Benoît Majerus and Anne Roekens have edited a special issue of the Journal of Belgian History entitled “Histories of Psychiatry”, which developed out of the study day “History, archives and psychiatry: prospects for Belgium”, held in Namur in May 2014. This issue investigates the history of Belgian psychiatry, which has long remained unexplored. Writings on this subject were initially produced by practitioners, but these texts rarely made a concerted effort to draw on past experience as a way of shedding light on present practices. Only two historical players feature in all retrospective narratives: the alienist Joseph Guislain and the Geel colony. There has been some research on the social and legal aspects of psychiatry but most of the historiographical production in the field has come from institutions themselves, often in the form of commemorative publications. Although this institution-based material is a rich source, it is somewhat detached from more topical issues that are of interest to researchers in the fields of history in general and the history of psychiatry in particular.
Focusing on Belgian psychiatry not only creates the opportunity to contribute to new discussions about Belgian history in general; it also makes for an interesting case study for the history of psychiatry because the field of alienism was one that developed at an international level, through a pooling of scientific knowledge and experience. The fact that psychiatry in Belgium is characterised by the strong involvement of religious players also provides a fascinating new perspective on the close relationship between religion and psychiatry.
The issue contains five articles that reflect on different historiographical trends (the importance of postgraduate research on psychiatry, the relevance of psychiatry for other historiographical fields and the importance of commemorative research) as well as current research interests that are emerging in the history of Belgian psychiatry (transnational dimensions of the development of psychiatric knowledge, psychiatry from the angle of architecture, legislative and political aspects regarding psychiatric patients and the psychiatric system).
Two of these contributions were by members of the C2DH. The article “Deadly Vulnerabilities. The provisioning of psychiatric asylums in Occupied Belgium (1914-1918)” by Benoît Majerus and Anne Roekens aims to contextualise and shed light on the living conditions of patients who were admitted to psychiatric asylums during the occupation of 1914-1918. Via this particular case study the impact of a food crisis on the treatment of vulnerable groups is analysed. The article “De Société de Médecine Mentale de Belgique in transnationaal perspectief (1869-1900)” by Eva Andersen focuses on transnational contacts, a research area that, particularly in Belgium, has hitherto been addressed only very superficially. The article attempts to fill this void by analysing the international profile of the Société de Médecine Mentale de Belgique and the impact of foreign alienists on Belgian psychiatry.