French literature examines madness in terms of the individual and the collective identity, so the issue of subjecthood and objecthood is of paramount importance to the discussion of madness in French literature. Madmen in French literature, like in many other cultures, become screens for the projection of certain societal ideas to be portrayed upon. The mysterious nature of the madman, unable or unwilling either to assimilate or to efface himself, makes him an object both of fascination and horror for the group in which he exists. In his strangeness, the madman becomes a screen for the projection of cultural anxieties and the reiteration of prohibitions.[1] Moreover, the relationship between mad people and legal and social code is not defined by their subjection to the rule of law and custom, but by their exclusion from it.[2] Madness, as a narrative trope, allows for an examination of identity construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, and an exploration of the various factors that are thereby brought into play, such as personal self-image, the perceptions of others, and adherence to, or violation of, social conventions. The insane, dysfunctional, or exceptional characters of medieval literature can often be associated with one or the other of the two extremes here stated: the mortification of self through a rigid conformance to the symbolic order, the reduction of self to a machine-like condition; or, the psychotic refusal of the symbolic, the emergence of unsublimated drives, the loss of social identity.

Sylvia Huot discusses madness in French literature at length, focusing particularly on the story of King Arthur, probably the most famous piece of French literature during this period, at least the most recognized by the modern reader. The instance of madness which is most striking in that work is that of Lancelot, who in his love for Guinevere is seen as mad, and forces him to have a stint as the court lunatic. Love madness, as mentioned before, is one of the key forms of extreme emotions causing madness. More importantly, Huot argues that the most prominent character that manifests madness in medieval French literature is that of the court fool or madman. According to Huot, the court fool or madman in the Arthurian world: assumes diverse forms (simple incompetence and naiveté to more serious derangement and manic violence), manifests a split between mind and body (body is physically present and visible and is the only identity he possesses since his mind is no longer present), and he may be a figure of horror, of pity, of comedy, or of contempt.[3]

The mad in the middle ages, as today, are often associated with violence, but also, they were often the focal point of much violence on the part of other people. Violence towards the mad in literature was a matter of recreation, rather than something that was purposeful or symbolic in meaning. Tales of madness in French literature are very often linked with martyrdom, because the madman never dies from abuse, no matter how extreme. Medieval culture also privileged the exposure of the self to violence and mortification of the flesh as laudable acts of heroism and spiritual purification. Thus the spectacle of the mad as a site of violence entails a crucial question of interpretation. As long as the madman is wholly Other, then the violence directed against him is either comical or pathetic, but if he retains a social identity then this violence is invested with meaning: it can be viewed as tragic, as putative, as penitential or redemptive Huot makes the point, at this junction, to emphasize that this relationship between madness, violence, and abuse, further blurs the line between the mad and animals. “In the borderzone between the human and bestial, then, fools and madpeople occupy a particularly precarious position: in so far as they are barely recognizable as humans, it is hardly surprising that they are viewed as fair game for sport and mockery.”[4] It should also be noted that madness in medieval French was firmly rooted in a biblical tradition, which viewed sin as a major cause to the ailment.

[1] Huot, Sylvia. Madness in Medieval French Literature: Identities Found and Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003: 44

[2] Ibid., 63

[3] Huot, Sylvia. Madness in Medieval French Literature: Identities Found and Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003: 58

[4] Huot, Sylvia. Madness in Medieval French Literature: Identities Found and Lost. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003: 87