Conferences Features

Making the Medieval Relevant: Crossing Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Studies on Disease and Disability

Dr. Christina Lee - Crossing Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Studies on Disease and Disability
Dr. Christina Lee - Crossing Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Studies on Disease and Disability
Dr. Christina Lee – Crossing Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Studies on Disease and Disability

Unhal: An Anglo-Saxon term meaning, “in bad health”, “sick” “weak”, “infirm”, “unhealthy”, “unsound”.

Dr. Christina Lee (University of Nottingham) specialises in disease and disability in the Middle Ages, with a focus on Anglo Saxon and Viking Studies. Lee began her project with a small grant from the British Academy which allowed her to do research while she was still working a temporary job. At the recent Making the Medieval Relevant conference in Nottingham, she spoke about disability in the Anglo Saxon period.

Disability: The Modern Lens
The treatment of disabled people in modern society is to view them as “not normal”. This is particularly the case in popular culture, which takes a physical impairment and uses it to inform a person. Lee’s talk asked, “How often do you see a person with a disability depicted as ‘a normal person’ in film or on TV? What models of disability are we provided with in modern culture?”


Disability Models
There are five disability models:

Medical: Where disability is viewed as a biological imbalance.
Moral: Where disability is caused by moral failings.
Social: Disability is caused by others; impairment is the physical and mental condition (ignores pain).
Religious: Attitudes towards disability governed by religion.
“The Supercrip”: The view that disability imbues the person with superiority, that they are better than others. The problem is that the real means of eradicating disability means making the disabled the same as others around them, not othering them.

Popular Medieval Disability
The Early Middle Ages were a period of cataclysmic changes: conversion, literacy, and contact (including plague). Lee debunked the commonly held belief that that disabled people didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The idea that medieval people wouldn’t have reared children with an impairment, or that “imperfect” children were exposed, were Classical practices, not a medieval ones. These notions of treatment of the disabled have been imposed on the Middle Ages because it is erroneously viewed as a ‘backwards’ society.


Anglo-Saxon Disability: Did the Anglo-Saxons have a conscious notion of disability?
Lee indicated that it was difficult to answer this as references to disability do not appear in all text types and many texts on the subject are based on biblical antecedents. Christianity had a rather symbiotic relationship with disability because religious officials needed it to promulgate their beliefs, and create narratives in order for their “healing” shrines, and relics to thrive. The church needed people to believe that it could heal the injured, the ill and disabled.

Infection and Archaeology: How did medieval people respond to infection and disease?

Those who survived and lived with infectious disease often bore physical markers, and had a reduced immunity. Infection is difficult to spot in an archeological context unless it has a long incubation period, such as Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy).

One of the core problems in determining infection is that archeology alone can’t tell if the person died of diseases like the plague, because there are no physical markers left on the body. Other conditions such as blindness or heart disease are equally difficult to uncover with archaeological evidence since there was also no to way to determine such issues just based on skeletal remains. This does not mean that archeology isn’t a viable source for investigation and information, but it’s important to note that it’s not the only one we can look to for answers on early medieval disability.

medieval disabilityMoral failings?
Anglo-Saxons believed that being impaired was good; the idea that God will love you so much more if you suffer. There was a belief that it was good to experience disability so as to remind yourself that this life is fleeting and that what you suffer afterwards will be much more painful. If we think about today’s blame culture, we have this notion that ill health is something that you have brought upon yourself. That is different from what Lee saw from her look at disability in the Early Middle Ages.


So what were Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards disability and illness? There is no evidence to indicate that the impaired were excluded from Anglo-Saxon society. There was care in burial, as demonstrated by evidence with West Heslerton (G 114). Status, according to law codes, may have made a difference towards the treatment of disabled people in the Early Middle Ages, .

Lee discussed a burial in Wiltshire, Blackall Field (Burial 71). A skeleton of a male was discovered. He was six feet tall and in his 30s at the time of his death. He was buried prone, with no grave goods. Prone burial usually indicates a deviant burial. In addition to his position in the grave, his left arm is missing. Limb cutting was a form of punishment, particularly in the late Anglo-Saxon period. Did this man do something in life that caused him to be buried in this manner? Was he criminal? Did he have the misfortune of losing his hand for a crime committed? Another interesting point is that his feet were cut off shortly before death. Was it gangrene, or was it another punishment? Lee pointed out that what’s important to remember is that he is part of this community and meant something to someone; he meant enough for someone to dig a hole, and bury him.

Anglo-Saxon Healing and Gender Variances
Healing was seen as part of the Christian mission in Late Antiquity. Isidore of Seville (560-636 AD) viewed it as a ‘God-Given discipline’. Healing was an important part early Church operation.


Disability is a cross roads of many other study areas, such as gender. In the Early Middle Ages, if you were deaf or mute, it prevented you from engaging as a full fledged man in the community because you couldn’t swear an oath, and you could not be a witness. Interestingly, this was not the case with women; Lee suggested that what is disabling to men in the Anglo Saxon period may not have been disabling to women. Women were unable to swear oaths or be witnesses so it didn’t impede them in the same way it did men.

~Sandra Alvarez

Christina Lee is an associate professor in Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham. She is the author and collaborator on numerous Anglo-Saxon texts and works on disability.

Click here for more information and a list of her publications

You can follow her on twitter: @NorseLass