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  • Representations of the Disabled Body
  • Disability and Religion
  • Disability Studies
  • Appreciating the fullness and complexity of disability in the Middle Ages means confronting long-lived contemporary assumptions that people who lived with disabilities during this time were markers of sin. Close attention to religious, literary, artistic, and medical evidence helps to create a nuanced and thick cultural history of disability and showcases the agency of—and varied lives led by—people who we might now consider disabled. Bloomsbury Medieval Studies provides numerous ways with which to explore the fascinating topic of Medieval disability studies: from A Cultural History of Disability in the Middle Ages, and book chapters that explore the intersection of religion and disability, to exclusive articles from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages and carefully curated research and teaching resources, this Featured Content is your gateway into the study of disability in the Medieval world.

    Representations of the Disabled Body

    This image is showing Beggars and Cripples drawing by Hieronymus Bosch
    “Beggars and Cripples,” drawing by Hieronymus Bosch (Albertina Vienna)

    Mobility Impairment

    A Cultural History of Disability in the Middle Ages is an essential resource for researchers, scholars and students of history, literature, culture and education. With chapters written by leading scholars in the field of disability studies, it explores topics such as atypical bodies, mobility impairment, chronic pain and illness, blindness, deafness, speech, learning difficulties, and mental health. In this chapter Richard H. Godden looks in depth at the study of mobility impairment: most sources represent the physically impaired using some sort of aid to help them navigate their environment, and such objects are arguably the chief visual signifier of disability in the Middle Ages.

    This is an image showing a blind spinner, led by her sister to the shrine of Louis IX
    “Agnès de Pontoise, a blind spinner, led by her sister to the shrine of Louis IX”(Gallica Online)

    Deafness in the Middle Ages

    Medieval European understandings and representations of deafness draw heavily on biblical imagery and Galenic medicine, and therefore display a great deal of continuity with ancient traditions. But Medieval writers also use deafness to think through a number of larger cultural debates particular to their period: theological discussions of knowledge, sin, and salvation; philosophical questions about the authenticity and legibility of signs; the iconographic problem of the representation of the invisible. In this chapter, Julie Singer demonstrates how the lived experiences and cultural representations of deaf people in Medieval Europe were far richer and more varied than stereotypes suggest.

    This picture shows a crippled man in the margins of The History and Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales.
    A crippled man in the margins of The History and Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales (© The British Library Board)

    Desire and the Disabled Body

    Disability theory has strong but complex and troubled links with gender and sexuality studies and specifically with queer theory. The seemingly outward evidence of sexual transgression provided by a physical disability was seen as evidence not just of behavioural history but also of more general tendencies and predispositions. This was met with a mixture of condemnation and erotic fascination. The idea that ‘the lame man does it best’, for example, occurs in Erasmus’s writings as ‘Claudus optime virum agit’ or ‘the lame man makes the best lecher Click here to find out more.

    Disability and Religion

    Picture showing the healing of the blind man and raising of Lazarus
    Healing of the blind man and raising of Lazarus (Spain, 1129–34) (Metropolitan Art Museum)

    Disability and Global Religions

    In the Middle Ages, experiences of disability and religious belief intersected in different ways. A seemingly common belief across a variety of cultures, including Medieval Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was that physical impairments, in particular, were markers of immoral or sinful behaviour either of the self or of one’s ancestors. In this article from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages, exclusive to the Bloomsbury Medieval Studies platform, Donna Trembinski examines this relationship between religion and impairment in Medieval cultures, and outlines the key debates in this fascinating field of study.

    This image a double-amputee in the margins of the Romans Arthurien.
    A double-amputee in the margins of the Romans Arthurien (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

    Cures and Canonization

    Historical records of canonization processes and miracle collections are a treasure trove for historians studying everyday life. For medieval people, the miracles performed by Christ provided the models for subsequent miracles, which continued to be performed after his life on earth by the saints. Miracles provide a unique source type for the study of medieval illness and health, as well as dis/ability. Click here to read a chapter from Church and Belief in the Middle Ages and find out more.

    Image showing Saints Cosmas and Damian perform a miraculous transplantation of a leg.
    Saints Cosmas and Damian perform a miraculous transplantation of a leg. Master of Los Balbases, Burgos, Spain, c. 1495. (Wikipedia)

    Los Milagros

    The perception of los Milagros (miracles) in the Middle Ages was informed primarily by the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. According to Augustine, miracles ‘were wonderful acts of God shown as events in this world, not in opposition to nature but as a drawing out of the hidden workings of God within a nature that was all potentially miraculous’. For Medieval authors miracles formed part of the supernatural, as did magic, but they were also signs from God, indications of His omnipresence and omniscience. Click here to discover more about los Milagros in Medieval texts..

    Disability Studies

    Image showing old book bindings
    Old Book Bindings (Wikimedia Commons)

    Bibliography of Disability Studies

    Bloomsbury Medieval Studies offers a range of pedagogical learning resources to aid individual research and course building. This extensive bibliography by Wendy J. Turner details key books, chapters, articles, essays, surveys, studies and talks on the topic of disability in the Middle Ages, enabling users to orient themselves quickly to facilitate research. The contents are selectively and lightly annotated to provide guidance to accessing the titles and/or to indicate their value or limitations as resources, and links and URLs are provided for online resources to enable a seamless access to material.

    Picture showing the Miracle at Mont St. Michel: pilgrims in motion.
    Miracle at Mont St. Michel: pilgrims in motion (British Library Online)

    Disability Theory and Pre-Modern Considerations

    As the field of disability studies has grown over the last 40 years, there has been increasing critical interest in how current notions and attitudes toward the impaired were shaped historically. An examination of the disabled as they appear in Medieval texts is a useful tool to discover what ideas about physical difference might have meant to the society at large. This chapter from Viewing Disability in Medieval Spanish Texts introduces a heretofore largely unexplored body of work within disability studies, and shows that in texts produced in Medieval Spain the disabled frequently appear as historical figures, members of a legal category, and as fictive characters.

    Picture showing Christ healing a blind man
    Christ heals a blind man (British Library Online)

    Illness and Injury Learning Resource

    Bloomsbury Medieval studies offers a range of carefully curated Subject Guides that introduce students to key subject areas, support instructors in their teaching and serve as jumping-off points for further research. Click here to download the Subject Guide PDF on Illness and Injury which brings together the key eBook, article, image, reference and pedagogical material from across the Bloomsbury Medieval Studies platform. This extensive Subject Guide provides users with a simple shortcut to help them find the material they need, with links that can easily be added to a course syllabus or reading list.