Lunatics on the Page

Madness appears as a regular feature of period fiction, and not just in recent years. Notable titles with this theme include The Metamorphosis, The Awakening, MacBeth, The Yellow Wallpaper, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, The Secret History, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  History includes such crazies as Caligula (kicked wife to death), Ivan the Terrible (murdered his son),


ivan the terrible




Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (spoke to disembodied voices), and King Ludwig of Bavaria (built the Sleeping Beauty Castle). These royals’ mania may have derived from chromosomal defect, excessive medical bleeding, or outright poisoning (George III was treated with arsenic for his episodes of derangement).

I have borrowed the insanity theme in my current work, and I name my madman Domenico, Duke of Sardinia. The fellow is a claimant to royalty, only, and he visibly suffers from a not-well-known nervous condition that I have named porphyria —


a chromosomal abnormality that produces symptoms like paranoia, speaking to persons not there, rages of temper, excessive violence,  aggrandizement, cruelty, physical pain the arms and legs, stomach cramps, and blistering of the skin.

Makes you want to meet this guy, don’t it?

You may ask where else porphyria occurs in history. The most obvious candidates for the illness are King George III (lost the Colonies, George), James V of Scotland, Mary Queen of Scots, and several of Queen Victoria’s children. Each of these royals suffered from digestive pain, they passed deep red or purple urine, experienced great weakness, bouts of mania, convulsions, speaking to invisible figures, and in many cases early death.

Recent research points to a newfound alternate cause of George III’s symptoms, however. This year, a team conducted research on the correspondence of king George and submitted findings to the psychology journal PLOS ONE. A robot went to work on the monarch’s 60-year letter collection. Programmers directed the bot to search for particular terms which derive from the lexicon typical of certain psychiatric and neurological conditions. The result of the research yielded an new diagnosis — that George suffered from bi-polarism and not porphyria. Here are some lines from the article:

Using a technique called machine learning, the researchers taught the computer to identify 29 written features used to differentiate between people who have mental disorders and people who do not. These features included how complex the sentences are, how rich a vocabulary is used and the frequency and variety of words.

Their results suggest that the king suffered from “acute mania,” an excitable, hyperactive condition that could resemble the manic phase of what is now known as bipolar disorder.

As a result of George III’s symptoms, his son, the Prince of Wales, took over the throne as regent, which is something that has had to happen during numerous monarchies (and presidencies) when the leader cannot perform duties safely and with competence. I wonder greatly if we will consider the Trump era in these terms and if American history, 2016-20 will be considered years of sanity, or something else.




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