The University of Nottingham will be hosting a workshop this Sunday and Monday that will examine how disability, in all its forms, was viewed and treated during the Middle Ages. Disease, Disability and Medicine in Early Medieval Europe AD 400-1200 will feature over a dozen scholars who will examine the cultural, religious, social and even legal implications for those afflicted with a malady of the mind or body.
It will cover topics usually considered to be relatively modern issues including mental illness, male infertility, health and safety at work and body image.
Workshop organiser Dr Christina Lee, of the University’s Institute for Medieval Research, said: “The speakers at this conference will be focusing on the way in which society treated those who by modern standards would be deemed as having a disability.
“People who lived in the Middle Ages are often viewed as being little more than primitives, with a very limited view of the world around them, but recent research has started to reveal quite sophisticated attitudes to the way in which they cared for the infirm or weak.
“Studying the way in which disabilities were viewed and treated in Medieval times also allows us to reflect on the basic issue of what it is to be disabled, what is considered to be ‘normal’ and how we define those differences.”
The event will kick off with a keynote address by the world’s first Professor of Health Humanities, Paul Crawford, of the University’s School of Nursing and co-founder of the Madness and Literature Network, which focuses on the link between madness and creativity.
Other highlights from the two-day programme will include:
• A look at how a number of miracle collections compiled in 12th-century England by hagiographers — scholars who studied saints — describe the illnesses and disabilities of pilgrims seeking cures at healing shrines and offer insight into attitudes towards mental illness. Dr Ann Bailey from the University of Oxford will give a paper entitled Madness and Miracles: Hagiographical perceptions of mental illness in twelfth-century England, on how the growing availability of medical texts meant that hagiographers increasingly moved from treating madness as a sign of demonic possession and began to recognise a wide range of mental diseases and disabilities.
• A paper on Risk and Danger in Late Medieval Underground Mining, in which Ivette Nuckel from the University of Bremmen will look at the effect that lead poisoning had on Medieval miners and the strategies, including specialist clothing and machinery, that was used for accident prevention.
• The treatment of Lepers in society in the Middle Ages including research by Dr Simon Roffey at the University of Winchester which suggests that, based on carbon dating of human remains, the leper hospital of St Mary Magdalen in Winchester may have had its origins in the later Anglo-Saxon period, more than a century earlier than previously thought (you can read more about this discovery from our news article Anglo-Saxon Leper Hospital discovered in Winchester)
• A look at the legal implications for those afflicted by a disability in the Middle Ages. Dr Irina Metzler from Swansea University will examine what it was to be mute in a society where widespread illiteracy meant your oath was literally your bond and being deaf was a barrier to hearing the word of God, in her paper Speechless: Hearing and speech impairment as a medieval legal problem
• Theresa Tyers and Rachel Middlemass will present Disabling Masculinity: manhood and infertility in the High Middle Ages, on the impact that male infertility had on masculinity and status and whether the problem was understood to be a disability during this period.
• A look at the impaired body in the Scandinavian north, including Nordic code laws related to infants born with disabilities and a paper by Dr Anne Irene Riisøy of Oslo University on Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes: Body Evaluation the Viking Way.
Source: University of Nottingham