Disability in History: Medieval Era

Around 673AD, Christianity began eating away at medical understanding, replacing it with superstition.  Illness began to be understood as something that was a punishment from God in response to sins and transgressions, or conversely the result of witchcraft, or possession by the devil.  The cure for illnesses would be prayer, penitence and pilgrimage.

Visions, such as those experienced by Hildegard of Bingen along with migraines, were thought to be messages from the divine.  Joan of Arc is probably the most famous example of this.

Alternative understandings of disability were that disabled people were closer to God because they were suffering purgatory whilst on earth, rather than after death like everyone else.  This would mean they’d reach heaven sooner.  This may be one of the factors that continued the Roman practice of having ‘fools’ in court who were able to tell the monarch the blunt truth where others couldn’t.

During the medieval period, mutilation was used as a punishment for crime, leaving visible reminders of their status and past.  Unfortunately this had repercussions on the non criminal disabled population.  The deformed or disabled body became associated with the criminal body and gave weight to the idea that you can judge a book by it’s cover; that you can tell someone’s character and morality by their appearance.  This meant that non criminal disabled people ended up having to prove their nature and fight prejudgement.

Most disabled people lived and worked within their community, supported by their friends and family.  Without this support, some people resorted to begging and others were cared for by monks and nuns.  Religious hospitals began to crop up across the country as a way of carrying out the Christian duty to shelter strangers.  As well as caring for those with short term illnesses, they began to take in those with disabilities who were unable to live in their community.

“The idea of the almshouse (sometimes referred to as ‘Maison Dieu’) developed from hospitals. Almshouses were built to provide long-term shelter for the disabled and aged infirm, and soon became a common feature of towns and cities. They were founded and supported with donations from kings, church dignitaries, nobles and merchants, all keen to ease their passage to heaven with good works.”
– Historic England

From the 13th century, the King had duties towards people with learning disabilities, including the duty to ensure they were cared for.  This combined with the almshouses and hospitals feels like a move towards a more caring, concerned society, possibly motivated by the idea of securing oneself a place in heaven.

Then would come the witchhunts.

It’s well known that women were targeted as part of the witch hunts but so were disabled people.  Anyone different, disabled and mentally ill were more likely to be targets.  Think about the stereotypical witch – she has a bent back, a disfigured face and is often seen peering as if she has sight difficulties.

“The concept of the disabled person as sinner, and as being in league with the Devil, or even being its ‘spawn’, gained tremendous traction during the Middle Ages and beyond.”
– Quarmby

The Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunter’s handbook, was written in 1487 and declared that children who had impairments were born to witches, disabled people were proof that the devil existed and visibly impaired children were changlings.  Another popular belief was that disabled people were possessed by the devil.

The focus on disabled people can be understood through a lens of scarcity and fear.  The witch hunts came at a time when resources were limited and if a disabled person couldn’t pull their own weight then they were another mouth to feed.  By casting disabled people as immoral or unworthy, then you wouldn’t have to feel compelled to help them, or guilty if you didn’t.  Essentially, disabled people were once again a scapegoat and like as in ancient Greece, removing them from the community cleansed it.

Around the same time, major religions were informing views, such as the the Christian view of disability as a punishment and the focus on curing the disabled as well as the importance of renouncing the sin that caused it.  Alongside this was Judaism which viewed impairments as ungodly and the result of wrongdoing.  There were also ideas around possession and trying to exorcise people who likely had epilepsy but at that time were thought to have the devil in them.

These ideas influenced today’s backdrop of disability where we still find reference to disability as a result of something you did wrong, or disability as something you should fight and battle to overcome (even if that’s not achievable).  Think of how we speak about cancer and other illnesses, and how we commend people as brave and inspirational when they do something whilst having a disability.

When Shakespeare was writing in the late 16th century, he depicted Richard III as twisted in body and mind, a short cut to casting him as the villain.  Around the same time, the travelling freakshow was being born.  In Europe, fools were collected and exhibited by aristocrats and royals.  And people with deformities and intellectual impairments were being displayed at village fairs and other festive occasions.

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