Past, Present, and Future of Medieval Disability Studies (Wendy J. Turner)

[Transcript of comments by Wendy J. Turner at a roundtable-style session (which was tweeted with the hashtags #maa2016 #s13) at the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference, held this year in Boston.]

In the 1960s, scholars challenged ideas of centrality and normality as ways of defining who we are as humans. Academics in medieval fields picked up on these concepts and began to ask questions of particular conditions—blindness, deafness, madness—rather than looking at links between the various groups. The closest medieval scholars came to understanding the disabled as a group, came from those looking at alms-giving or community bonding. It was not until the 1970s that they began to examine the “fringe” of society, the few that had been pushed to the edge of the societal population grid and excluded.[1] Studies on Jews, lepers, and prostitutes, stood along side those on the blind and the mad.[2]

It was the 1980s and 90s when the first scholars began playing with models of inclusion and exclusion—rethinking disabilities generally for the Middle Ages. Works such as F. Fandrey, Krüppel, Idioten, Irre of 1990, and Michael W. Dols, Majnun: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society of 1992 examined connections outside of the concepts of “fringe” and “other” to comparing physical impairments to mental ones or Islamic ideas to Christian ones. Catherine Kudlick finally asked the key question: ‘Disability History: Why We Need Another “Other.”’[3]

In recent years, Disability Studies as a field has taken off among medieval scholars—at times as an extension of medical or legal history, and at others as part of a critical discussion of prejudice or inclusivity. When I started writing my dissertation in 1998, I felt quite alone. I thought my work fit well with the study of the marginalized, the so-called “fringe” population in 1990s terminology.

It was not until 2006, that I met anyone else working on disabilities. I was on a panel with Michael O’Rourke and Irina Metzler at the IMC in Leeds. Irina Metzler’s now well-known work on Disability in Medieval Europe in which she adopts the sociological model for the study of disabilities was newly out and on display. Later that year, the first meeting of the workshop on Disease, Disability and Medicine in Medieval Europe would take place at the University of Nottingham under the direction of Christina Lee—where they are currently investigating the eye medicine from the Leechbook of Bald that has been so much in the news this year. In 2007, I began to notice other medievalists working on disabilities at the ICMS in Kalamazoo. By 2008, in an almost impromptu fashion, we—Josh Eyler, Julie Singer, Tory Pearman, Mark O’Tool, Sasha Pfau (who was there but had to leave for another meeting before we finalized our plans), Julie Orlemanski, and myself (as I recall, please send me an email if you know otherwise:—formed the Society for the Study of Disabilities in the Middle Ages. Four years later, in 2012, the Creative Unit: Homo Debilis at the University of Bremen was awarded a 3 year, 3 million Euro grant to study the disabled in the Middle Ages. The director, Cordula Nolte, hopes to see the grant renewed this month.

We have, as a group, made great strides. Nearly all medievalists have rejected the medical model for study of the disabled. After all, we have no way of knowing what was medically wrong with people, only that premodern society labeled them in some way as outside normal—lame, blind, deaf, insane, etc. Metzler suggests a social model: “The notion of the social construction of disability […] permits historical investigation and analysis—of what is and what is not disability.”[4] She explains the models’ bifurcation between the impaired person and the disabled one, disabled individuals being only those impaired who meet a social barrier keeping them from participating in society fully and completely. Even Metzler, though, has expressed concern that the social model does not take into account quite all scenarios and has since adopted Snyder and Mitchell’s “cultural model,”[5] although her use might be better called a “socio-cultural model.”

Edward Wheatley, studying real and metaphorical blindness, adopted much of Metzler’s social model but put a twist on it for his medieval sources, calling it a “religious model,” which he claimed in his 2010 work—Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind—as more appropriate for research on the Middle Ages. His religious model acknowledges the power invested in the medieval Church to create and dissolve disability. The Church claimed those who embraced their disability would gain in Heaven, changing a temporary disadvantage into a long-lasting advantage. Other literary scholars have examined the idea that “sin” and either “madness” or a “crooked” body were linked in the Middle Ages.[6]

At nearly the same time as Wheatley, Josh Eyler and Tory Pearman countered Metzler’s model with a call for multiple models. They, at first, wanted to use a medical model if it was appropriate and definable through medieval medical efforts, while other models would be used to organize disabled literary characterizations, implying a literary model.[7] Eyler ended up also using the “cultural model” of Snyder and Mitchell because, as he puts it, it is “less divisive” as a model, using the term “disability” to include everyone even those Metzler calls “impaired.”

I have recommended rethinking the structure of all of these models, suggesting an environmental model, which places the view of the disabling moment with the individual looking out, rather than from the judgment of society, culture, medical or religious community looking in. The lived environment—natural and created, physical and political—emerges, then, as the common element that “disables” or “empowers” individuals. This theory is in-press in Germany at this time (and I will publish a version of it in the US/UK in the near future).

While we continue to wrestle with models and questions of terminology, our output has been strong enough to make the rest of medieval studies aware of the phenomenon of disability studies in the Middle Ages; as well, scholars of modern disability studies are now cognizant that disabilities are being studied far earlier than they thought possible.

Many of the original questions from the scholars in Homo Debilis, DDM, SSDMA remain: how to define terminology, boundaries of the field, and whether models are useful. As we move forward, though, perhaps the questions are changing. One trajectory is in the direction of medicine. At Nottingham, Christina Lee’s blended team of English and hard sciences students and professors work together to reconstruct medicines in the Leechbooks and other medical manuals of the Middle Ages in pursuit of possible superbug medicines. The Homo Debilis group in Bremen wants to widen the view of premodern disability scholars to include all those persons suffering with long-term illness, because they, too, would have been in many ways “disabled” in the Middle Ages. Think about the farmer out with a major illness or a broken leg for even 6 weeks: if his crops fail, his broken leg could mean death or near-starvation over winter. Injury is another topic that has yet to be fully investigated in terms of recovery, issues of temporary disability, and what role hospitals and the community played. And, rather than precedent law or administration of law, forensics could be unpacked for the disabled (as well as several other subjects), as Sara Butler did to some extent in her recent book on Forensics. (And, I agreed with John at the roundtable that medieval Eastern and Middle Eastern needs further exploration.) The whole community often needed to be involved in care in the Middle Ages—making walking aids for the lame or helping ill or injured neighbors. Care was far more encompassing than simply alms for the poor.

Aside from actual medicines and the medieval treatment of the injured, ill, and impaired, there are other issues starting to be examined in more detail. Archaeologists have begun to notice more prosthetics, such as the artificial big toe recently in the news. I am surprised there has not yet been a dissertation on the material culture of the disabled—the materials, construction techniques, and individuality to the things the disabled used, such as canes, walkers, hand-trestles as well as prosthetics. The discussion will continue, I think, for a while yet over the medieval, at least literary, connection between between sin and illness, disability, or madness. I know, too, that I, at least, have stuck to the more centrally located royal records for my work, but at some point a more thorough investigation of peasants’ disabilities in manorial records would round out our overall picture of the disabled in the Middle Ages.

Finally, I will certainly be content the moment a new history of psychiatry or medicine comes out that does NOT skip over the Middle Ages as “backward,” “superstitious,” or “ignorant” of the disabled. As I hope we all know here, care and understanding of the physically and mentally disabled was ever evolving and always as technologically helpful as a society could be; and, while prejudice reared its ugly head from time to time, on the whole, most disabled persons were accepted as part of their community and assisted to live as fully as they could within the restrictions their bodies allowed.


[1] Doob (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974). Neaman (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1975). Pickett (Ottawa, Ontario: The University of Ottawa Press, 1952). Neugebauer, Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences 14 (1978): 158-169. See also: Neugebauer, “Mental Illness and Government Policy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England,” (Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 1976). Clarke (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1975). Foucault’s full title is: Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, (orig. Histoire de la Folie, Paris: Librairie Plon, 1961) translated by Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), see esp. his chapter I: “Stultifera Navis.

[2] Hellmut Flashar’s 1966 Melancholie und Melancholiker in den medizinschen Theorien der Antike, and Thomas Grahams’ 1967 work on Mental Health in the Middle Ages gave way in the 1970s to scholarly publications such as Basil Clarke’s 1975 book on Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain: Exploratory Studies, Judith Neaman’s 1975 study on the Suggestion of the Devil: The Origins of Madness, and Saul Brody’s 1974 work on The Disease of the Soul: Leprosy in Medieval Literature. Kroll, Psychological Medicine 14 (1984) 3: 507-514.Porter, History Today 38 (Feb 1988): 39-44.

[3] American Historical Review, 108 (2003), 762–93

[4] Metzler, p. 21.

[5] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, Cultural Locations of Disability (Chicago and London, 2006), p. 7.

[6] Huot, p. 10.

[7] Eyler, p. 4.

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