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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
Bloomsbury Medieval Studies is happy to introduce a new and exclusive series of Commentary Articles, designed to provide expert introductions and analyses of primary sources. In this article Dr Rosamund Oates sheds light on the historical context, reception and significance of the Liber Chronicarum, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicles. Click here to explore the digitised Liber Chronicarum incunabula (1493) from Senate House Library and discover each page in exquisite detail.
This exclusive article from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages takes a closer look at S. Lorenzo de El Escorial, Bibliotheca del Real Monasterio, R I 19, one of only two extant Byzantine manuscripts that include examples of the Akathistos hymn in Greek. The unusual and innovative compositions of this invaluable manuscript, such as the headpiece miniatures preceding each stanza, capture the reader’s attention and stimulate further contemplation of the hymn’s content, beyond what is presented in the text.
Though it is easy to forget, manuscripts existed for over a thousand years before Europe’s first printing press created the 1455 Gutenberg Bible. In Books Before Print, Professor Erik Kwakkel provides an in-depth introduction to the fascinating history of these medieval texts and examines “what is arguably the most notable feature of manuscripts: their individuality”. This intricately illustrated book highlights extraordinary continuities between medieval book culture and modern-world communication through in-depth analysis of medieval pop-up books, posters, speech bubbles, book advertisements, and even sticky notes.
Bloomsbury Medieval Studies offers carefully chosen images of medieval manuscripts sourced from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to complement academic research and encourage a well-rounded understanding of medieval history. Click here to explore Night-Shining White, a mid-eight century handscroll made during the Tang dynasty in China. Created by Han Gan, the handscroll features red seals and many inscriptions. One such inscription explains how Han Gan came to depict a vivid image of Night-Shining White, a horse owned by Emperor Xuanzongthe.
Arguably one of the most popular late medieval Icelandic romances, the Nítíða saga survives in sixty-five manuscripts ranging from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the twentieth century. It is very likely that the saga once also appeared in many more manuscripts, which are now fragmentary or simply lost altogether. Each time the story was written down, it took on a new form. This chapter from Popular Romance in Iceland explores the textual variation in Nítíða saga’s manuscript tradition, and what these manuscripts can reveal about the Icelandic people who created and read them at different points throughout history.
The folio of Green Tara was part of an Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, a twelfth century text of the Pala period, thought to have originated in Bengal, India or Bangladesh. In the middle of the folio sits the figure of Tara, who is seated on a lotus pedestal underneath a polylobed arch. Beside her are two female figures, one holding a vijra while the other, Mahakali, is holding skullcup and knife. Click here to discover the folio from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and explore each page in detail.
Afterlives of Medieval Texts
While ‘the physical’ and ‘the digital’ are often set in opposition, they share the same belief that these objects’ physical forms—their words, miniatures, margins, fore-edges and bindings—are vitally important to uncovering complex textual meanings, and to recovering the identities, concerns, and desires of the people who made and read these books centuries before us. With this in mind, Bridget Whearty seeks to promote a codicology of the digital medieval book which fosters a richer and more rigorous curiosity into the digital labour that makes and maintains digital medieval books.
In the recently published Medieval Literature on Display, Alexandra Sterling-Hellenbrand uses collections from two German museums as case studies for a vibrant, imaginative, and provocative enactment of 21st-century medievalism. Click here to join Sterling-Hellenbrand on a virtual tour of the Museum Wolfram von Eschenbach and find out how, in reconstructing and transforming medieval narratives for a contemporary audience, the museum enacts the process of medievalism and reveals how memory, through the lens of the Middle Ages, shapes modern cultural identity and heritage.
Each manuscript has a story to tell about its afterlife. As a class of artefact, manuscripts have often been subject to huge changes in the ways in which they have been received, used, understood and valued. Some manuscripts are associated with particularly long and eventful afterlives, being the subject of legends of preservation, curation, longevity and transfer of ownership that are still unfolding. The conservation of manuscripts is key to supporting research into the history of medieval texts. Click here to learn more about the historical development of manuscript heritage, and its potential for the future.
Bloomsbury Medieval Studies provides numerous ways with which to explore the fascinating topic of magic from a global perspective: from primary texts of witch trial proceedings and a scanned witch-hunting handbook, to articles and book chapters that examine the political and social context of magic, sorcery and demon beliefs around the world.
The most famous of the witchcraft manuals, the Malleus Maleficarum – or Hammer of Witches – of 1486 revised key perceptions about the practice of magic and contributed to the burgeoning era of witch trials at the close of the Middle Ages. Its impact was in part due to its emphasis on the figure of the female, domestic witch over the previous association of sorcery with the male, learned necromancer. Access a high-resolution, zoomable version of the original text here.
A woman with great influence in the state affairs and finance of the Mongol Empire through her friendship with Törägänä Khatun, Fatima Khatun’s downfall in 1245 was wrought by accusations of sorcery from the amirs and noyans of the ulus. As described in Wheeler M Thackston’s commentary on the Persian Histories of the Mongol Dynasties, the grandson of Genghis Khan and third Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Güyük Khan, sentenced her to death for supposedly causing his brother’s illness through magic.
This folio from a fourteenth century manuscript, most likely originating from Isfahan, Iran, shows a scene from the Book of Kings (Shahnama). The hero Isfandiyar plays a string instrument and uses his music and the promise of wine to lure a sorceress closer so that he may strike her with his sword.
“Some say that the genies [jinn] spoke to her, others that she was a sorceress and a fortune teller” - one of the most demonstrably powerful women in the eleventh-century Maghreb, Zaynab bint Ishaq al-Nafzawwiyya had a crucial role in the rise of the Almoravid Empire and in the complicated politics of its court. Read more about Zaynab’s political goals and reversals of fortune on her way to queenship in this eBook chapter.
The founder of the Zhou Dynasty and one of the most controversial sovereign rulers in Chinese imperial history, Wu Zetian was known for surrounding herself with magicians. She used both magical and religious symbolism to legitimize her swift rise to the dragon throne, where she remained from 690 to 705. Read more about Wu Zetian’s rise to power and the auspicious omens and superstition-based performances that she used to bolster her position in this study of global queenship.
Accusations of political crimes and treason involving magic abounded in this bloody conflict between the Yorkists and Lancastrians of England at the close of the Medieval period. In one such instance during the reign of Edward IV in 1477, Thomas Burdett was accused of engaging John Stacy and Thomas Blake to calculate ‘by art magic, necromancy and astronomy, the death and final destruction of the king and prince’. Learn more about the fate of the accused and magic as a political crime in Medieval England.
“Moreover, the accused gave his daughter Françoise, then aged six months, to this devil, his teacher, and Beelzebub, his teacher, killed her; and thereafter…committed and perpetrated many acts of sorcery by following his teacher’s instructions on what he should do and when he should do it.” In a series of readings from trials of witches and other workers of magic conducted by inquisitors 1245-1540, many of the accused stand trial for the summoning of demons.
A new article from the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages explores the medieval understanding of the causes of mental illness, now generally accepted to be more varied and nuanced than often thought. Contemporary Western texts suggest a range of causes were appreciated-namely grief, illness, alcohol, poor diet, or an imbalance in the humours. However, religious belief in demons as a cause of mental illness were also prevalent: both the French theologian Thomas Aquinas and the Silesian scholar Witelo believed that demons could enter the body and upset the balance of the humours.
The early fathers of the church in Europe attempted to forge a new Christian orthodoxy out of existing beliefs and had to redefine the practice of magic in a Christian context. This meant insisting that all magic was demonic in origin, and that the practice of it was always morally wrong. Learn more about the uneasy relationship between Christianity, proto-scientific epistemology and the concept of demons in this eBook chapter.
Bloomsbury Medieval Studies provides numerous ways with which to explore the fascinating topic of queenship from a global perspective: from articles and book chapters that place this concept in its historical and cultural contexts, to case studies of specific powerful women of the period and depictions of queens in works of art.
The study of queenship brings together the biographical study of the lives of royal women with an analysis of their agency and activity. Queenship scholars draw on a number of different disciplines including history, literature studies, art history, politics, gender studies, archaeology, and religious studies in order to thoroughly scrutinize the wide variety of evidence from the lives of royal women.
Tamar the Great (born ca. 1160, r. 1184–1213) ruled the medieval kingdom of Georgia at the height of its political power and cultural influence. Tamar has been neglected in historical works outside of Georgia, particularly in western languages, but scholars have recently begun to investigate her reign, examine her alongside other monarchs and speculate about the factors that enabled her success.
Before Wu Zetian’s reign (690–705) no woman had ever dared to present herself as emperor. She was the first, and last, woman who not only played a patriarchal role, but who convinced her vassals that she deserved the “Mandate of Heaven” (tianming 天命).
Eleanor of Aquitaine (d. 1204) was one of the most powerful queens in medieval Europe as well as a noteworthy patron of the arts. Her spectacular life was marked with momentous events and renown, through which she navigated the complex terrain of going on crusade, dealing with divorce and remarriage, negotiating conflict with her second husband that would result in her imprisonment, and correspondence with key contemporary figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger.
The most notable amongst all of the royal women of the Sultanate of Delhi was the regnant queen Razia (1236–1240), who adopted the gender-neutral title of Sultan. Razia has a unique position in the history of India, as both the only regnant queen of Medieval India and woman to sit on the throne of Delhi.
Queen Kunigunde, wife of Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, is depicted in stained glass with a halo, crown and holding a sceptre. She is reported to have been politically active, taking part in Imperial councils and advising her husband. She was eventually canonized as Saint Kunigunde by Pope Innocent III in March 1200.