Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

09 September 2016

Representations of Disabilities and Illnesses in Medieval Manuscripts

We recently received an enquiry asking if medieval manuscripts ever depict people with disabilities. At this time when the eyes of the world are upon the Rio Paralympics, we thought that it might be appropriate to devote a blogpost to medieval illustrations of disability and illnesses. 

Medieval manuscripts are full of portrayals of disabilities. From allegorical figures to pilgrims seeking cures at saints’ shrines, to medical texts describing early surgeries for cleft palates, our manuscripts depict many forms of disability and many individual people with disabilities in images and words.

Illness and disability
Detail of Old Age, portrayed as a woman with a crutch from the Roman de la Rose, Harley MS 4425, f. 10v; part of an account of miracles healing blind, deaf and paralysed people at the tomb of St Swithun, Winchester, Royal MS 15 C VII, f. 86v; detail of Christ and an ill man, from the Theodore Psalter, Add MS 19532, f. 155v

In fact, people with disabilities are illustrated more frequently in medieval manuscript culture than is often realised, particularly as the owners of and inspirations for many surviving manuscripts. To take one example: Bishop Æthelwold—for whom the spectacular Benedictional of St Æthelwold was made—had ‘swollen legs’ according to his students, and he reportedly needed two assistants to help him stand during mass. Aside from these two references, however, Æthelwold’s disability is not mentioned either in the written accounts or in the images which seemingly depict him. Studies of medieval disability are often hampered because scholars are dependent on the sources revealing disability in the first place.

Image of a bishop, possibly Æthelwold of Winchester, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England (copied by Godeman), c. 963 x 984, Add MS 49598, f. 118v

As well as being the patrons of manuscripts, people with disabilities also influenced the contents of manuscripts as authors, scribes and artists. For instance, the Greek poet Homer may have been blind: at least, he was certainly believed to have been blind by the late Middle Ages. The British Library has a large collection of early copies of Homer’s works, including one of the best-preserved copies of the Iliad from the 2nd century AD, along with later medieval depictions of Homer as blind.

One of the best preserved copies of the Iliad, the Bankes Homer, Papyrus 114 , 2nd century AD 

Detail of a miniature depicting Homer, from a copy of the Iliad with a life of Homer and other prefatory material, Italy (Florence), completed on 16 May 1466, Harley MS 5600, f. 15v

People with disabilities also feature as the subjects of texts in many medieval manuscripts. Many leaders in the Middle Ages experienced one disability or another. King John of Bohemia was blind yet continued to fight on horseback; while Enrico Dandolo was blind by the time he became the doge of Venice in 1192. Admittedly, in some medieval cultures and contexts, being blind was seen as a bar from holding high office: in the Byzantine Empire, deposed leaders or political rivals were sometimes blinded to stop them gaining or resuming power. Nevertheless, Dandolo disproved the idea that sight loss was incompatible with effective leadership when he allied with the crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204.   

Timur defeats Damascus
Detail of Timur watching the defeat of Damascus, from t
he Ẓafarnāmah, a  history of the conquests of Timur by Sharaf al-Din Yazdi completed c. 1424; the manuscript was completed on 31 March 1533, IO Islamic 137, f. 358r

Musculoskeletal disabilities did not stop some medieval warriors, either. Contemporary accounts supported by archaeological discoveries suggest that Timur (d. 1405), the founder of the Timurid Empire, whose armies swept across Central Asia and the Middle East, had physical disabilities on his right-hand side. In several languages, he was remembered as 'Timur the Lame', leading to the European misnomer Tamerlane. Manuscripts recounting the deeds of Timur and his descendants are described in more detail on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog.  

Royal MS 20 C vii, f. 134r
The autograph of Richard III (as Duke of Gloucester, before 1483), from
 Chroniques de France ou St Denis, France (Paris), 1380-1400, Royal MS 20 C VII, f. 134r

Modern archaeological research has also confirmed that Richard III had scoliosis and that Robert the Bruce may have had leprosy towards the end of his life. Perhaps the most famous king to have leprosy, however, was Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, whose disease was discovered while he was playing as a boy. The British Library holds several versions of the history written by Baldwin’s tutor, William of Tyre, which mentions this incident.

Detail of an historiated initial showing William of Tyre discovering Baldwin’s leprosy, from Histoire d'Outremer, a French translation  of
William of Tyre’s Historia rerum, France (Picardy?), 1232–1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 152v

Other medieval rulers had conditions which we can no longer identify, but which were remarked upon by contemporaries. Alfred the Great, king of Wessex (871–99), had an uncertain illness which had an unfortunate tendency to become acute during communal events, such as his own wedding. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, tried very hard to explain away Alfred’s ailment as a test from God to keep Alfred holy. 

Page from an early modern transcript of Asser's Vitae 
Ælfredi describing Alfred's wedding, Cotton MS Otho  A XII/1, f. 18r

These examples do not necessarily mean that all people with disabilities in the Middle Ages enjoyed particularly notable lives or were able to overcome all physical and cultural obstacles. Treatments prevalent in many places may have been more harmful than helpful, notwithstanding some remarkable recent discoveries in medieval medical manuscripts. It is important to stress, however, that medieval people with disabilities were not always marginalised, and that some of them were socially, politically and culturally prominent, as our manuscripts so splendidly reveal.

Alison Hudson





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