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A blind king and a deaf porter: status and disability in the early Middle Ages.

Jutta Lamminaho



Year of study:


The image of a poor, blind beggar with a cane is pervasive in the public imagination of the Middle Ages. Yet impairment does, and did, not affect only the poor or consign a person automatically into poverty. So far, no research into the effects of social, political and financial status on the portrayal of an impaired person has been done, obscuring one of the greatest influences in the life of impaired people in the Middle Ages, and in the modern world. Applying the social model of disability, which presents disability as a social rather than medical condition, and with a wide range of material from most distinguished early medieval writers like Einhard, Gregory of Tours and Bede, I aim to challenge and diversify this very one-dimensional image of disability in the Middle Ages. Presenting the whole spectrum from blinded royals to disfigured saints, deaf porters and beggars who want to stay blind, I argue that medieval attitudes towards disability were contradictory and changeable based on the motives of the writer, but ultimately rooted on the expectations set for each social strata. Disability was also used to define what sacred, royal and sinful bodies looked like, just like in today's world it is used to define the productive, healthy and beautiful ones. Thus, including people with disabilities into our narratives of the past, not only creates a more complete picture of medieval society, but can also be used to understand the present and how to make it more inclusive.

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