Crippled Child in the Luttrel Psalter fol 186v © British Library

Disability in the Middle Ages

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.


Get our Medieval News with links to our premium content

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.