Disability in the Medieval Period

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Question:  In the Medieval Period, people with disabilities were:

A.  Institutionalized to protect the social order.
B.  Living in their local communities.
C.  Living in religious convents and monasteries to be ‘cured’.
D.  None of the above.

Answer:  B.  Living in their local communities.

Popular opinion has not been kind to the Medieval Period (circa 500-1500 CE). To the frustration of many medieval scholars, most people associate the period first and foremost with social oppression, economic hardship and intellectual decline. The popular titles for the era reflect these views; “Middle Ages” and “Dark Ages” paint the period as one of transition at best, regression at worst.

This common view of the “Middle Ages” inevitably seeps into the way we talk about disability during the time. In short, the Medieval era is commonly thought of as being a pretty awful time for people with disabilities – and there is indeed plenty of evidence to show that it was. But there is also some evidence to show that medieval conceptions of disability are more complicated than they look at first glance. To give a fair portrayal of disability during the period, a nuanced approach from the perspective of a person of the time is necessary (in fact, this is pretty much the goal of all history writing). The hope for this article is that it will act as a basic introduction to these nuances.

As mentioned above, the Medieval Period is known for humiliating treatment of people with disabilities, and there are countless examples of people with disabilities being abused for public entertainment. One such example is the medieval “idiot cage.” These cages were barred enclosures, typically in the center of town, in which people with disabilities were held and ogled at (Parallels in Time). Edward Wheatly points to another specific example in his book Stumbling Blocks for the Blind. He examines a firsthand 1425 Parisian journal account which depicts a similar scene:

“four blind people, all armed, each with a stick, were put in a park, and in

Photo of a cage of steel suspended in the air in front of an old building.

Public Humiliation

that location there was a strong pig that they could have if they killed it. Thus

it was done, and there was a very strange battle, because they gave themselves

so many great blows with those sticks that it went worse for them, because

when the stronger ones believed that they hit the pig, they hit each other, and

if they had really been armed, they would have killed each other” (3).

The most obvious feature of such scenes is the cruelty towards people with disabilities. But there is another historical point to be noted: people with disabilities were typically integrated into their communities rather than institutionalized during the Medieval Period. Wheatly’s book supports this point. He writes of medieval people with disabilities, “because there were relatively few institutions for them, they tended to remain integrated in their communities, so far as we know” (8).

This “non-institutionalization” contrasts with modern times, where the current “medical model” leads society to perceive people with disabilities as medical cases in need of hospitalization and care. Likewise, the Medieval Period preceded what we think of as modern science and medicine, so the era cannot be considered to have operated on any sort of “medical model” of disability.

Instead, disability historians typically describe the period as having a “religious model.” The religious model replaces “medicine” with “religion” in most conversations. Since religion was seen as a route to well-being of the whole person – as opposed to medicine, which could only aid the body – religion naturally overshadowed medicine as a better treatment during the time (Wheatly 9). Whereas modern medicine offers people a chance at “total health” through new and better cures, medieval Christianity offered people salvation through “freedom from sin and increased personal faith” (Wheatly 11). Thus, medieval disability had an element of sin attached to it, and with it, personal responsibility. People with disabilities were expected to go to confession and grow in their faith before they could receive help from God. Many modern historians see the Church’s control over the means to treatment as a major way the Church controlled the populace during the Medieval Period.

But, as medieval scholar Jenni Kuuliala points out, a theological perspective is not the only way to look at medieval disability. She argues that the theological aspects of medieval disability might only get so much attention in medieval documents because those documents were written by religious institutions and writers, people who had an obvious stake in promoting the importance of the Church (4). Arguing against the idea that medieval people with disabilities were always Church charity cases, Kuuliala asserts that the social consequences of a person’s disability were usually determined by a number of factors. She found that discrimination directed at people with disabilities was often due to their inability to fulfill their social “role” in some way (4). Thus, there was not one single category deemed “disability” — different impairments affected social roles in different ways. Prejudices reflected these differences.

Kuuliala also points out that a person’s original social status often affected how their disability was perceived. Similar to today, high class people with disabilities were often seen as heroes rather than blemishes. Conversely, beggars and lower class people with disabilities were often seen as untrustworthy or pitiable (Kuuliala 4).

These specifics paint a much more complex picture of the Medieval Period than is typically thought. The thousand or so years that make up the Medieval Period are too often condensed into sweeping generalizations and easy clichés. As a modern reader, it’s easy to believe that humanity has progressed so far that the Medieval Era is simply a useless or primitive time. Though these generalizations are sometimes proven true, they are not the end of the conversation. This is especially true in regards to disability, where there are even sometimes similarities between the Medieval Period and now. It’s critical that we as historians don’t immediately put ourselves above certain eras in history. There are things we can learn from any time period.

Works Cited 

Kuuliala, Jenni. “In Search of Medieval Disability.” Jargonia. 16 Feb. 2013. Web. 15 July 2013.

Wheatly, Edward. Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2010. Web. 15 July 2013. http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=915892.

“Parallels in Time: A History of Developmental Disabilities.” State of Minnesota. Web. 15 July 2013. http://mn.gov/mnddc/parallels/index.html.