Colorado College Professor of History Susan Ashley has published a new book, “‘Misfits’ in Fin-de-Siècle France and Italy.” The book, published by Bloomsbury, focuses on conceptions of marginality in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe.
As the 19th century drew to a close, France and Italy experienced an explosion of crime, vagrancy, insanity, neurosis, and sexual deviance. “‘Misfits’ in Fin-de-Siècle France and Italy” examines how the raft of self-appointed experts that subsequently emerged tried to explain this aberrant behavior and the many consequences this had.
Ashley considers why these different phenomena were understood to be interchangeable versions of the same inborn defects. The book looks at why specialists in newly-minted disciplines in medicine and the social sciences, such as criminology, neurology, and sexology, all claimed that biological flaws – some inherited and some arising from illness or trauma – made it impossible for these “misfits” to adapt to modern life.
Ashley then goes on to analyze the solutions these specialists proposed, often distinguishing between born deviants who belonged in asylums or prisons and “accidental misfits” who deserved solidarity and social support through changes to laws relating to issues such as poverty and unemployment.
The study draws on a comprehensive examination of contemporary texts and features the work of leading authorities such as Cesare Lombroso, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Théodule Ribot, as well as investigators less known now but influential at the time. The comparative aspect also interestingly shows that experts collaborated closely across national and disciplinary borders, employed similar methods and arrived at common conclusions.
Ashley joined the Colorado College faculty in 1970 after graduating from Carleton College and earning a M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. She also holds a Certificate from the European Institute of Columbia. She has chaired the History Department at CC twice and served as Dean of the College and Dean of the Faculty from 2005 to 2012. She also directed the ACM Florence and London-Florence programs three times and served as president of the Western Society for French History.