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Anatole Le Bras, Un enfant à l’asile

Alexandre Klein
Traducción de William Sarem y Jasmine Zou
Este artículo es una traducción de:
Anatole Le Bras, Un enfant à l’asile. Vie de Paul Taesch (1874-1914)
Un enfant à l'asile
Anatole Le Bras, Un enfant à l'asile. Vie de Paul Taesch (1874-1914), Paris, CNRS, 2018, 297 p., préface de Philippe Artières, ISBN : 978-2-271-11500-3.

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Notas de la redacción

Review translated by William Sarem (ENS de Lyon) and Jasmine Zou (Columbia University, Barnard College), as part of the Transatlantic Collaborative Translation Workshop between Barnard College-Columbia University and the École normale supérieure de Lyon. Supervised by Professors Laurie Postlewate (Barnard-Columbia) & Layla Roesler (ENS de Lyon).

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  • 1 Translator’s note: a département in the Brittany region of France.

1While conducting research on mental hospital patients in the Finistère1 for his Master’s degree, the historian Anatole Le Bras stumbled upon the file of Paul Taesch in the archives of the asylum of Saint-Athanase in Quimper. The “unusual thickness” (p. 17) of the folder caught the attention of the young researcher. Looking through the file, he discovered, among the usual administrative documents and a series of letters exchanged between the institutionalized patient, his family, and his doctor, a long manuscript entitled “My Memoirs.” The discovery of this rare autobiographical document led him to take a closer look at the young Paul Taesch, institutionalized since the age of twelve, who decided on Tuesday March 24, 1896, to put his life down on paper. Following Paul Taesch’s paper trail in the archives of various asylums and hospitals that he frequented, Le Bras reconstructs, stage by stage, the institutionalized life of this young man labeled “abnormal” in the nineteenth century, just as Alain Corbin did, in his time, with the clog-maker Louis-François Pinagot. Le Bras delivers the fascinating results of his research in this first publication.

2As the historian Philippe Artières summarizes in his preface, Le Bras’ book is “a synthesis of sources that produces a singular biography” (p. 10). Indeed, the objective of the author is to recount and contextualize the life of Paul Taesch, based on extant files at the different institutions where he stayed. This life on paper, which the historian decided to follow step by step, sketches out a “polyphonic biography” (p. 21), in which the specific life story of Paul Taesch appears, a story that is specially unique, but also similar to those of dozens, or even hundreds of other psychiatric patients. The files that have preserved the trail of this forgotten existence are fully brought to life by Le Bras. After a very thorough introduction in which he returns to the roots of his project as well as its historiographical and epistemological challenges, the first part of the work is entirely devoted to these files. In the section “The Paul Taesch File,” one can read a faithful transcription of the young man’s memoir, followed by his birth certificate, as well as other components of his file--registrations, certificates, or letters--found by Le Bras in the archives of the institutions that Taesch regularly visited. These institutions are, first, the Asylum of the Young, Disabled, and Poor Boys, then the Asylum of Bicêtre and Ville-Evrard, and lastly the Asylum of Saint-Athanase. The file ends with the transcription of the documents related to his death. Paul Taesch died at the Cochin hospital in 1914. He was only 40 years old. The emphasis placed on the archive as a historical primary source correlates to the author’s project to recount Paul Taesch’s life by analyzing what Artières had called his “written existence.” It also speaks to Le Bras’ resolve to fit in with the current historiographical focus on “history from below,” a genre of historical analysis that has been central to the restructuring of French psychiatry. In distancing himself from the biographies that tend to idolize psychiatrists, their theories, or their famous patients, Le Bras presents an authentic history of madness. Le Bras’ work does not limit itself to discussion of psychiatric history, specifically child psychiatry; it also provides a social history of nonconformity and difference.

  • 2 Désiré Magloire Bourneville (1840-1909) became a doctor at Bicêtre in 1879 and worked to improve co (...)

3The second part of the book is dedicated to a study of the various “lives of Paul Taesch,” examining his time as a psychiatric patient, as an institutionalized person, and as an ex-psychiatric patient. These three facets are, in the words of Le Bras, “the patient, the institutionalized, and the social being” (p. 39). First, the historian Le Bras endeavors to contextualize the various disorders for which Paul Taesch was successively diagnosed: epilepsy, hysteria, perversion, and factitious disorder. In particular, Le Bras revisits the field of childhood psychiatry in the nineteenth century and the important contributions made then by Désiré Magloire Bourneville2 within it. He thus shows how the complex psychiatric life of this young mental patient reflected a period of transformation in the sub-fields of psychiatry, such as the classification of disorders, disciplinary practices, and the still-developing field of child psychiatry. Then, Le Bras concentrates on Paul Taesch’s time as an institutionalized patient, detailing the nature and operation of the various institutions in which he stayed. He thereby illustrates what the daily life of this atypical young man could have looked like in the French system of mental institutions at the end of the nineteenth century. He also depicts how, with time, Paul had become an “undesirable” (p. 211) patient, due to his rebellious nature or inability to adapt to the norms of confinement. Finally, Le Bras attempts to portray Paul Taesch’s life outside of the walls of the mental institution, between periods of confinement as well as that between his final discharge and death. He questions the likelihood that this young man, who grew up in institutions, could adapt to life in society and its demands, rules, and constraints. He thus opens a broader and rarely tackled discussion on the difficulty of reintegrating formerly institutionalized patients into society. Le Bras points out the weaknesses of psychiatric assistance, the limits of aid associations, and the reluctance or inability of families to offer support. In the end, he tries to understand how and why throughout his life, Paul Taesch never stopped returning to these institutions where he had made his life, apparently incapable of adapting to existence outside the asylum. However, all paper trails of Paul Taesch disappear between his discharge from the Ville-Evrard asylum in 1906 and his death in 1914, implying that for at least some years, he managed to live a “normal” life. But as his last discharge in 1906 marks the end of his written records, Le Bras can only speculate what happened to him during this period.

  • 3 See for example: Cellard André and Thifault Marie-Claude, Une toupie sur la tête. Visages de la fol (...)

4Using Paul Taesch’s institutional records, Anatole Le Bras plunges us into the daily life of the nineteenth century asylum patient. Not only that, Le Bras also effectively illustrates the torments of an “abnormal” person in this era. Subjected to diagnosis after diagnosis, shuffled from institution to institution, Paul Taesch could no longer adapt to life in society. His identity was irrevocably tied to his frequent institutionalization. Le Bras makes visible both the diversity of mental institutions, which tend to be grouped under the umbrella term “asylum”, as well as their essential permeability. He sketches an image of asylums that is far from the clichéd notion of a place where the mentally ill enter and do not leave until they die, condemned to indefinite internment and made into chronically ill patients dependent on institutionalization. He shows clearly that as early as the nineteenth century, trans-institutional trajectories were numerous, and the challenges, possibilities, and importance of reintegrating patients were already present. Above all, Le Bras meticulously and skilfully brings Paul Taesch back to life, a figure who would have otherwise remained at the bottom of a dusty archival box, forgotten like thousands of others. Indeed, the study of psychiatry, especially in the French-speaking world, has been slow to examine all the perspectives of stakeholders in the field of mental health, especially those of patients like Paul Taesch. While it is unfortunate that neither the author, nor the preface writer, seems to be aware of existing North American francophone literature on the experiences of psychiatric patients (like the pioneering work of Marie-Claude Thifault or of Isabelle Perreault3), we should applaud Le Bras’ efforts. He offers us a work of high quality, specialized and accessible, which is the result of substantial research and contributes to a renewal of French psychiatric historiography. Due to its thoroughness, topic of study, and refreshing angle, Le Bras’ work will no doubt become both a reference work for scholars of psychiatric history, as well as a compelling study for all historians of the nineteenth century.

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1 Translator’s note: a département in the Brittany region of France.

2 Désiré Magloire Bourneville (1840-1909) became a doctor at Bicêtre in 1879 and worked to improve conditions for children in the hospital. He criticized the use of the stigmatizing terms “idiot” and “moron,” and advocated for the educability of these “abnormal” children, who were often regarded as incurable. At Bicêtre, he created a special department for children with mental disorders, which was part of an innovative process of de-confinement and medico-pedagogical care for these hitherto overlooked patients.

3 See for example: Cellard André and Thifault Marie-Claude, Une toupie sur la tête. Visages de la folie à Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, Montréal, Boréal, 2007; Thifault Marie-Claude, « L’enfer préasilaire à la fin du XIXe siècle et au début du XXe : perceptions, interprétations et discours masculins sur la folie des femmes mariées », Recherches féministes, vol. 23, n° 2, 2010, p. 127-142; Thifault Marie-Claude, and Perreault Isabelle, « Premières initiatives d’intégration sociale des malades mentaux dans une phase de pré-désinstitutionnalisation : l’exemple de Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, 1910-1950 », Histoire sociale/Social History, vol. 44, n° 88, nov. 2011, p. 197-222.

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Referencia electrónica

Alexandre Klein, « Anatole Le Bras, Un enfant à l’asile », Lectures [En línea], Reseñas, Publicado el 11 febrero 2021, consultado el 22 julio 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Alexandre Klein

Alexandre Klein is a historian and a philosopher specializing in the health sciences. He holds a post-doctoral research position in science history at the Université Laval (Québec).

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