An Oxford Historian
Herman Contractus - Early Medieval Disability
Updated: Jul 28, 2021
How did people in the early medieval period understand 'disability' and physical difference? This weeks Nickname of the Week focuses on Herman Contratus, and begins to explore some of these historical questions.
For this week's Nickname of the Week I want to take a quick look at Herman Contractus (elsewhere Hermann of Reichenau). An eleventh-century German Benedictine monk, Herman is the subject of Berthold of Reichenau’s Chronicle, the author of his own chronicle, and an impressive portfolio of music.
Despite his contributions, Herman is most remarkable for his Medieval Latin nickname contractus. It is not at all clear how exactly contractus should be translated. Terms of physical 'disability' are often unclear in translation - I recommend the Medieval Disability Glossary if you're interested in going into a little more depth. Within an English context, Tengvik translates contractus as ‘mutilated, maimed’ (Tengvik 1938, 306), while Thorn opts for ‘crippled’ (Crick, 851b). These are certainly terms that a modern eye would consider heavily 'disabling'. Working from the sources, Brunhölzl suggests that Herman might have suffered from motor neurone disease - a possible interpretation for the vocabulary used here - but this is far from clear (Brunhölzl 1999, 243).
I have discussed elsewhere the conceptual framework in which historians tend to understand physical impairment, and the difference between physical bodily changes and 'disability'. Indeed, it is clear that Herman was not considered an ‘outsider’ in any meaningful manner: Hermann produced a wide range of historical and musical texts, and he ‘surpassed all the men of that time in wisdom and virtues’ (Robinson 2013, 99). The question of context arises, however. Is this acceptance the result of the monastic environment, in which the lay systems of financial and social power are replaced by those of the fraternity? Would Herman have flourished, or indeed survived, within a secular context? Either way, this nickname seems not to be a deliberate attempt to exclude and deride Herman. Perhaps instead it's simply observational, pointing to a visible physical deformity that singled him out, but not really passing judgment? This much remains unclear.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Berthold of Reichenau, ‘Chronicle: The First Version’ in I. S. Robinson (ed.), Eleventh-Century Germany: The Swabian Chronicles (Manchester, 2013)
Brunhölzl, C., ‘Gedanken zur Krankheit Hermanns von Reichenau (1019-1054)’, Sudhoffs Archiv 83/2 (1999)
Crick, J (ed.), Exon: The Domesday Survey of South-West England, available at http://www.exondomesday.ac.uk
Herman of Reichenau, ‘Chronicle’, I. S. Robinson (ed.), Eleventh-Century Germany: The Swabian Chronicles (Manchester, 2013)
Tengvik, G., Old English Bynames (Uppsala, 1938) (reviewed and explore here)