The Great Confinement [of the Idle] (From Madness and Civilization, by Michel Focault)

The passage below is specifically taken from The Foucault Reader, pp. 130-138. Any mistakes, grammatical errors, or other faults are mine.It this entire, rather undifferentiated mass at which the edict of 1657 is aimed: a population without resources, without social moorings, a class of rejected or rendered mobile by new economic developments.

Less than two weeks after it was signed, the edict was read and proclaimed in the streets.

Paragraph 9: “We expressly prohibit and forbid all persons of either sex, of any locality and of any age, of whatever breeding and birth, and in whatever condition they may be, able-bodied or invalid, sick or convalescent, curable or incurable, to beg in the city and the suburbs of Paris, neither in the churches, nor at the doors of such, nor at the doors of houses nor in the streets, nor where else in public, nor in secret, by day or night … under pain of being whipped for the first offense, and for the second condemned to the galleys if men and boys, banished if women and girls.”

The year after—Sunday, May 13, 1657—-a high mass in honor of the Holy Ghost was sung at the Church of Saint-Louis de la Pitie, and on the morning of Monday the fourteenth, the militia, which was to become in the mythology of popular terror, “the archers of the Hopital,” began to hunt down beggars and herd them into different buildings of the Hopital.

Four years later, La Salpetriere housed 1,460 women and small children, at La Pitie there were 98 boys, 897 girls between seven and seventeen, and 95 women; at Bicetre, 1,615 adult men; at La Savonnerie, 305 boys between eight and thirteen; finally, Scipion lodged 530 pregnant women, nursing women, and very young children.

Initially, married people, even in need, were not admitted; the administration was instructed to feed them at home; but soon, thanks to a grant from Mazarin, it was possible to lodge them at La Salpetriere.

In all, between five and six thousand persons.

Throughout Europe, confinement had the same meaning, at least if we consider its origin.

It constituted one of the answers the seventeenth century gave to an economic crisis that affected the entire Western world: reduction of wages, unemployment, scarcity of coin—the coincidence of these phenomena probably being due to a crisis in the Spanish economy. Even England, of all the countries of Western Europe the least dependent on the system, had to solve the same problems. Despite all of the measures taken to avoid unemployment and the reduction of wages, poverty continued to spread in the nation.

In 1622 appeared a pamphlet, Grievous Groan for the Poor, attributed to Thomas Dekker, which, emphasizing the danger, condemns the general negligence: “Through the number of the poor do daily increase, all things yet worketh for the worst in their behalf; … many of these parishes turneth for their poor, yea, and steal for their maintenance, so that the economy is pitifully pestered with them.”

It was feared that they would overrun the country, and since they could not, as on the Continent, cross the border into another nation, it was proposed that they be “banished and conveyed to the New-found Land, the East and West Indies.”

In 1630, the king established a commission to assure the rigorous observance of the Poor Laws. That same year it published a series of “orders and directions”; it recommended prosecuting beggars and vagabonds, as well as “all those who live in idleness and will not work for reasonable wages or who spend what they have in taverns.”

They must be punished according to law and placed in houses of correction; as for those with wives and children, investigation must be made as to whether they were married and their children baptized, “for these people live like savages without being married, nor buried, nor baptized; and it is this licentious liberty which causes so many to rejoice in vagabondage.”

Despite the recovery that began in England in the middle of the century, the problem was still unsolved in Cromwell’s time, for the lord mayor complains of “this vermin that troops about the city, disturbing public order, assaulting carriages, demanding alms with loud cries at the doors of churches and private houses.”

For a long time, the house of correction or the premises of the Hopital General would serve to contain the unemployed, the idle, and vagabonds. Each time a crisis occurred and the number of the poor sharply increased, the houses of confinement regained, at least for a time, their initial economic significance.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, there was another great crisis: 12,000 begging workers at Rouen and as many at Tours; at Lyons the manfactories closed. The count d’Argenson, “who commands the department of Paris and the marshalseas,” gave orders “to arrest all the beggars of the kingdom; the marshalseas will perform this task in the countryside, while the same thing is done in Paris, whither they are sure not to return, being entrapped on all sides.”

But outside of the periods of crisis, confinement acquired another meaning. It’s repressive function was combined with a new use. It was no longer merely a question of confining those out of work, but of giving work to those who had been confined and thus making them contribute to the prosperity of all.

The alternation is clear: cheap manpower in the periods of full employment and high salaries; and in the periods of unemployment, reabsorption of the idle and social protection against agitation and uprisings.

Let us not forget that the first houses of confinement appear in England in the most industrialized parts of the country: Worcester, Norwich, Bristol; that the first hopital general was opened in Lyons, forty years before that of Paris; that Hamburg was the first German city to have its Zuchthaus, in 1620.

Its regulations, published in 1622, were quite precise.

The internees must all work.

Exact record was kept of the value of their work, and they were paid a fourth of it. For work was not only an occupation, it must be productive. The eight directions of the house established a general plan. The Wekmeister assigned a task to each, and ascertained at the end of the week that it had been accomplished.

The rule of work would remain in effect until the end of the eighteenth century, since John Howard could still attest that they were “knitting and spinning; weaving stockings, linen, hair, and wool—and rasping logwood and harshorn. The quota of a robust man who shreds such wood is forty-five pounds a day. Some men and horses labour at a fulling-mill. A blacksmith works there without cease.”

Each house of confinement in German had its specialty: spinning was paramount in Bremen, Brunswick, Munich, Breslau, Berlin; weaving in Hanover. The men shredded wood in Bremen and Hamburg. In Nuremberg they polished optical glass; at Mainz the principal labor was the milling of flour.

The first houses of correction were opening in England during a full economic recession. The act of 1610 recommended only joining certain mills and weaving and carding shops to all houses of correction in order to occupy the pensioners. But what had been a moral requirement became an economic tactic when commerce and industry recovered after 1651, the economic situation have been reestablished by the Navigation and and the lowering of the discount rate.

All able-bodied manpower was used to the best advantage, that is, as cheaply as possible.

When John Carey established his workhouse projects in Bristol, he ranked the need for work first: “The poor of both sexes … may be employed in beating hemp, dressing and spinning flax, or in carding wool and cotton.”

At Worcester, they manufactured clothes and stuffs; a workshop for children was established. All of which did not always proceed without difficulties. It was suffered that the workhouses might enter the local industries and markets, on the principle perhaps that such cheap production would have a regulatory effect on the sale price.

But the manufactories persisted.

Daniel Defoe noticed that by the effect of the too east competition of the workhouses, poverty was created in one area on the pretext of suppressing it in another; “it is giving to one what you take away from another; putting a vagabond in an honest man’s employment, and putting diligence on the tenters to find out some other work to maintain his family.”

Faced with this danger of competition, the authorities let the work gradually disappear. The pensioners could no longer earn even enough to pay for their upkeep; at times it was necessary to put them in prison so that they might at least have free bread.

As for the bridewells, as Howard attested, there were few, “in which any work is done, or can be done. The prisoners have neither tools, nor materials of any kind: but spend their time in sloth, profaneness and debauchery.”

When the Hopital General was created in Paris, it was intended above all to suppress beggary, rather than to provide an occupation for the internees. It seems, however, that Colbert, like his English contemporaries, regarded assistance through work as both a remedy to unemployment and a stimulus to the development of manufactories.

In any case, in the provinces the directors were to see that the houses of charity had a certain economic significance.

“All the poor who are capable of working must, upon work days, do what is necessary to avoid idleness, which is the mother of all evils, as well as to accustom them to honest toil and also to earning some part of their sustenance.”

Sometimes there were even arrangements which permitted private entrepreneurs to utilize the manpower of the asylums for their own profit. It was stipulated, for example, according to an agreement made in 1708, that an entrepreneur should furnish the Charite of Rulle with wool, soap, and coal, and in return the establishment would redeliver the wool carded and spun. The profit was divided between the entrepreneur and the hospital.

Even in Paris, several attempts were made to transform the buildings of the Hopital General into factories. If we can believe the author of an anonymous memoire that appeared in 1790, at La Pitie “all the varieties of manufacture that could be offered to the capital” were attempted; finally, “in a kind of despair, a manufacture was undertaken of a sort of lacing found to be the least costly.”

Elsewhere, such efforts were scarcely more fruitful.

Numerous efforts were made at Bicetre: manufacture of thread and rope, mirror polishing, and especially the famous “great well.” An attempt was even made, in 1781, to teams of prisoners for the horses that brought up the water, in relay from five in the morning to eight at night: “what reason could have determined this strange occupation? Was it that of economy or simply the necessity of busying the prisoners? If the latter, would it not have been better to occupy them with work more useful both for them and the hospital? If for reasons of economy, we are a long way from finding any.”

During the entire eighteenth century, the economic significance Colbert wanted to give the Hopital General continued to recede; that center of forced labor would become a place of privileged idleness. “What is the source of the disorders at Bicetre?” the men of the Revolution were again to ask. and they would supply the answer that had already been given in the seventeenth century: “It is idleness. What is the means of remedying it? Work.”

The classical age used confinement in an equivocal manner, making it play a double role; to reabsorb unemployment, or at least eliminate its most visible social effects, and to control costs when they seemed likely to become too high; to act alternatively on the manpower market and on the cost of production.

As it turned out, it does not seem that the houses of confinement were able to play effectively the double role that was expected of them. If they absorbed the unemployed, it was mostly to mask their poverty, and to avoid the social or political disadvantages of agitation; but at the very moment the unemployed were herded into forced-labor shops, unemployment increased in neighboring regions or similar areas.

As for the effect on production costs, it could only be artificial, the market price of such products being disproportionate to the cost of manufacture, calculated according to the expenses occasioned by confinement itself.

… It was in a certain experience of labor that the indissociably economic and moral demand for confinement was formulated. Between labor and idleness in the classical world ran a lie of demarcation that replaced the exclusion of leprosy. The asylum was substituted for the lazar house, in the geography of haunted places as in the landscape of the moral universe. The old rites places as in the landscape of the moral universe. The old rites of excommunication were revived, but in the world of production and commerce.

It was in these places of doomed and despised idleness, in this space invented by a society which had derived an ethical transcendence from the law of work, that madness would appear and soon expand until it had annexed them.

A day was to come when it could possess these sterile reaches of idleness by a sort of very old and very dim right of inheritance. The nineteenth century would consent, would even insist that to the mad and to them alone be transferred these lands on which, a hundred and fifty years before, men had sough to pen the poor, the vagabond, the unemployed.

It is not immaterial that madmen were included in the proscription of idleness.

From its origin, they would have their place beside the poor, deserving or not, and the idle, voluntary place beside the poor, deserving or not, and the idle, voluntary or not. Like them, they would be subject to the rules of forced labor. More than once, in fact, they figured in their singular fashion within this uniform constraint. In the workshops in which they were interned, they distinguished themselves by their inability to work and to follow the rhythms of collective life.

The necessity, discovered in the eighteenth century, to provide a special regime for the insane and the great crisis of confinement that shortly preceded the Revolution are linked to the experience of madness available in the universal necessity of labor. Men did not wait until the seventeenth century to “shut up” the mad but it was in this period that they began to “confine” or “intern” them, along with an entire population with whom their kingship was recognized.

Until the Renaissance, the sensibility to madness was linked to the presence of imaginary transcendeces. In the classical age, for the first time, madness was perceived through a condemnation of idleness and in a social immanence guaranteed by the community of labor. The community acquired an ethical power of segregation, which permitted it to eject, as into another world, all forms of social uselessness.

It was in this other world, encircled by the sacred powers of labor, that madness would assume the status we know attribute to it. If there is, in classical madness, something which refers elsewhere, and to other things, it is no longer because the madman comes from the world of the irrational and bears its stigmata; rather, it is because he crosses the frontiers of bourgeois order of his own accord, and alienates himself outside the sacred limits of its ethic.

In fact, the relation between the practice of confinement and the insistence on work is not defined by economic conditions; far from it. A moral perception sustains and animates it. When the Board of Trade published its report on the poor in which it proposed the means “to rend them useful to the public,” it was made quite clear that the origin of poverty was neither scarcity of commodities nor unemployment, but “the weakening of discipline and the relaxation of morals.”

The edict of 1657, too, was full of moral denunciations and strange threads. “The libertineage of beggars has risen to excess because of an unfortunate tolerance of crimes of all sorts, which attract the curse of God upon the State when they remain unpunished.”

This “libertinage” is not the kind that can be defined in relation to the great law of work, but a moral libertinage: “Experience having taught those persons who are employed in charitable occupations that many among them of either sex live together without marriage, that many of their children are unbaptized, and that almost all of them live in ignorance of religion, disdaining the sacraments, and continually practicing all sorts of vice.”

Hence the Hopital does not have the appearance of a mere refuge for those whom age, infirmity, or sickness keep from working; it will have not only the aspect of a forced labor camp, but also that of a moral institution responsible for punishing, for correcting a certain moral “abeyance” which does not merit the tribunal of men, but cannot be corrected by the severity of penance alone. The Hopital General has an ethical status.

It is this moral charger which invests its directors, and they are granted every judicial apparatus and means of repression: “They have power of authority, of direction, of administration, of commerce, of police, of jurisdiction, of correction and punishment”; and to accomplish this task “stakes, irons, prisons, and dungeons” are put at their disposal.

And it is in this context that the obligation to work assumes its meaning as both ethical exercise and moral guarantee. It will serve as askesis, as punishment, as symptom of a certain disposition of the heart. The prisoner who could and who would work would be released, not so much because he was again useful to society, but because he had again subscribed to the great ethical pact of human existence.

In April 1684, a decree created within the Hopital a section for boys and girls under twenty-give; it specified that work must occupy the greater part of the day, and must be accompanied by, “the reading of pious books.”

But the ruling defines the purely repressive nature of this work, beyond any concern for production: “They will be made to work as long and as hard as their strengths and situations will permit.”

It is then, but only then, that they can be taught an occupation “fitting their sex and inclination,” insofar as the measure of their zeal in the first activities make it possible to “judge that they desire to reform.”

Finally, every fault “will be punished by reduction of gruel, by increase of work, by imprisonment and other punishments customary in the said hospitals, as the directors see fit.”

It is enough to read the “general regulations for daily life in the House of Saint-Louis de la Salpetritere” to understand that the very requirement of labor was instituted as an exercise in moral reform and constraint, which reveals, if not the ultimate meaning, at least the essential justification of confinement.

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