Medieval Disability

‘The Middle Ages were full of the maimed, hunchbacks, people with goitres, the lame, and the paralysed.’ Jacques Le Goff, 1988.


Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 264, f.109r (c.1338-44)

Writing in 1988, Le Goff’s view that the Middle Ages ‘were full’ of people suffering from physical disabilities appears to be a gross exaggeration of the evidence and, in many ways, is typical of the somewhat dismissive treatment of the subject presented by late nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship. That said, it would be equally naïve to assume that bodily impairment was not a reality faced by a number of people throughout the medieval era. However, like other marginalised categories of enquiry, such as gender, race, or sexuality, it is only in more recent decades that medievalists have started to ask questions and generate scholarship about this disabled minority.

My interest in medieval disability has grown out of my BA dissertation which focussed the relationship between physical impairment and behavioural ‘monstrosity’ through a case study of King Richard III. Since then, I have gone on to look at many different aspects of late medieval disability, inspired particularly by the work of Irina Metzler. My PhD thesis, focussing on mobility aids in the Middle Ages, is consequently a product of my fascination with health, culture and non-conformist bodies c. 1400-1550.

Below I have included a number of selected readings which I believe to be a useful introduction to medieval disability studies.


Selected Readings

Eyler, Joshua (ed.), Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010)

Gilman, Sander L., Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999)

Kudlick, Catherine J., ‘Disability History: Why We Need Another “Other”’, American Historical Review, 3 (2003)

Metzler, Irina, ‘Have Crutch, Will Travel: Disabled People on the Move in Medieval Europe’, in Travels and Mobilities in the Middle Ages: From the Atlantic to the Black Sea, ed. by Marianne O’Doherty and Felicitas Schmieder (Belgium: Brepols, 2015)

——— A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment (New York: Routledge, 2013)

——— Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Impairment in the High Middle Ages, c. 1000-1400 (London: Routledge, 2006)

Richardson, Kristina, Difference and Disability in the Medieval Islamic World: Blighted Bodies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012)

Turner, Wendy and Tory Vandeventer Pearman (eds.), The Treatment of Disabled Persons in Medieval Europe: Examining Disability in the Historical, Legal, Literary, Medical, and Religious Discourses of the Middle Ages (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2011)

Wheatley, Edward, Stumbling Blocks Before The Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability (University of Michigan Press, 2010)