Bedlam derives from Bethlehem. Speaking of the English, this next fact is thanks to a peculiar linguistic talent our English-speaking forefathers from across the pond bequeathed to us Americans, that of excessively shortening and contracting words. Many common proper names (Austin for Augustine; Ralph for Raphael; Jeremy for Jeremias; Toby for Tobias, etc.) and place names (Westminster for “West Monastery” Leominster – pronounced Lem-in-ster – for “St. Leo’s Monastery,” etc.) are products of this English penchant for truncation. Even “Goodbye” ranks with great Catholic parting words in other languages, being a contraction of “God be with ye.”
Now for the origin of “Bedlam.” In 1247, an alderman of London, Simon FitzMary, donated a plot of land to the monks of Saint Mary of Bethlehem to start a priory. The monks started a hospital and shelter for the poor of London, and by the 1500s it had become a hospital for the mentally ill. The entire goal of this hospital, the first in the world for the insane, was to bring them back to health. Upon discharge, the City of London would give them a license to beg. The English had abbreviated Bethlehem to Bedlam in the early 14th century, so that the discharged of Bethlehem Hospital were called “Bedlemites,” “Bedlemers,” or “Bedlam Beggars.” The word “bedlam” didn’t come to mean a row, or noise, until the 1600′s, when, during the Protestant “reformation”, the monks were driven out of their hospital. With no one to care for the patients for the love of Our Lord, the hospital disintegrated into a noisy madhouse. Horribly enough, the wealthy would come to this madhouse for entertainment, even paying a fee to get in. In 1851, the hospital came under government inspection, and, returning at least to the natural ideals of the founding monks, Bethlehem has been raised to a status more worthy of its founders. Now, it is not only the oldest, but the best hospital of its kind in the world. Currently, half the patients are released as cured every year.