International Medieval Congress to examine disabilities, deserving and undeserving poor, in the Middle Ages

More than 1,600 experts on the Middle Ages will gather next week at the International Medieval Congress to be held at the University of Leeds. The academic conference is the biggest of its kind in the UK, and the largest medieval themed conference in Europe. On Monday academics will discuss the problems medieval authorities had in distributing welfare to the disabled, and the lessons that we can draw from this in the light of Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

The British Government’s Welfare Reform Bill, due for its second reading at the House of Lords later this month, attempts to redraw the boundary between those deserving and undeserving of state support. Disability being scrutinised is nothing new, and similar debates happened in the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries.

Ivette Nuckel, of Bremen University in Germany, will present a paper on Monday 11th July at the Congress, showing the change in aid between the 14th and 15th Centuries. In the early Middle Ages charity was given by the church, and it was unqualified; if you needed to beg, you deserved help. As welfare provision moved from the church to city councils, discriminatory procedures were set up to determine who ‘deserved’ financial aid and who did not. Ivette said: “In the late Middle Ages, even though there were only a small number of lazy welfare recipients, all the welfare recipients were deemed to be idle unless proven otherwise.”

Another expert, Dr. Irina Metzler, will also present on Monday at the Congress, showcasing how the changing attitudes towards giving alms in the late Medieval Ages also affected the depiction of who is deemed worthy to receive financial aid. She said: “One of the many images of saints in medieval art depicts St Martin dividing his cloak so that he can give half to a beggar.

“In the earlier iconographic tradition, the beggar shown alongside the saint is physically healthy, even robust and strong. From about the first half of the fourteenth century, the figure of the beggar, however, comes to be depicted with the physical characteristics of orthopedic impairment, which becomes so entrenched as an iconographic routine that by the fifteenth century the beggar is always and only shown thus – the beggar has become a ‘cripple’.”

The International Medieval Congress runs from July 11-14. For more see the web site at

Source: University of Leeds

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