Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam), Southwark, London. I went to school ...

The word “bedlam” is not used much anymore, but has the meaning of uproar, mayhem and the chaotic. 

The word comes from a very particular place, the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital. Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, which goes back to the year 1247. It is also known as St. Maty Bethlehem.

The word “Bedlam” comes from the pronunciation, an old shortening of the word “Bethlehem”. The hospital has operated continuously for centuries, with many periods in which patients were treated in ways that today would be seen as barbaric. 

While conditions varied greatly over the centuries, sanitary conditions were often deplorable, the inmates were malnourished and the structure degraded. In the 1600s and 1700s in particular, the general public was allowed to visit and the patients became essentially a kind freak show. Inmates were sometimes chained to the wall and encouraged to roar for visitors.

This was apparently justified by the notion that seeing the incurably insane was an object lesson in what happened when passions were allowed to overcome reason. “Bedlam” in the meaning of a chaotic uproar would have originated with visitors delighted at the roaring, screaming, and screeching of inmates.

Today the hospital is a modern and respected institution, with little indication of its infamous past.

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