Friday, 23 December 2011
Christmas in Bedlam
Posted by M.H. Forsyth
My life, my flat and my diary are all utter bedlam, which is rather appropriate for Christmas. You see, bedlam is simply a variant form of Bethlehem.
The Wycliffite Bible of the fourteenth century says that Jesus was born in Bedleem, but the King James Version took us back to Bethlehem because it's closer to the Hebrew. However, the two pronunciations were pretty much interchangeable until the end of the sixteenth century.
So the chaos and pandemonium of Christmas? That is down to the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem for the poor distracted people of London. Distracted in this context means mad, for St Mary of Bedlam was the original English madhouse. As the C17th playwright and inmate Nathaniel Lee put it
They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.
As the Bethlehem/Bedlam hospital was the most famous madhouse in Britain it easily became a byword for any disordered place filled with poor distracted people like me.
The reasons for my distraction are legion. The Etymologicon is still number one in the Amazon charts, which is playing havoc with my liver. This success is despite my writing, and purely because it has been read so well by Hugh Dennis, whose last instalment can be listened to here. And as a result of all this curiousness I've just been interviewed for this evening's Channel 4 news. Link will follow.
The Bethlem Royal Hospital still exists, is still a psychiatric hospital, and is now based in Bromley in South London.
And here is Hogarth's great painting of Bedlam Hospital: