The history of disability in the Middle Ages and later is the subject of a new resource developed by English Heritage

leprosy in the Middle Ages
A leper begging for alms from the margins of an English Pontifical c 1425 MS Lansdowne 451, fo 127r

© British Library

In medieval England, the ‘lepre’, the ‘blynde’, the ‘dumbe’, the ‘deaff’, the ‘natural fool’, the ‘creple’, the ‘lame’ and the ‘lunatick’ were a highly visible presence in everyday life. People could be born with a disability, or were disabled by diseases such as leprosy, or years of backbreaking work. This story is told by English Heritage in a brand new resource: A History of Disability: from 1050 to the Present Day:

“Attitudes to disability were mixed. People thought it was a punishment for sin, or the result of being born under the hostile influence of the planet Saturn. Others believed that disabled people were closer to God – they were suffering purgatory on earth rather than after death and would get to heaven sooner”, we are told in the text, which continues:

“There was no state provision for people with disabilities. Most lived and worked in their communities, supported by family and friends. If they couldn’t work, their town or village might support them, but sometimes people resorted to begging. They were mainly cared for by monks and nuns who sheltered pilgrims and strangers as their Christian duty.

Care for sick and disabled people was based on the Church’s teachings. The monks and nuns would follow the seven ‘comfortable works’ which involved feeding, clothing and housing the poor, visiting them when in prison or sick, offering drink to the thirsty, and burial. The seven ‘spiritual works’ included counsel and comfort for the sick.”

Each of these themes are explored in detail with links to medieval heritage witnessing to the care of the disabled in a time wrought with lack of funding, knowledge and resources.

The First Hospitals

almshouses in Canterbury - st. Nicolas
St Nicholas Harbledown in Canterbury, Kent

Over this period nationwide networks of hospitals based in (or near) religious establishments began to emerge. Specialised hospitals for leprosy, blindness and physical disability were created. England’s first mental institution, later known as ‘Bedlam’, was originally the Bethlehem hospital in the City of London. At the same time, almshouses were founded to provide a supportive place for the disabled and elderly infirm to live.

Numerous outstanding examples of medieval almshouses can still be found across England. They include St Mary’s in Chichester, SussexSt John’s in Lichfield, Staffordshire; the Maison Dieu in Ospringe, Kent (founded by Henry III); Gaywood Road almshouses, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, and the Guild of the Holy Cross almshouses in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

Many of the buildings have decayed or were destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. Some remain however, including the oldest, St Nicholas Harbledown in Canterbury, Kent (1070s); St Mary Magdalene in Stourbridge near Cambridge; St Mary & St Margaret in Sprowston, Norwich, Norfolk and the hospital of St Mary the Virgin in Ilford, Greater London. Others survive as ruins or archaeological sites.

Acting for Themselves

We know that disabled people made pilgrimages on foot to holy sites such as the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury in search of a cure or relief. Sometimes disabled people had to battle injustice. In 1297 the residents of the leper house in the Norfolk village of West Somerton mutinied against the thieving abbot and his men, looting and demolishing the buildings and killing the guard dog.

The Medieval Legacy

The people, religious institutions and towns and cities of the medieval period were pioneers in terms of providing a specialised response to disability. Only a small number of their buildings remain, but over the next 500 years their early professional approach would eventually develop into our modern system of public services.


A History of Disability: from 1050 to the Present Day. The resource links to a series of buildings linked to the care for the ill and the disabled.


Disability in the Middle Ages

Disability in the Middle Ages CoverBy Joshua R. Eyler
Ashgate 2010
ISBN-10: 0754668223
ISBN-13: 978-0754668220


What do we mean when we talk about disability in the middle ages? This volume brings together dynamic scholars working on the subject in medieval literature and history, who use the latest approaches from the field to address this central question. Contributors discuss such standard medieval texts as the “Arthurian Legend”, “The Canterbury Tales” and “Old Norse Sagas”, providing an accessible entry point to the field of medieval disability studies to medievalists more generally. The essays explore a wide variety of disabilities, including the more traditionally accepted classifications of blindness and deafness, as well as perceived disabilities such as madness, pregnancy and age. Adopting a ground-breaking new approach to the study of disability in the medieval period, this provocative book will be a must-read for medievalists and scholars of disability throughout history.

Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment in the High Middle Ages, c.1100-c.1400

Disability in the Middle Ages cover routledgeSeries: Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture
by Irina Metzler
Routledge 2006
ISBN-10: 0415582040
ISBN-13: 978-0415582049


This impressive volume presents a thorough examination of all aspects of physical impairment and disability in medieval Europe. Examining a popular era that is of great interest to many historians and researchers, Irene Metzler presents a theoretical framework of disability and explores key areas such as: medieval theoretical concepts, theology and natural philosophy, notions of the physical body, medical theory and practice.

Bringing into play the modern day implications of medieval thought on the issue, this is a fascinating and informative addition to the research studies of medieval history, history of medicine and disability studies scholars the English-speaking world over.

On the Margins of a Minority: Leprosy, Madness, and Disability among the Jews of Medieval Europe

on the margins of a minority coverBy Ephraim Shoham-Steiner (Author), Haim Watzman (Translator)
Wayne State University Press (June 1, 2014)
ISBN-10: 081433931X
ISBN-13: 978-0814339312


In medieval Europe, the much larger Christian population regarded Jews as their inferiors, but how did both Christians and Jews feel about those who were marginalized within the Ashkenazi Jewish community? In On the Margins of a Minority: Leprosy, Madness, and Disability among the Jews of Medieval Europe, author Ephraim Shoham-Steiner explores the life and plight of three of these groups. Shoham-Steiner draws on a wide variety of late-tenth- to fifteenth-century material from both internal (Jewish) as well as external (non-Jewish) sources to reconstruct social attitudes toward these “others,” including lepers, madmen, and the physically impaired. Shoham-Steiner considers how the outsiders were treated by their respective communities, while also maintaining a delicate balance with the surrounding non-Jewish community.

On the Margins of a Minority is structured in three pairs of chapters addressing each of these three marginal groups. The first pair deals with the moral attitude toward leprosy and its sufferers; the second with the manifestations of madness and its causes as seen by medieval men and women, and the effect these signs had on the treatment of the insane; the third with impaired and disabled individuals, including those with limited mobility, manual dysfunction, deafness, and blindness. Shoham-Steiner also addresses questions of the religious meaning of impairment in light of religious conceptions of the ideal body. He concludes with a bibliography of sources and studies that informed the research, including useful midrashic, exegetical, homiletic, ethical, and guidance literature, and texts from responsa and halakhic rulings.

Understanding and exploring attitudes toward groups and individuals considered “other” by mainstream society provides us with information about marginalized groups, as well as the inner social mechanisms at work in a larger society. On the Margins of a Minority will appeal to scholars of Jewish medieval history as well as readers interested in the growing field of disability studies.

Disability and Medieval Law: History, Literature, Society

Disability and the Law coverBy Cory James Rushton
Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2013
ISBN-10: 1443849731
ISBN-13: 978-1443849739


Disability and Medieval Law: History, Literature and Society is an intervention in the growing and complex field of medieval disability studies. The size of the field and the complexity of the subject lend themselves to the use of case studies: how a particular author imagines an injury, how a particular legal code deals with (and sometimes creates) injury to the human body. While many studies have fruitfully insisted on theoretical approaches, Disability and Medieval Law considers how medieval societies directly dealt with crime, punishment, oath-taking, and mental illness. When did medieval law take disability into account in setting punishment or responsibility? When did medieval law choose to cause disabilities? How did medieval authors use disability to discuss not only law, but social relationships and the nature of the human? The volume includes essays on topics as diverse as Francis of Assissi, Margery Kempe, La Manekine, Geoffrey Chaucer, early medieval law codes, and the definition of mental illness in English legal records, by Irina Metzler, Wendy J. Turner, Amanda Hopkins, Donna Trembinski, Marian Lupo and Cory James Rushton.

Difference and Disability in the Medieval Islamic World: Blighted Bodies

Difference and disability in the Medieval Islamic World coverBy Kristina Richardson
Edinburgh University Press; Reprint edition 2014
ISBN-10: 0748695885
ISBN-13: 978-0748695881


Medieval Arab notions of physical difference can feel singularly arresting for modern audiences. Did you know that blue eyes, baldness, bad breath and boils were all considered bodily ‘blights’, as were cross eyes, lameness and deafness? What assumptions about bodies influenced this particular vision of physical difference? How did blighted people view their own bodies? Through close analyses of anecdotes, personal letters, (auto)biographies, erotic poetry, non-binding legal opinions, diaristic chronicles and theological tracts, the cultural views and experiences of disability and difference in the medieval Islamic world are brought to life.

Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability

Stumbling blocks among the blinds coverby Edward Wheatley
Series: Corporealities: Discourses of Disability
University of Michigan Press 2010
ISBN-10: 0472117203
ISBN-13: 978-0472117208


Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind presents the first comprehensive exploration of a disability in the Middle Ages, drawing on the literature, history, art history, and religious discourse of England and France. It relates current theories of disability to the cultural and institutional constructions of blindness in the eleventh through fifteenth centuries, examining the surprising differences in the treatment of blind people and the responses to blindness in these two countries. The book shows that pernicious attitudes about blindness were partially offset by innovations and ameliorations—social; literary; and, to an extent, medical—that began to foster a fuller understanding and acceptance of blindness.

A number of practices and institutions in France, both positive and negative—blinding as punishment, the foundation of hospices for the blind, and some medical treatment—resulted in not only attitudes that commodified human sight but also inhumane satire against the blind in French literature, both secular and religious. Anglo-Saxon and later medieval England differed markedly in all three of these areas, and the less prominent position of blind people in society resulted in noticeably fewer cruel representations in literature.

This book will interest students of literature, history, art history, and religion because it will provide clear contexts for considering any medieval artifact relating to blindness—a literary text, a historical document, a theological treatise, or a work of art. For some readers, the book will serve as an introduction to the field of disability studies, an area of increasing interest both within and outside of the academy.

Edward Wheatley is Surtz Professor of Medieval Literature at Loyola University, Chicago.


Women and Disability in Medieval Literature

Women and disability coverNew Middle Ages
by Tory Vandeventer Pearman
Palgrave 2010
ISBN 9780230105119


This book serves as the first in its field to analyze how disability and gender both thematically and formally operate within late medieval popular literature. Reading romance, conduct manuals, and spiritual autobiography, the study proposes a “gendered model” for exploring the processes by which differences like gender and disability get coded as deviant


Leprosy in Medieval England

leprosy in the Middle Ages coverCarole Rawcliffe
Boydell Brewer Ltd, United Kingdom, 2009
ISBN 10: 1843834545
ISBN 13: 9781843834540


This is one of the most important publications for many years in the fields of medical, religious and social history. Rawcliffe s book completely overhauls our understanding of leprosy and contributes immensely to our knowledge of the English middle ages. This is a fascinating study that will be a seminal work in the history of leprosy for many years to come. Set firmly in the medical, religious and cultural milieu of the European Middle Ages, this book is the first serious, comprehensive study of a disease surrounded by misconceptions and prejudices. Even specialists will be surprised to learn that most of our stereotyped ideas about the segregation of medieval lepers originated in the nineteenth century; that leprosy excited a vast range of responses, from admiration to revulsion; that in the later Middle Ages it was diagnosed readily even by laity; that a wide range of treatment was available, that medieval leper hospitals were no more austere than the monasteries on which they were modelled; that the decline of leprosy was not monocausal but implied a complex web of factors – medical, environmental, social and legal. Written with consummate skill, subtlety and rigour, this book will change forever the image of the medieval leper. Carole Rawcliffe is Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia.


8. January 2015

Agincourt 1415 – 2015

The battle at Agincourt in Nord-Pas-de Calais is famous for the heroic fight between the outnumbered English archers and the French iron-clad chivalry. This year England and France commemorates the battle.

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Last year archaeologists found a very old ski with its ski-binding intact. Now the time has come to reconstruct the find

Reinheimen Ski-binding

Climate change is causing the glacier in Reinheimen National Park in Norway to melt, yielding lost artefacts from the Norwegian Iron and Viking age. So-far archaeologists have uncovered more than 2000 artifacts from the glacier in Oppland.

This summer archaeologists found a very old ski, dated to around AD 700. What makes this find especially valuable is the binding, which was intact.

Reconstructed skis from Reinheimen in UpplandThe ski was made of birch and measures 172 cm long and14.5 cm wide, making it somewhat akin to present day free riding skis, also called big mountain skis. The intact binding is at the back and consists of a wicker pulled through a hole in a slightly elevated platform and fastened with strings of leather around the back of the foot. This tells us a lot of how they manoeuvred, says the archaeologist Espen Finstad. He adds that the ski was probably used by a hunter moving across the glacier, tracking reindeers or other prey.

Other skis have been found in Norway and Sweden, some of which have been dated even earlier. However, the ski from Reinholmen is the only one found with intact binding; worldwide only one find predates this.

Currently local craftsmen from Garmo in Lom are reconstructing the ski in order to try the design out during winter. The point of the wide modern skis is that they glide on top of the snow. The question, the archaeologists wish to answer, is whether the ski from Reinheimen has the same quality.

The Sagas and Cronicles

Kullaberg in winter by Erik and Pia Sjostedt
Kullaberg in wintertime. According to Saxo this was the scene for the heroic skiing of Palnatoke. Photo: Erik and Pia Sjostedt

To be an adroit skier was not only important in daily life, but also considered an important and status-filled ability. In the Norwegian royal sagas skiing is mentioned several times as an important skill. Most famous, however, is the story about Palnatoke (alias the Norwegian hero, Heming Aslaksson alias the later Wilhelm Tell). About this mythical hero it is told by Saxo Grammaticus and in in the Icelandic Saga of the Jomsvikings that he was pagan who founded Jumla on the Baltic. He was a mighty warrior and a very proficient skier. The story Saxo tells is that:


Skiing hunter from Osterunda Church in Uppland, Sweden
Skiing hunter from Osterunda Church in Uppland, Sweden

“Harold [Bluetooth] boasted of his proficiency in that technique, which the Finns use when passing through snow-covered forests; Toke then dared to brag about his own talents and compare them to those of the king. This forced Toke to prove his capabilities on the mountain of Kullaberg. But what he lacked in practice, he made up for in courage. He went to the upmost top of the mountain and with smooth planks beneath his feet and only a slender staff to support him, set off at a terrifying speed. In breakneck fashion he hurdled down on his skis across sharp rocks; nevertheless he succeeded cold-bloodedly to control them. Neither the great danger nor panic of any art kept him from keeping erect. Any other would have been terrified by the great chasm before even venturing upon this experiment. At the end the skis splintered against the rocks  and he was hurled into the air, but this in fact saved his life… he hit the cliff at great speed, the skis broke and thus he ended the run in a safe manner. If not great boulders and deep holes had been in his way, he would for sure have ended up in the sea below the cliff. Here some sailors picked him up and in his hatred to the king he did nothing to slay the rumours that he had ended up worse than was the case… he decided then to shift his allegiance to the son of the king, Sven [Forkbeard]” (Saxo Grammaticus, 10: 7, 4. From c 1190 -1200.)

It is worth remembering that Saxo was part of the entourage of the Archbishop Absalon and had probably sailed past Kullen (Kullaberg) any number of times. Passing by he seems to have wondered what was the truth behind the fairy-tale about Palnatoke. An echo of these reflections may obviously be found in this vignette from his grand chronicle, Gesta Danorum (Acts of the Danes).


Rekonstruksjon av Reinheimskia


Norsk Fjellmuseum


Iron Age Tunic found in the glacier


St. Dominic and his Friars Fed by Angels - G. Sogliani

30. December 2014

Against the Friars

NEW BOOK: Very early on the friars attracted vigorous support. But they were also continuously mocked and derided by those, who considered them hypocrites and worse

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The miller's tale is one of Chaucer's most beloved and ingenious stories. A new book tells the story of how it has been adapted and retold through the centuries

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Saint Benignus was the patron saint of Dijon. A new book tells the story about the former abbey, now cathedral in Dijon, which was dedicated to him since the 6th century.

Shroud of Benignus -  Musee de Cluny
Piece of the shroud of St. Benignus of Dijon, samit from the 6th-7th century, Persia Cl.2156- Museum of Cluny

Saint Benignus of Dijon was a martyr honoured as the patron saint of Dijon. His feast falls on November I (All Saints). It is told that he was martyred at Epagny in AD 270 -75. However, in reality nothing precise is known about him.

According to Gregory of Tours there was a large sarcophagus located outside Dijon. This grave was revered by ordinary people and was the scene of at least one minor miracle. The bishop of Langres (Saint Gregory 507 – 539/40) tried to put a stop to this as he considered the grave pagan; however, in a dream the bishop had a vision of the martyr Benignus, who revealed that he was the one buried in the sarcophagus. Accordingly Gregory went about renovating an adjacent crypt, into which he moved the tomb. Soon after an account of the martyrdom of Benignus – the Passio Sancti Benigni – was discovered in Italy and the bishop had a large basilica built on the site, completed in 535; this functioned as the centre of an early monastic community. In 871 this was re-founded as a Benedictine abbey, which subsequently was joined with the Cluniac order (989).

Around AD 1000 the basilica was superseded by a larger church, built by William of Volpiano († 1031). This was replaced by an early Romanesque church, which collapsed in 1271. The present Dijon Cathedral, finished in 1325 and consecrated in 1393, still holds the sarcophagus in the crypt. This was excavated in the 19th century.

Saint Benignus

Early Romanesque head of Saint Benignus exhibited at the archaeological museum in Dijon, in the dormitory of the former abbey of St. Bénigne

he passio is preserved in several texts and is generally believed to have been edited at the time of Gregory of Tours. According to the passio, St. Polycarp had a vision of Irenaeus ordering two priests, Benignus and Andiochus to preach the gospel in Gaul. Shipwrecked on Corsica, the were joined by St. Andoleus there. Later they reached Marseilles from where Benignus went to first Auton and later Langres and Dijon. Shortly after this he was arrested at Epagny, tortured and finally died. He was buried in a tomb, which was disguised as a pagan monument in order to deceive the persecutors of his cult. It is believed the passio was part of a series of religious romances, written in the first half of the sixth century in order to describe the origins of the churches of Auton, Besançon, Langres and Valence in Eastern France. There exists a versified “Carmina de vita sancti Benigni” from the 11th century.

A new book tells the story of the Abbey and the practical and spiritual life of the Abbey from its earliest beginnings and until the revolution. The book is heavily illustrated and tells the full story. Another book is in preparation, telling the story of how the Abbey-church turned Cathedral in the 19th century.


l-abbaye-saint-benigne-de-dijon-coverL’abbaye Saint-Bénigne de Dijon
by Jean-Pierre Roze
Editions Universitaires de Dijon 2014
ISBN-10: 2364411068
ISBN-13: 978-2364411067

utrecht psalter -Leiden -20

17. December 2014

Utrecht Psalter

The Utrecht Psalter, which is currently owned by the Utrecht University Library, has been nominated for UNESCO's Memory of the World Register

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