Social Deviancy: A Medieval Approach
By Guy Geltner
Why The Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice, ed. Celia Chazelle et al. (London: Routledge, 2011)
Introduction: Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, European cities witnessed a growth of what are sometimes called marginalizing institutions and spaces – hospitals, brothels, leper-houses, prisons, and Jewish quarters. Historians have often cited this development in order to illustrate the persecuting mentality that allegedly characterized a Europe coming into its own: an increasingly introspective society seeking self-definition and, so the arguments runs, closing its ranks to religious outsiders, such as Jews and heretics, as well as to internal Others, from homosexuals and lepers, to prostitutes, to the physically and mentally ill. Seen in this light, medieval society appears to have failed yet another moral test set to it by its modern heirs.
The available evidence supports a different reading, however, one that stresses the semi-inclusiveness of institutions benefiting those at the dawn, twilight, and shadow of life. From this revised perspective, the choice to create facilities such as brothels and prisons within cities and to govern them responsibly constitutes a high – rather than low – benchmark of medieval adaptation to social and religious heterogeneity and the growing presence of at-risk populations. In the parlance of modern public health, medieval city councils adopted a strategy of harm reduction.
For this particular, spatial form of othering did not merely create stigmatized groups from disparate individuals; it also enabled their monitored social inclusion. Given the abrasive and generally intolerant environment in which urban magistrates operated, the choice raises and important question: Why bother with the weakest members of society by allocating substantial resources for keeping them alive and well in designated spaces?