In Bedlam in the New World: A Mexican Madhouse in the Age of Enlightenment (UNC Press, 2022), Cristina Ramos tells us the story of Mexico city’s oldest public institution for the insane, the Hospital de San Hipólito. This institution, founded in 1567, was the first mental hospital in the New World. Remarkable as this fact may be, this book is not simply about the singularity of this institution––though by placing this institution au pair with similar ones in the European context Ramos reframes traditional narratives in the history of psychiatry. What makes this book truly remarkable is that Ramos presents San Hipólito as both a microcosm and a colonial laboratory of the Hispanic Enlightenment. According to Ramos, during the late eighteenth-century madness became understood in increasingly medical terms, and San Hipólito served as a site of care, confinement, and knowledge production.
Heeding the call of scholars who ask that histories of medicine take a more complex view of religion, Ramos traces the medicalization of madness that took place under the Hispanic Enlightenment and shows that the main agents of medicalization were not philosophers or physicians, but the clergy and more surprisingly still, inquisitors. Transcending the walls of the hospital, Ramos takes us to other colonial institutions such as the Holy Office and the criminal secular courts and shows us the stories of the individuals who were taken to San Hipólito. Inquisitors were fundamental actors in this story because, in their purpose of establishing veracity, they were at the forefront of devising new models for undertaking the complexities of human reasoning and the nuances of intent. Bedlam in the New World is a book beautifully written and poignantly argued and will captive listeners who are interested in histories of medicine, madness, colonialism, and religion!
Lisette Varón-Carvajal is a PhD Candidate at Rutgers University. You can tweet and suggest books at @LisetteVaron