The Sick and The Dead: Medieval Concepts of Illness and Spinal Disability

The Sick and The Dead: Medieval Concepts of Illness and Spinal Disability

Paper by Christina Lee

Given at the N Spine 2013 Meeting which was held at Nottingham, in September 2013

There is an often erroneous idea that past societies were a) very sick, and b) didn’t care about the sick. This as I want to show is not the case. I will show examples of illness, but I also want to show that ideas of what is sick and what needs healing are not the same as our own. For example, for most modern doctors, a disease is a biological imbalance that needs rectifying. But for medieval writers, there is a connection between body and soul, and so it is also a sociological discontinuity. It is clear that the Anglo-Saxons were familiar with disease, but the extent of sickness in this society can only be guessed – diarrhoea, fevers and infectious diseases that are responsible for the high mortality of modern populations must have certainly been around, but we cannot show them on the bones.

Take a look at our Medieval Magazine
Take a look at our Medieval Magazine

While all of us experience sickness at a stage of our lives, it is usually the onset of middle age that we experience more problems with disease. Many illnesses such as arthritis, then as now, are a matter of wear and tear. The bones of our ancestors however had to work much harder, and show such tell-tale age markers a lot earlier. The aging of medieval populations is very complex, and there are still plenty of unknowns. Modern concepts of the dark ages have also obstructed the ideas because a lot of older researcher expected man not to outlive their fifth decade. Often statistics life expectancy are calculated on the median, which means that places with a high infant mortality may give an erroneous impression of very brief lifespans and the common popular perception that people of the Middle Ages died young.

Follow Christina Lee on Twitter @NorseLass

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


Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!