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Studying 'Disability' in History

There have always been individuals who have physical impairments throughout history. How did past societies treat them, and does that approach vary by time and place? What tools can historians use to access contemporary understandings of physical bodily differences?


Understanding and Framing 'Disability'

A consistent trend in modern academic history has been to challenge ideas that we have traditionally seen as straight-forwards and monolithic. Real life is rarely this simplistic. Variation across time and space makes clear that many cultural trends of the modern world are cultural creations, and vary substantially across history. Recently, incredibly fruitful research has been done towards this in the realm of Gender and Sexuality. Another crucial topic is 'Disability'.


In a modern sense, we tend simply to identify any physical (and, increasingly, mental) divergence from the 'norm' as a 'disability'. However, Shakespeare (not the playwrite) has drawn an important social distinction between 'Impairment' and 'Disability'. The former is a physical or mental ailment; it is biological and physiological, and a medical condition. This, in reality, is what we mean when we say someone is 'disabled' in modern terminology. 'Disability', however, is the social exclusion a culture applies to an impaired individual: the 'Disabled' individual is considered an 'Other' in society, different and excluded. An individual is born impaired or develops an impairment during their lifetime, but it is society that MAKES them 'disabled'. What is considered 'disabling' therefore varies substantially across time and space, and cannot simply be assumed as always the same by modern scholars.



Impairment is sometimes historically visible. Textual sources refer to physical and mental impairments, often if they are particularly externally visible. Think, for example, of Henry VI's catatonic schizophrenia Osteo-archaeological evidence (the study of human bones) can also sometimes show evidence of impairment: Hadley, in particular, has looked into this in regard to 'Anglo-Saxon' burials. It is often, however, excluded; historical sources tend to write only about upper-class individuals, or they might deliberately exclude references to impairment. Often, then, any kind of evidence about impairment or 'disability' is absent.


From this sparse evidence, identifying 'Disability' is more complex, and requires an in-depth analysis of contemporary culture. Just because a skeleton shows physical bone impairment, it doesn't mean the individual was considered 'Disabled'. What pushed an individual over the line; what made them physically an 'Other'? Questions of religion are often relevant: is impairment considered a punishment from some kind of diety? It is subsequently considered a moral failing? Does that vary by class? By gender? By occupation? These are all question that need to be asked by a historian exploring the life of an impaired individual.

Early Medieval Disability

Two prime examples highlight this 'Disability'/ Impairment distinction within an early medieval context. Both include an individual with a notable nickname, the topic on which my personal research is focused on.


Herman Contractus was an 11thC German monk, whose nickname 'Contractus' translates literally to 'the crippled'. Perhaps a sufferer of motor neuron disease, Herman's impairment seems not to have been socially exclusionary. An illustrious career as a musical composer and chronicler followed. The apparent lack of 'Disabling' attitude, but an onomastic focus on his impairment, marks an interesting and confusing case in the example of Herman.


Onund Treefoot was a Scandinavian 'Viking' referenced in Grettir's Saga. His name comes from a war injury sustained during naval combat, and his severed leg being replaced by a wooden peg-leg. Crucially, Onund descends into a depressive state after his injury, convinced it has reduced his worth as a man and a warrior, and he will be cast out by society. However, the Saga goes to great length to stress Onund is not a lessened man - he is impaired perhaps, but not 'Disabled' by his society.

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Bibliography and Further Reading


Hadley, D. M., ‘Burying the Socially and Physically Distinctive in Later Anglo-Saxon England’ in J. Buckberry and A. Cherryson (eds.) Burial in Later Anglo-Saxon England c.650-1100 AD (Oxford, 2010), pp. 101-13.


Herman of Reichenau, ‘Chronicle’, I. S. Robinson (ed.), Eleventh-Century Germany: The Swabian Chronicles (Manchester, 2013), pp. 58-98.


Fox, D. and Palsson, H., Grettir’s Saga (Toronto, 2001)


Metzler, I., A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages (Abingdon, 2013)


Metzler, I., Disability in Medieval Europe (Abingdon, 2006)


Shakespeare, T., ‘The Social Model of Disability’ in L. J. Davis (ed.), The Disability Studies Reader (New York, 2013), pp. 214-21.



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