Skip to main content

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Those They Called Idiots

The Idea of the Disabled Mind from 1700 to the Present Day

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Those They Called Idiots

The Idea of the Disabled Mind from 1700 to the Present Day

Those They Called Idiots traces the little-known lives of people with learning disabilities from the communities of eighteenth-century England to the nineteenth-century asylum, to care in today’s society. Using evidence from civil and criminal courtrooms, joke books, slang dictionaries, novels, art, and caricature, it explores the explosive intermingling of ideas about intelligence and race, while bringing into sharp focus the lives of people often seen as the most marginalized in society.

304 pages | 62 halftones | 6 1/4 x 9 1/4

History: General History

Reaktion Books image

View all books from Reaktion Books


"In his recent magisterial history, Those They Called Idiots, Jarrett describes the foundation in 1855 of 'the world's first purpose-built asylum for idiots,' renamed the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in 1926. As Jarrett observes, the names have changed, but 'there has always been the ‘idiot,’ repackaged and represented by varieties of professionals over time.' . . . Jarrett celebrates the success of the 'great release' of people with learning disabilities from long incarceration. . . . Yet he recognizes that the task of society is still 'to adapt to all its human members.'"

Michael Fitzpatrick | Daily Telegraph

"The history [Jarrett] tells is a complex one, drawing as it does on changing social, cultural, medical, and religious contexts; but Jarrett's superbly clear, jargon-free prose makes the difficult and emotive topics he covers understandable and relatable. This is a book very much alive to the sensitivity of its topic but one careful not to damn the past by the standards of the present."

Fortean Times

“A fascinating and original contribution, similar in its outlook to Michel Foucault’s highly influential work on the treatment of mental illness within Western society. . . . Jarrett has ably kickstarted a long overdue and much needed discussion—let us hope that other voices will follow.”

Morning Star

"Meticulously researched and well written, the book highlights a section of society that has always been present, but has received scant attention before now. The author has worked with people with learning disabilities for many years, and his empathy for them shines through. . . . Very well illustrated."

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine

"Jarrett’s book is an impressive, accessible, and richly illustrated study about a maligned group of people in disability history. He bluntly shows how the evolution of cultural, legal, and medical thinking transformed a general descriptor into a specific label to oppress an entire group of people who continue to live under the shadow of dubious ideas about 'the disabled mind' that are still evident today."


"This is a stunning book. . . . This is the first time I have read an account which delves into the pre-institutionalization era in such depth. . . . Jarrett is a talented historian who writes beautifully. At no point in its 352 pages does he indulge in the obscure jargon which delights too many academics. It is a readable book. . . . We are gradually discovering the value of disability history to give new ways of thinking about the past. This book is a great illustration."

Disability and Society

"A remarkable history of mental disability in England. . . . This important book should be read widely by experts and non-experts alike. It provides a wonderful introduction to the history of mental disabilities. . . . Jarrett’s arguments about the important, and ultimately destructive, connections made between perceived racial differences and intellectual capacities during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are well-founded, persuasive, and seamlessly argued."

Social History of Medicine

"For sheer readability, Jarrett has few peers in the burgeoning field popularly known as the medical humanities."


"Jarrett’s Those They Called Idiots: The Idea of the Disabled Mind from 1700 to the Present Day is a welcome contribution to the history of intellectual disability in the modern West. Focused primarily but not exclusively on Britain, this engaging synthesis draws on a remarkable array of sources—including court documents, philosophical tracts, vernacular dictionaries, medical texts, and lowbrow fiction, as well as secondary works—to locate (in the parlance of the day) 'idiots' and 'imbeciles' within their full place in early modern society. . . . While of interest to specialists and students in fields as wide-ranging as disability studies, the history of medicine, British domestic and imperial history, and the social and cultural history of modernity, this book will have broad appeal beyond the academy."

Canadian Journal of History

"This book takes a chronological journey of the disabled mind, mainly in England, from the early eighteenth century to today. Jarrett presents a well researched, immensely readable, and sensitive book, offering insight and analysis into the experiences and contexts of those called idiots. The central tenet of this book is the way intellectually disabled people experienced a change in perception by the wider community through language, philosophy, and shifting social and cultural mores. Jarrett is a skilled writer who weaves narrative and context in a seamless fashion—he moves effortlessly from outlining eighteenth -century etiquette to recounting individual life stories. . . . This book is an invaluable contribution to the history of intellectual disabilities and offers an example of how looking back presents new ways of going forward."

Family and Community History

"[An] excellent new history. . . . Jarrett has provided an accessible yet scholarly text that must be added to the shortlist of essential histories of intellectual disability. . . . Rather than a return to a begrudging tolerance of pre-institutional community presence, the new expectation should be of community belonging and membership. . . . The need is for adaptation in a spirit of welcome and reception, rather than supervision and control. This book is an excellent summary of how we came to face that choice."

Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities

“This book is an engagingly written, intellectually impressive, and absolutely necessary investigation of some of the most significant processes shaping understandings of idiocy, imbecility, etc., in the periods under discussion. While recent years have seen a (modest) growth in intellectual and cultural histories of the idea of idiocy, Jarrett has brought to light areas that have not previously been explored. His analysis of the intersection of popular, legal, and medical understandings of idiocy and his investigations into visual representations of idiocy in popular art are entirely new within the field and will no doubt stimulate further research into these areas. As a result, this work is a must for historians interested in intelligence, disability, and colonialism, and offers a compelling narrative of how a group of people can be exiled from society—and brought back into it.”

Canadian Journal of Disability Studies

"Too often, we are on the edge of denying a condition of being human. But we need to know our history, and Jarrett is the guide we have been waiting for."

Your Autism

“Jarrett is a mesmerizing historian. He has an ear for tender, and sometimes even funny, stories about people with learning disabilities, while never shying away from the shocking abuse and casual indignities they experienced in the past and continue to be subjected to today. Jarrett overturns many assumptions about the history of disabled people and their interactions with different communities. His book is a history of medicine, science, law, philosophy, and psychology. Most of all, though, it is a history of lived experience. Jarrett’s story is not only a nuanced analysis of the lives of ‘idiots’ from 1700 to the present; it is also a tribute to their struggles, needs, and desires.”

Joanna Bourke, Birkbeck, University of London

“Jarrett’s elegant and provocative book brings into focus for the first time the history of people with intellectual disabilities over three centuries. Drawing on a fascinating set of sources, Jarrett traces the ‘idiot’s’ journey from community life to institutionalization and back again, and in the process uncovers the richness and variety of lives lived by people with intellectual impairments in the past. This is a history marked by cruel stereotyping and harmful policies underpinned by the pseudoscience of eugenics, but it is also a history of love, protection, and integration. This humane history teaches us how society can adapt to accommodate all its members.”

David Turner, author of "Disability in Eighteenth-Century England"

"Jarrett’s Those They Called Idiots is a major rethinking of intellectual disability, from eugenics and the views of institutional authorities of the late nineteenth century to the thoughts and practice of our modern society. Jarrett examines new sources to argue that, while recognized as different in the social structures of a preindustrial or transitional age, there have always been accommodations for the ‘idiot.' Thus our present view of mental incapacity is in fact a continuation of a longstanding awareness of how those with intellectual disabilities can be integrated into society."

Sander L. Gilman, Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychiatry, Emory University

"Jarrett’s exceptionally readable—and beautifully illustrated—history describes in meticulous detail the way that this group has been treated by a largely uncomprehending world. . . . The history of learning disabilities matter to us all because in our response we can see a mirror for who we are and what we care about. We should be grateful to Simon Jarrett for telling this complex, compelling, and frequently troubling story with such tremendous clarity and style. I can’t recommend this wonderful book highly enough, even if—especially if?—you have no lived experience of the subject."

Stephen Unwin, writer, playwright, and director

"This is one of the finest history books I’ve read and a much-needed force for good."

Tom Almeroth-Williams, author of "City of Beasts: How Animals Shaped Georgian London"

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press