the historical practice of trepanning supports the hypothesis that this procedure was medical in nature and intended as means of treating cranial trauma.
The Greeks appeared to share something of today's secular and holistic view, believing that afflictions of the mind did not differ from diseases of the body. Moreover, they saw mental and physical illness as a result of natural causes and an imbalance in bodily humors. Hippocrates frequently wrote that an excess of black bile resulted in irrational thinking and behavior.
Romans made other contributions to psychiatry, in particular a precursor of some contemporary practice. They put forward the idea that strong emotions could lead to bodily ailments, the basis of today’s theory of psychosomatic illness. The Romans also supported humane treatment of the mentally ill, and in so doing codified into law the principle of insanity as a mitigation of responsibility for criminal acts, although the criterion for insanity was sharply set as the defendant had to be found "non compos mentis", a term meaning "not sound of mind".
From the Middle Ages onwards
The Middle Ages, however, witnessed the end of the progressive ideas of the Greeks and Romans.
During the 18th century, the French and the British introduced humane treatment of the clinically insane, though the criteria for diagnosis and placement in an asylum were considerably looser than today, often including such conditions as speech disorder, speech impediments, epilepsy, and depression or being pregnant out of wedlock.
Europe's oldest asylum was the precursor of today's Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, known then as Bedlam, which began admitting the mentally ill in 1403 and is mentioned in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The first American asylum was built in Williamsburg, Virginia, circa 1773. Before the 19th century these hospitals were used to isolate the mentally ill or the socially ostracized from society rather than cure them or maintain their health. Pictures from this era portrayed patients bound with rope or chains, often to beds or walls, or restrained in straitjackets.