Lunatic: a digression

Barbara Rich
5 min readAug 6, 2018

The Master in Lunacy, a title that it might be unsurprising to find on an island in Gulliver’s Travels, was in fact the title of a judicial office in the English High Court between 1846 and 1947. This office later became the Court of Protection — the protection being of the property and finances of people who, in modern language, lacked mental capacity to do so for themselves. But the roots of both law and language of lunacy lie much further in the past. The original meaning of the word, reflected in its derivation from the Latin word luna (the moon) described madness of which the symptoms fluctuated and recurred with changes in the moon, and the Oxford English Dictionary has literary examples of this usage going back to the 14th century. Coke on Littleton in 1628 gave the legal definition: A lunatique that hath sometimes of his understanding and sometimes not.

The origins of a legal duty to protect lunatics as part of the King’s royal prerogative are lost in the mists of antiquity, but a statute of 1324 dealing with the royal prerogative declared that the lands of lunatics

‘shall be safely kept without Waste and Destruction, and that they and their Household shall live and be maintained competently with the Profits of the same, and the Residue besides their Sustenation shall be kept to their Use, to be delivered unto them, when they come to right Mind’

In 1660 the exercise of the royal prerogative over lunatics was delegated to the Lord Chancellor, and eventually this paternal and esoteric jurisdiction was further delegated to other judges and the Victorian and early 20C Masters in Lunacy. Lunacy Acts were passed, Lunacy Commissioners were created, and lunatic asylums flourished. “Lunatic” and “lunacy” only disappeared entirely from English law in 1960, when the Mental Health Act 1959 came into force and repealed all the earlier lunacy legislation, and defined and classified mental disorder in more modern language from which “lunatic” was absent.

The Madhouse — Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress — John Soane Museum, London

By coincidence, I was reading into some of the history of the English law of lunacy in order to write about the historic background to a recent decision of the Court of Protection, when the Sunday Times published its headline of 4 August: Cameron brands Gove a ‘lunatic’, and so the word ‘lunatic’ leaped off the page. As the names in the headline foreshadow, the article is about the recent history of conflict in the Conservative party leading up to and following the 2016 referendum and the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister immediately afterwards. Its specific story was a report that David Cameron blames Michael Gove not Boris Johnson for his defeat in the EU referendum and the loss of his political career and will launch a withering attack on him in his memoirs. According to this report, Cameron had decided to reveal his view of Gove in a series of private conversations, one of which was reported in these terms: [Cameron] was saying [Gove] was a lunatic. He had not realised quite how mad Michael Gove was until that whole incident, the ‘incident’ being Gove’s decision to support the Leave campaign in the referendum. The article went on to say Friends of Gove believe that approach reveals that the former prime minister expected unquestioning loyalty from someone he viewed as a social inferior, while his fellow Old Etonian [Boris Johnson] was quickly readmitted to his circle.

Whatever the truth of this political gossip, the attribution of both the word ‘lunatic’ and an enduring Old Etonian status-consciousness to David Cameron, prompted a moment’s reflection on the word ‘lunatic’ and its popularity in schoolboy slang of the mid-20th century — a popularity which, not strictly confined to Eton, is reflected in middle-class children’s literature of the time. Anthony Buckeridge was an author who used his experiences both as a boarding-school boy and later as a teacher to write the popular series of “Jennings” books, set in a boarding preparatory school in middle England between the end of the second world war and the social revolution of the 1960s, starting with Jennings Goes to School, published in 1950. ‘Lunatic’ here is a cheerful, rather than cruel, insult from one boy to another — used for example when Jennings’ friend, the cautious Darbishire, suggests that the boys avoid spiders in their dormitory by standing on their bedside chairs all night . . . “you’re a maniacal lunatic, Darbishire”.

This schoolboy use of ‘lunatic’ in the 1950s coincides not only with its legal obsolescence and the beginning of an era of greater sensitivity towards the language used to describe various disabilities (compare ‘spastic’ and ‘cretin’), but with the beginning of the space age and the increasingly less ‘lunatic’ idea that men might one day walk on the moon. In According to Jennings, published in 1954, Jennings and his friends form a “Dormitory 6 Flying Saucer, Spaceship and Atomic Rocket Development Corporation” to work out plans for the conquest of space. In devising a space game between astronauts and hostile moon dwellers, Jennings says They’re not called ‘moon dwellers’: the proper name is Lunatickians . . . According to Jennings, the term was derived from the Latin word, luna, meaning a moon, and tick, meaning — er — well, surely they knew what a tick was, didn’t they? They did, for ‘tick’ was another piece of mid-century schoolboy slang, meaning an irritating junior boy.

With the earnest pedantry of a small boy, Jennings writes his address in the front of his school textbooks as “JCT Jennings, Linbury Court School, Dunhambury, Sussex, England, Europe, Eastern Hemisphere, Earth, near Moon, Solar System, Space, near More Space.” “Earth, near Moon” sums it up. In 1967, the Ladybird book How It Works — The Rocket speculated — accurately as the first moon walk was in July 1969 — that Men may land on the moon by 1970. Opposite its closing page entitled The End of the Beginning is B H Robinson’s illustration of a neatly turned-out boy and girl in homely red and blue jumpers, their father sitting behind them, without so much as a space suit or oxygen cylinder between them, gazing at the cratered surface of the moon as it appears to pass close by their rocket craft. This charming image of coming face-to-face with the moon as if looking out of the window of a country bus on a Bank Holiday outing in the Home Counties belongs entirely in the world of Jennings and his Lunatickians, a world now definitively in the past. . . .

B H Robinson’s illustration of a voyage to the moon as imagined by 1960s children

Except that, having written this, whilst searching for an illustration for it, I came across a website where, for £8.50, you can buy a facsimile of a Victorian lunacy certificate, hand printed by traditional letter press, supplied in a red envelope and promoted as an opportunity to certify your friends and family.

Perhaps David Cameron should purchase a supply of them for his rustic writing shed as he completes his memoirs.



Barbara Rich

English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity