Disabilities in the Middle Ages — event to reveal attitudes to Medieval illness

08 Dec 2010 10:42:17.150

As millions today face significant cuts to their disability benefits, evidence has shown that the state was making allowances for those unable to contribute fully to society due to ill health or old age as early as the reign of King Cnut in the 11th century.

The way in which disability, in all its forms, was viewed and treated during the Middle Ages will be discussed at a workshop at The University of Nottingham, which is set to attract experts from across Europe.

The Disease, Disability and Medicine in Early Medieval Europe workshop, taking place on Sunday December 12 and Monday December 13, will examine the cultural, religious, social and even legal implications for those afflicted with a malady of the mind or body.

Click here for full story

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 speak 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.

• 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.

• An examination at the impact that male infertility had on masculinity and status in the high Middle Ages 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.


More information about the event is available on the web at




— Ends —


Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham, described by The Times as “the nearest Britain has to a truly global university”, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings.

The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 39,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power.

The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health.

More news from the University at: www.nottingham.ac.uk/news

University facts and figures at: www.nottingham.ac.uk/about/facts/factsandfigures.asp

Story credits

More information is available from Christina Lee on +44 (0)115 846 7194, Christina.lee@nottingham.ac.uK

Emma Thorne Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

Email: emma.thorne@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

Additional resources

No additional resources for this article

Related articles

A new Norse saga! DNA detectives in the Viking North West

Published Date
Thursday 13th January 2011

Exploring the legacy of the Vikings in Ireland

Published Date
Friday 8th April 2011

Media Relations - External Relations

The University of Nottingham
YANG Fujia Building
Jubilee Campus
Wollaton Road
Nottingham, NG8 1BB

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 5798
email: pressoffice@nottingham.ac.uk