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Bethlehem to Bedlam: What links bywords for peace and mayhem

Bedlam or Bethlehem? In this apocalyptic image, a Palestinian sanitary department worker sprays disinfectant along a security border in Bethlehem, during the pandemic - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on how one place name came to have two very different word associations

Bethlehem is associated with the nativity of Christ, peace on earth and goodwill to all men. Bedlam is associated with the complete opposite: mad confusion and noisy uproar. It is something of a surprise to discover that they were originally the same word.

Some scholars are sceptical about the claim that Bethlehem was the birthplace of Christ, believing it more likely that the birth occurred 70 miles away in Nazareth, which was certainly where Jesus grew up.

But Bethlehem today is a very real town in Palestine with almost 30,000 inhabitants, who are mostly Arabic-speaking Palestinians. About 20% of Palestinians are Christians, but in Bethlehem the proportion is now rather lower than that, having gone down from 80% at the time the British Mandate in Palestine ended in 1948.

The Arabic name of the town is Baytlahm. In Koiné Greek, the lingua franca of the Middle East during the first centuries AD and the language of the New Testament, it was called Betleém  – the Modern Greek is Vithleém. The Biblical Hebrew of the Old Testament has the town’s name as Beit Lechem. In earlier forms of English, it was know as Bedlem or Bedlam – one Oxford English Dictionary citation from circa 1440 is Jesu, that was in Bedlem borne.

The ‘peace on earth’ association of the English word, then, derives directly from a genuine, long-established place-name. The origin of the ‘noisy uproar’ meaning of bedlam is more complex, and somewhat distressing. The Hospital of St. Mary of Bedlem (or Bedlam, Bethlem, Bethlehem) was founded in 1247, in Southwark, London. (The word hospital meant a hostel offering board and lodging to pilgrims and other travellers, or a charitable institution which cared for the poor, infirm, and elderly.)

The use of the toponym ‘Bethlehem’ in the hospital’s name was not just symbolic. The institution was founded by the Bishop of Bethlehem to forge closer links between England and the Holy Land, and to facilitate the collection of alms to support the mother church in Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity. If the Bishop of Bethlehem came to London, the Hospital was also obliged to provide hospitality for him.

The building of the church in Palestine had been commissioned by Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who had served in the Roman army in England and was the first emperor to convert to Christianity. The church was founded in about 325 AD, shortly after Constantine’s Greek mother Helena visited Bethlehem. It was built on the site where tradition had it that Jesus was born.

By the 1400s, the Hospital of St. Mary of Bedlam in London had become what we might in more recent times have called a mental hospital. And in due course the word bedlam itself became extended to refer to all such hospitals. It is a sad indictment of the way in which “lunatics” were treated until relatively recently that such institutions became associated in the public mind with disorder, havoc and noise.

The town of Bethlehem itself, though, has hardly been a constant haven of peace and quiet during its long history. It was destroyed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century AD. The church was burnt down during anti-Byzantine revolts in about 530. Bethlehem was overrun during the Muslim conquest of 637, but was reconquered in 1099 by European Crusaders who founded Christian kingdoms which survived until about 1300.

In the 1200s the walls were destroyed by the mainly Turkic Mamluks, though they were subsequently rebuilt by the Ottoman Turks in the 1500s. The Ottomans then lost control of the town to the British during the First World War. Bethlehem came under Jordanian control in 1950, after the 1949 Jericho Conference which followed the Arab-Israeli War. It was later captured by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967, and is now officially administered by the Palestinian Authority.

Bethlehem, sadly, has seen plenty of bedlam of its own. 

Hostel

Hostel, hospital and hotel are three different forms of what was originally the same word. They all descend from the Mediaeval Latin hospitale, ‘a place of reception for guests’.  Spital (as in Spitalfields) – a word which has not been much used since the 19th century – also has the same origin.