The Sporadic Blog


… is slowly creeping its way onto these pages …

Let’s start with a word or two about the images in the header.

The feline is a rather unusual use of a cat in art, namely as heraldic emblem on the tombstone of a minor German noblememan, one Ritter Erasmus II von Laiming (†1406). On this kind of upright grave slab, a tumba, the cat is sitting on top of a cushion resting on an armorial helmet which is in turn worn by a lion. The cat, generally silver or white, appeared frequently in the early heraldry of the Laiming family, until this domestic feline was augmented by a captive or caged lion – interestingly enough, the cat is here on the tumba superior to the royal lion. The tumba was made by Hans Heider of Salzburg, and is now located in the cloisters of Kloster Seeon on the Chiemsee, Bavaria.

The castle is, of course, there to represent one of the main stereotypical views of the Middle Ages. Ask any small child about the Middle Ages, and castles will be up there with knights and dragons, so strongly embedded in contemporary culture is this ‘romantic’ idea of the Middle Ages (derived, via 18th and 19th century revivals, from the not just etymologically similar romances of the medieval period itself). This one shows the alcazar of Segovia, a building with a few medieval remnants embedded in its fabric, but essentially a nineteenth-century (re)creation in the spirit of Viollet le Duc. As a building it literally screams ‘castle’ at you, the same way that Ludwig II’ of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein does, or Walt Disney’s fairytale one. Such hyper-castles may stand visually for the debate around what actually is deemed to be ‘heritage’ (see the Research pages here on this site for more on this topic), and then additionally the question of whose heritage do we mean.

The image on the right is just one among hundreds depicting medieval disabled people. This one was chosen pretty much at random from my collection. Here St James is shown leading a group of pilgrims towards an otherwise unidentified Franciscan saint. The painting is Sienese school, from a predella made by Giovanni di Paolo in the 1430s, and now in a private collection (but you can find out more about it in the exhibition catalogue Paintings in Renaissance Siena 1420-1500, by Christiansen, Kanter and Strehlke, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988). Precisely because in terms of depicting the disabled there is nothing extraordinary about it I have selected this one – more on the mundaneity of such imagery at a later date.

Juristification and medieval ‘idiocy’

I’ve written a whole chapter on the link between the development of medieval legal processes and the conceptual genesis of the ‘idiot’ (in Latin: idiota) as someone deemed not mentally competent enough to take charge of their affairs. Because this is now in print in a book and, unlike this blog, can no longer be altered or added to, here is a little coda to that chapter.

Recently I have come across a small side-note in a fascinating but generally under-rated book, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, by Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders (London: Penguin, 1989). Here the concept of ‘juristification’ is described, except that Illich and Sanders did not use this neologism. Juristification is, like the perhaps more familiar term medicalisation, describing a process whereby something, in this case the law, increasingly penetrates society. In the Middle Ages laws, legislation, legal matters, jurisprudence all start pervading cultural mentalities and attitudes. As Illich and Sanders observed (p. 36), juristification started with topographical descriptions which had a legal usage before they were taken up by the language of science from the early modern period onwards.

What this means is best illustrated by way of an example: when earlier medieval charters and other documents pertaining to possession and landownership circumscribed the object of possession, they used natural phenomena to delineate the boundary. “From the old oak tree to the waterfall then past the big rock, the land belongs to X…” Since there are potentially many trees, it was important that this particular boundary tree was marked as an oak tree, and in addition not a small, thin young tree, but an old oak. This may not be as ‘scientific’ sounding a description as, say, the modern “Quercus robur” might entail, but it made a start. Thus the accurate observation and description of nature had a legal purpose in defining property boundaries centuries before similar observational language was used by natural science (which incidentally is also about ordering and rationalising the phenomena of the natural world according to a human-devised system).

Something similar happened in the case of medieval ‘idiocy’, where legal definitions and observations of ‘idiocy’ preceded medical ones. Legalism is a ‘first’ in that it introduced a way of thinking (ordering and rationalising) which only afterwards made its wider impact felt on society. So don’t blame the physicians for the excesses of medicalisation, blame the lawyers for the juristification which made it all possible in the first place.

A Short Look at some Long History (part 2): Trickle-Down Economics

Another aspect of proto-capitalism that has often been overlooked in mainstream economic histories is the notion, even way back then in the Middle Ages, of what the neo-liberals economists of today call the “trickle-down” effect. Trickle-down economists believe that letting the rich stay rich, in fact, letting the rich get even richer, is best for society as a whole, because allegedly the rich, by spending and investing their wealth, will naturally let that wealth percolate down the social strata to the benefit of us all. What did the thirteenth-century equivalent of this idea sound like? According to the schoolmasters, making a profit could be perfectly legitimate, because this gave a merchant or banker the chance to make charitable donations, in effect to be a philanthropist, as the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century model capitalist would be, and thereby being useful to society. According to this argument, a medieval merchant-banker was not just being socially useful by importing and trading goods or making money available to rulers, tradesmen and to other merchants, thereby fuelling the cycle of economic growth, but a merchant-banker was also socially useful by re-distributing wealth to those who had less.

“The scholastic approval of a person who, in a case of urgent and extreme necessity takes what he needs from someone else, has to be seen in this context; it is not a blanket approval of the poor stealing from the rich. In the words of [Thomas] Aquinas, ‘he who suffers from extreme need can take what he needs from another’s goods if no one will give them to him’. This is hardly a programme for social revolution; it is more a reminder of the continuing responsibility of those who have to share with those who have not.” [6]

We can therefore see the beginnings of the justification for trickle-down economics in medieval scholastic thought. Providing you re-distribute some of your wealth in a philanthropic manner some of the time, it is perfectly sound, morally, ethically and economically, to make a profit from exploiting people the rest of the time. What makes the situation worse in today’s terms is that the religious underpinning that provided at least a modicum of such morality back in medieval times hardly a factor any longer: back then the fear of eternal damnation and hellfire at the very least had one positive effect, in that it was the regulatory force, if you like, that compelled merchant-bankers to donate to charity, found almshouses or hospitals and similar. One of the big ideas of recently re-elected UK prime minister David Cameron is branded under the name of “Big Society”. He would do well to take a look at this medieval model of philanthropy, for it is such a social model that his big society is most reminiscent of.

Cameron’s model of the big society cynically portrays cuts as opening “opportunities” for charities and local communities and privatisation as a means of facilitating “greater local democracy.” The big society is supposed to be, in Cameron’s words, about “voluntarism, philanthropy, social action”, and would “open up public services to new providers like charities, social enterprises and private companies.” The vagaries and uncertainties of so-called welfare provision by non-governmental institutions can be amply demonstrated by a look back at history: from medieval almshouses to Victorian workhouses, social philanthropy has always been more about the person of the philanthropist and only secondarily about the people who were meant to be helped. But what long ago was an advance on the lack of any kind of “welfare” provision, namely a concern for one’s Christian duty to one’s neighbour for the sake of one’s own soul, must however be seen strictly in the light of its proper place in history: what was right for, say, the thirteenth century, is not necessarily right for the twenty-first.

So you may well ask what relevance or significance could the writings of a bunch of medieval theologians possibly have to the contemporary situation? They provide deeper historical insight, to be blunt. The fact that eight centuries ago people were pondering the effects of the free market shows that the idea of capitalism, in its early forms, or proto-capitalism to be more precise, has been around for longer, and most importantly, that the problems of capitalism have been around for longer than most modern commentators think. The theories of the just price can be interpreted as early attempts at regulation, at curbing the excesses of the free market, to use a modern phrase. Precisely because the scholastic intellectuals did not advocate a “programme for social revolution”, they focussed on regulatory measures instead. And that is the very crux of the matter: no matter how well-defined (or badly defined) a theory of fairness, just price or similar appeals to moral conscience may be, it has failed in the long run of imposing effective limits on capitalist exploitation.

Six hundred years before Adam Smith the cream of intellectuals and moralists wrote extensively on ideas of how to regulate, control and impose “just” prices onto the free market, and despite these centuries of injunctions capitalism grew, developed and flourished, that fact should provide food for thought. If attempts at control or regulation of the free market have been unsuccessful in this long view, then perhaps control or regulation of the market from within will rarely work and will generally be doomed to failure. Or to express it another way: reforms of a system from within that system, in this case capitalist economics, may have had short-term individual successes, such as in the Middle Ages persuading the occasional merchant-banker to found an almshouse or hospital for the deserving poor, or in modern times the institution of national health services and pension schemes, but longer-term these “successes” appear as blips on the trajectory of capitalism’s graph of hegemony. If anything, this little excursion into a lesser-known area of economic and philosophical history may permit one to draw the conclusion that reformist approaches to make capitalism “better” might temporarily improve the lot of individual people, such as those lucky few who may have been provided with a place in a medieval almshouse. But after a period in more recent history – the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – when working people had been able to achieve a series of improvements through reforms, the parameters have changed: with the rise of globalisation, the power of the nation state and with it the once progressive role of old-school capitalism has been seriously undermined. It is with bitter irony one must observe that as in the UK various cultural and civic bodies celebrated the two-hundredth anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, as a society we are well on track to returning to these Dickensian conditions of poverty. One could argue the clock is being wound back even further than Victorian times, to the era of the merchant princes of later medieval Europe.

But alongside the picture presented of a religiously-inspired philanthropy that David Cameron wishes us to return to, one should be aware that history, and historical awareness, is not so one-sided. There was a much earlier recognition that the wealth of the upper classes is based on the labour of the lower classes. Let’s leave the last word to Theodulf, who way back, at the turn of the eighth to ninth centuries, commented on the common origin of all people, regardless of social, economic or political standing. He may have couched it in religious language, but he was still reminding the rich and powerful that their status was only made possible through their exploitation of the lower orders: “Sweat and labour of the people have made you rich. The rich person becomes rich through aid of the poor. But nature has subjected you both to the same law.” [7]

[6] Quotation from: Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe, London: Elek, 1978, p. 179. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) wrote about the concept of “extreme need” as justification for what in other circumstances was termed theft in his key text, the Summa theologia (2a 2ae, q. 66 art. 7), a text which for all its obscurity to most non-medievalist readers has, interestingly, surfaced occasionally in modern times in that very context.

[7] Quotation from: Pierre Riché, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, trans. Jo Ann McNamara, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978. Theodulf was bishop of Orléans from 787; the original Latin is in his Contra judices, in MGH Poetae Latini medii aevi, vol. I, p. 516.

A Short Look at some Long History (part 1): Market Regulation

[It’s been nearly a year, I just noticed, since I last posted something, so to make up for it, here are two rather lengthy musings on a topic that, to put it mildly, appears to have at least some contemporary relevance….]

As every introduction to the economic history mentions, Karl Marx developed the concept of processes in the means of production: from slave-holding societies, via feudalism, to capitalism. This tripartite scheme (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) is of course an abbreviation, short-hand for a much more complex social and economic history, as medievalists grappling with the term “feudalism” know only too well.

And in that more complex historical picture, capitalism did not arrive overnight, nor was the coming of capitalism welcomed by all concerned. “In medieval and early-modern Europe, avarice was regarded as the foulest of vices. From that to the Wall Street slogan “greed is good!” involved an intensive process of reeducation. What did the reeducating was not in the first place schoolteachers or propagandists but changes in our material forms of life. … There were medieval ideologues who viewed profit-making as unnatural, because human nature for them meant feudal nature. Hunter-gatherers probably took an equally dim view of any possibility of any social order but their own.” [1] The free market and capitalism had to be slowly introduced to people, against much initial reluctance. “Free markets are in fact a recent historical invention, and were confined for a long time to a minor region of the globe.” [1] The “invention” of the free market is credited to Adam Smith in the later eighteenth century, which in historical terms is quite recent, and the “minor region of the globe” refers, of course, to that small chunk of off-shore Europe known as Britain.

The origins of banking and merchant capitalism may lie in the Middle Ages, but they were the exception rather than the rule for most areas of production – like the towns which have famously been described as “islands in a feudal sea”. Feudalism, in short, is a form of production centred on landholding and associated obligations. The classic feudal example is that of, say, a peasant who works the land which is owned by a knight. In return for his work, the peasant is (theoretically) under the protection of the knight. The knight in his case has to be loyal to his superior (be it higher-ranking noble, or king) from whom he holds the land, and perform a range of services, mainly military, in return for the land. Towns and cities, with their mercantile activities, sat uneasily within this “feudal pyramid”, hence the simile of the islands. Trade, a money economy and the merchant class could develop slowly but steadily in these urbanised regions and with it the primitive accumulation of capital. Before the capitalist system had developed to the stage where it could sweep away all earlier modes of production through the spontaneous operation of the market, it had to establish an initial accumulation of wealth.

What is important to remember is that different socio-economic systems can occur side by side in the same place at the same time. Therefore you can find both so-called feudal modes of production as a majority in rural areas and mercantile production in towns, as well as a few rare, emerging capitalists in major cities in Europe during the Middle Ages. With regard to the simultaneous development of different economic and productive systems Eric Hobsbawm has remarked that “any transition from one socio-economic formation to another – say from feudal to capitalist society – must at some stage consist of such a mixture.” [2]

Just because a medieval Italian merchant was making lots of money in, say, the thirteenth century, that did not make him a fully-fledged capitalist. As Terry Eagleton put it, you need to know about the concept of something before you can be that thing: “But one cannot desire something of which one has no notion. I cannot hanker to become a stockbroker if I am an Athenian slave. I can be rapacious, acquisitive and religiously devoted to my own self-interest. But I cannot be a closet capitalist, just as I cannot aspire to be a brain surgeon if I am living in the eleventh century.” [1]

The basic idea of the free market is, in fact, older than the theories of Adam Smith, the best-known of the early exponents of the free market as the most “rational” economic system (and as the original form of capitalism). Already in ancient Rome an idea existed of a market in which all the parties partaking of commercial activity could trade, exchange and barter for goods freely, meaning without hindrance to the pursuit of trade. Roman jurists wrote about this principle of a free market in legal texts that have been copied in later times, such as the Middle Ages, and hence preserved for historians to study today. During the Middle Ages, a branch of law called canon law developed, which dealt with the laws, structures and regulations of the Christian church, termed canonical, hence the name. Canon lawyers were complemented by civil lawyers, whose sphere of action was in the legal systems imposed by secular rulers and structures. Together, canon and civil law looked at the moral implications of the free market principle. [3]

When property and goods stopped being exchanged by a system which was heavily tied up with the social status of people, namely a system of gift-exchange, patronage, or grants of land, money or spheres of influence – what has in Marxist economics been summarised as the “feudal” system – and instead a cash sale between two parties whose social status was irrelevant became a new means of exchange, the moral or ethical problem of how to determine what was or was not deemed a “fair” price arose. The early market had no controls other than the most basic control over the principle of free exchange, which meant that freedom to bargain, barter and exchange needed to be protected from fraud and severe harm (laesio enormis in Latin). Fraud was understood to mean charging a price for goods that was out of proportion with the goods being sold; for example, selling defective, leaky pots for the same price as intact pots would be considered fraudulent, because the value of the defective pots was obviously not comparable with that of the intact pots. If you up the scale from simple, utilitarian items such as pots sold by the dozens at a local market to an entire shipload of (defective) pots that a Roman or medieval merchant might have invested in, then you get an example of how fraud could lead to “severe harm”.

Now the idea of a fraudulent price, as something that leads to harm and needs to be avoided or even controlled, implies its opposite: a “just price”. Trying to determine philosophically, morally, and even in rudimentary economic terms what exactly was meant by a “just price” was a task that the schoolmen of the Middle Ages, as Marx called them, expended a fair amount of time and energy on, in the writings of scholars and intellectuals of the thirteenth century in particular, such as Albertus Magnus or Thomas Aquinas.

“They invoked Aristotle to argue that human need – demand – was the chief determinant, but they added also the available supply as a factor and, subsumed in supply, the value of labour. The result was a clear definition of the just price as the going market price, with the limitation that a manipulated market price, for example due to monopoly or hoarding or speculation, could not qualify as just. Not every price higher than the just price had technically to be considered illegal and immoral, but one that was 50 per cent higher than the just price was manifestly unjust. In cases of dispute, the current market price would be determined in the streets by a group of upstanding citizens (boni viri).” [4]

What this brief summary of early free-market theories indicates is that even some eight centuries ago two points arise: firstly, that a primitive form of capitalism (proto-capitalism if you like) was already in existence in the sense that goods were exchanged for cash in a free market, and secondly, that equally for the past eight hundred years or so people have been trying to regulate that free market. Eric Hobsbawm’s analysis can be applied quite neatly to the description of merchants versus religion, as given in Lester Little’s book, as “dialectics in action” or “applied dialectics” in the Marxist sense, highlighting the simultaneity of apparently contradictory elements. [5]

[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011, pp. 96 & 97

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, On History, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997, p. 160

[3] K. S. Cahn, ‘The Roman and Frankish Roots of the Just Price of Medieval Canon Law’, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, vol. 6, 1969, pp. 1-52.

[4] Quotation from: Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe, London: Elek, 1978, p. 177. Prof. Little refers the reader on to J. W. Baldwin, The Medieval Theories of the Just Price: Romanists, Canonists, and Theologians in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n. s. 49(4), Philadelphia, 1959.

[5] Eric Hobsbawm, On History, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997, p. 202

Medieval and modern ethics

Today I read a note on BBC news that “Richard Dawkins, the atheist writer, has caused a stir on Twitter claiming it is “immoral” to allow unborn babies with Down’s syndrome to live.” As a firmly entrenched medievalist I normally pass by contemporary issues, but this one got me hot enough under the collar to provoke the following thoughts (or rant) about the changing perceptions of intellectually disabled people – fools and idiots, as the Middle Ages more often than not called them.

The thirteenth century was the turning point, not, pace Chris Goodey, because suddenly the neo-Aristotelian scholastics rediscovered and misrepresented Aristotle’s phrase about man being a rational animal, but because they started using the tools of rationality to describe, order, categorise, label, interpret, calculate and so on. The thirteenth century saw the invention of the alphabetically organised encyclopedia (Bartholomew the Englishman’s book on the properties of things), the systematising of knowledge in general and the application of logic in particular to describe the world. It thus is familiarly modern – we can feel comfortable in likeing the thirteenth century (unlike the catastrophic fourteenth that was to follow) – because we can see our intellectual ancestry reflected in it. Whereas earlier medieval centuries had produced messy, unordered, even, that worst of insults to modern ears, ‘unscientific’ texts about the world and peoples’ place in it, the thirteenth century saw the outpouring of ordered, standardised, measured, and that highest praise of all, rational scientific texts. That is where the problem lies for the perception of intellectual disability. Under the older, more random, more fluid descriptions, each case of ‘idiocy’ was individually described and if in a legal context, judged on its own merits against a fairly diverse and mobile set of criteria. That is frustrating for historians, because it does not give us a neat, consistent definition to get our teeth into, but it was probably good for people with intellectual disabilities. In the absence of definite criteria and diagnostic standards, less people were pathologised and more people were just ‘getting on with it’ in whatever daily life they may have led. Only people with severe mental disabilities, as it is called today, would have been pathologised, and those with moderate disabilities may perhaps have been noticed, while people with mild intellectual disabilities most likely escaped comment completely.

With the thirteenth century and the advent of logic, science and rationality in the modern sense, suddenly the authorities (here meant as intellectual authorities) started taking a greater interest in trying to define the up til then rather woolly concepts of fools and idiots, for the simple reason that everything, from the heavenly spheres and the hierarchies of angels down to ants and blades of grass, was being subjected to logical categorisation. Umberto Eco famously wrote that only a medieval scholastic could truly appreciate a card index system – or to update the metaphor, a database. It was in the fourteenth century, the scholastic learning having become embedded among the cultural baggage so to speak, that we can come across a figure like Konrad of Megenberg, who applies the ‘scientific techniques’ of his day to the description of the assumed physical traits of congenital idiots (e.g. small and/or pointy heads), for which he is praised by the modern medical historian as giving us a ‘first’. (Much of the history of science is about discovering firsts: the first incidence of x, or the first accurate description of y.) Until then idiots had been noted according to their idiosyncratic characters and behaviour, not their physical appearance. New logic brings new scientific approaches. Physiognomy rears its ugly head in the fifteenth century, gaining popularity in the sixteenth, and by the seventeenth century Thomas Willis emerges with his ‘first’ (that accolade of history of science again) description of mental deficiency according to what would become psychiatric criteria.

The latest point on the trajectory of rationality is the cost-benefit analysis, originally a popular tool for economists in the twentieth century, and now something that the beleaguered humanities have (erroneously methinks) embraced whole-heartedly to prove that they, too, are proper sciences. The rationality of cost-benefit thinking betrays some murky outcomes. The notion of using ‘science’ to weigh up and evaluate different courses of action for the greatest outcome, generally disguised as a version of the ‘greatest good’, results in statements like this one: Christoph Anstötz, professor of special education at the University of Dortmund, and the academic who invited the even more notorious Peter Singer to Germany to lecture on the euthanasia of ‘severely’ disabled infants, voiced a similar opinion to cost-benefit analysis when he referred to the “balance of happiness” (“Glücksbilanz”): “Insofar as the death of an impaired baby leads to the birth of another child with greater prospects for a happy life, then the sum total of happiness is greater if the impaired baby is killed.” [“Sofern der Tod eines geschädigten Säuglings zur Geburt eines anderen Kindes mit besseren Aussichten auf ein glückliches Leben führt, dann ist die Gesamtsumme des Glücks größer, wenn der behinderte Säugling getötet wird.” Christoph Anstötz, Ethik und Behinderung, Berlin: Spiess, 1990] Unfortunately this is a development that has not been concluded yet, or reached its apex, since cost-benefit analyses are alive and well, and mushrooming into ever more areas of contemporary twenty-first century life. Abstract rationality, devoid of social, cultural or dare I say moral accoutrements, leads to these kinds of ‘impartial’ cost-benefit calculations, where strict insistence on logic can ultimately lead to the statements Richard Dawkins can make about the so-called ethics of aborting fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Time to Think

Supposedly our society is speeding up. “Is the pace of life accelerating? If so, what are the cultural, social, personal and economic consequences?” asks the blurb to a book by John Tomlinson, The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy (Theory, Culture & Society), Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2007. A very important question, actually, and one which impacts on my current topic of research, on intellectual disability (or cognitive disability, or learning disability) in the Middle Ages. Speed emerged as a cultural issue during industrial modernity, through the rise of capitalist society and the shift to urban settings, defined by the belief in ‘progress’, argues Tomlinson, so the medieval world will have been one of bucolic calm, according to this theory. What, one may wonder, has this got to do with cognitive disability? Well, cultural acceleration has effects not just on the ‘immediacy’ of the twenty-first century, the “combination of fast capitalism and the saturation of the everyday by media technologies” [Tomlinson], but on our cultural and moral values. Now, confronted with the phenomenon of social acceleration, “we talk of ‘fast food’ and ‘speed dating’ ” (Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman (eds), High-Speed Society: Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2008), and tend to believe that faster is better, although one of the questions asked in this book is how much speed we can tolerate. Paul Virilio, who coined the term ‘dromology’ (the study of speed) in Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology, New York: Semiotext(e), 1977, started the intellectualisation of speed. Searching for the meaning of ever speedier change has become a progressively more respectable path of scholarship in cultural or media studies.

For all the pages of cultural theory, as far as I know none of these learned tomes, the cultural critics or the philosophes of (post)modernity consider the effects of societal celerity on cognition, on thinking, and on definitions of intelligence. At least Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) mentions autism spectrum disorder, but only as the antithetical example to ‘normal’ thought processing. The stereotype of intellectual disability, and its sub-group, learning disability (or learning difficulty, depending on regional preference) dictates a picture of slow, ponderous unintelligence, and in contrast to the dull minds of the learning disabled, those quick on the uptake are bright, fast learners. Speed, sharpness and light are culturally contrasted with being slow, blunt and dull. What about the disparity between the accelerators and those who cannot keep up the speed? Virilio “notes that the speed at which something happens may change its essential nature, and that which moves with speed quickly comes to dominate that which is slower.” (Wikipedia article on Paul Virilio) Accordingly, by analogy those who think faster or have quicker wits are deemed more ‘intelligent’ than those who think slower and take longer to express their thoughts. Society, and with it the expectation of cognitive ability, has accelerated to the detriment of those perceived to be slower. We’re all Vorticists* now.

[*’Vorticists’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, since the Vorticists regarded themselves as the calm in the eye of the cultural storm; the vortex is after all a whirling motion with a still centre. But it had too nice a ring not to use as a phrase here.]

It was not always so, however. Quick witted ripostes were not always valued above slow, cautious or considered thought. Here it is worth citing a few excerpts from the Didascalion of Hugh of St Victor, who in the twelfth century already drew attention to the different abilities of learners, and also pointed out that these are not totally fixed, but malleable by the educator. Aptitude maybe “arises from nature”, but it “is improved by use, is blunted by excessive work, and is sharpened by temperate practice” (The Didascalion of Hugh of St. Victor III.vii, trans. and intro. Jerome Taylor, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 91). Hugh was also one of the first people to make the distinction, so popular with later educational theorists, between what came to be called the will-nots and the can-nots, that is those who are able but reluctant to learn and those, such as those nowadays categorised as learning disabled, who are deemed unable and therefore blameless for their underachievement. “And still it is one thing when one is not able, or to speak more truly, when one is not easily able to learn, and another when one is able but unwilling to learn” (Didascalion, Preface, p. 44). One may note that Hugh did not dismiss those with perceived learning difficulties out of hand, since he qualified his own statement, that those presumed unable are in fact only “not easily able”, in other words, given the right support, in modern terms, they maybe slower but still able to learn.

According to Hugh, a slower learning pace may even be better: “Consider, rather, what your powers will at present permit: the man who proceeds stage by stage moves along best.” (Didascalion, III.xiii, p. 95). Hugh repeats this advice in Book VI.iii: “the man who moves along step by step is the one who moves along best, not like some who fall head over heels when they wish to make a great leap ahead” (p. 137). In the Didascalion, there are different types of students, or in modern parlance different types of learner. There are some “who are naturally dull and slow in understanding things” (V.v, p. 126) but there are also extraneous forces which impede learning, among them what Hugh calls bad luck (fortuna). “Bad luck shows up in a development, a chance happening, or a natural occurrence, when we are kept back from our objective either by poverty, or by illness, or by some non-natural slowness, or even by a scarcity of professors, because either none can be found to teach us, or none can be found to teach us well” (V.v, p. 127). Prefiguring modern educationalists’ theories, Hugh suggested that in such cases the student needs to be assisted (adiuvandus). Extrapolating from what Hugh wrote nearly nine centuries ago, there may be slow learners but there’s no such thing as non-learners.

Witchcraft and Cats in the Middle Ages (revisited)

Thanks to for posting an abbreviated version of my article on medieval “heretical” cats, which has generated a lot of interest. For anyone wanting to know more about cats in general during the medieval period I can recommend an excellent little book in the British Library series on themes in illuminated manuscripts, called Medieval Cats, by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (2011). But because I’ve been trawling through the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, by the Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, also known under the surname Institoris, the Latin version of his name, and first published at Speyer in 1486, for the purpose of laying to rest some myths about disability and witches (see previous post) I’ve come across a rare reference to cats in this text, which may interest the ailurophiles.

Kramer retold an older story concerning cats and witches. In fact, this is the only time cats are mentioned at all by Kramer, so that the (modern) popular connection between cats and witches in the Middle Ages (as opposed to the connection between cats and heretics) really needs to be placed in its proper context. In the Middle Ages as such (i.e. before 1500) cats were primarily associated with heretics and only rarely with witches. The pairing cat-witch is mainly a postmedieval phenomenon, as indeed the whole witch-craze and persecution of witches is an early modern rather than medieval episode.

Kramer tells the story, in Book II, part 1, chapter 9 on how demons escape the bodies they possess without injury, repeating a version of this topic first narrated by Gervase of Tilbury in the early thirteenth century (Otia imperialia, I, c. 93, who wrote on so-called witches who flew by night and who could change their shape, preferably into that of a cat, during which “women have been seen and wounded in the shape of cats by persons who were secretly on watch”). In Kramer’s version, a labourer in the diocese of Strasbourg was chopping firewood when he was molested by a large cat which tried to pounce on him. When he tried to scare off this cat, a second even larger cat joined the first and attacked him even more ferociously. Trying to remove these two only brought a third cat on the scene, the trio jumping into the labourer’s face, and biting his legs or throat. With much effort the man finally beat the cats off with a piece of the wood he had been chopping, hitting one cat on the head, another on the feet, the third on the back. Peace returned. But an hour later the labourer was arrested and imprisoned for three days, not knowing why. When brought before the judge on the third day, he was accused of having attacked and wounded three honourable women of the town, who were now lying immobilised in their sick-beds. Once given a chance to explain that he was actually beating cats and not women, the labourer’s story is immediately believed and he is released. Kramer reinforces his point by stating that “nobody doubted” that the demons could cause women to be transported through the air, be changed into cats, and transfer the wounds inflicted on the animal shape onto their human hosts.

And the final thing he has to say in this episode about cats (in over 120 folio pages, mind you) is that the cat is the signifier of the faithless, as according to Scripture the sign of the preacher is the dog, for which reason both animals pursue each other. In other words, despite narrating a two-hundred-year-old tale of witches and cats, Kramer ultimately associates cats with heresy (the “faithless”) rather than with witches. Witches are more likely to transform into wolves, horses and even donkeys in Kramer’s text.

Disability, Witches and the Middle Ages: Some Mythbusting

Stereotypes and assumptions have a way of taking on a life of their own, as the case of Foucault’s ‘ships of fools’ made clear some decades ago. This was the fanciful notion, expounded by Foucault in his influential Madness and Civilization, that in late medieval Germany people with mental disorders were put afloat on boats along the major rivers and literally ‘cast out’ from the community by being left to drift on the waters, waters of course having a purifying connotation as well. That particular myth was thankfully debunked some years ago, in a seminal article by W. B. Maher and B. Maher, ‘The Ship of Fools: Stultifera Navis or Ignis Fatuus?’, American Psychologist, 37 (7), 1982, pp. 756-61. I have discussed this whole sorry episode of the modern assumptions regarding medieval fools and ships in my first book (p. 28), so there is no need to belabour the whole point again here.

However, popular myths surrounding disability in the medieval period still tend to view the period itself as one of barbaric darkness, and one where people we now call disabled were invariably demonised. One such series of myths is associated with the surmised link between the Middle Ages, witches, and disability. Lately I have been having a lot of conversations, both verbal and electronic, with people who keep asking me: “Surely in the Middle Ages witches did x, y, or z”. The preamble “surely” is a dead give-away, and sets my internal alarm bells ringing that I am about to hear one of these popular myths. If the “surely” is amplified with a “but”, as in “But surely disabled people were treated as witches/outcasts/devil’s children”, then it’s time for red alert.

The text blamed for all this modern stereotyping is the Malleus maleficarum, generally translated as ‘The Hammer of the Witches’ (although strictly speaking the maleficae who are to be hammered can be translated as female evil-doers, the Latin word maleficae being related to modern English ‘malefactor’). This text was first published in December 1486 (as far as meticulous research by Behringer, et al, pp. 22-26 indicates) and had been reprinted a second and third time by 1490/91 and 1494 respectively. I have used a new translation from the oldest Latin printed edition [Heinrich Kramer (Institoris), Der Hexenhammer. Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Wolfgang Behringer, Günter Jerouschek and Werner Tschacher with intro. and ed. by Günter Jerouschek and Wolfgang Behringer, Munich: dtv, 2006], which these editors and translators felt it was necessary to produce because of the mountains of misconceptions and misinterpretations of the Malleus arising from earlier modern editions and translations.

So what does Dr Google have to say on the supposed link between disability, witches and the Middle Ages? I keyed the terms “Malleus maleficarum” and “disability” into our modern oracle, and here are four of the top hits:

The website has this to state on the subject: “1494: Malleus Maleficarum, or translated “The Hammer of the Witches,” is a witch hunting manual which discusses seizures as a characteristic of witches. The manual was written by two Dominican Friars with the authority of the pope.”

By seizures this website presumably refers to epilepsy (or what in medieval texts is often called the falling sickness). What has the Malleus actually got to say on the subject? Not a lot, when it boils down to it. Epilepsy is mentioned three or four times, but then in the context of one of many illnesses that can be caused by sorcery. Note that witches were believed to cause epilepsy, not that epilepsy is a disorder that witches themselves have (as the popularisation appears to misread). In fact, the most complete discussion of epilepsy by the Malleus occurs in Book II, part 1, chapter 11, on how magic can inflict illness, but this is itself extremely brief. Even more against the grain of the modern misreading is the fact that Kramer actually uses the example of epilepsy to point out that epilepsy (and leprosy) are problems that commonly arise only through long-standing and underlying issues and defects of the internal organs (fols 67ra-67rb in Speyer 1486, p. 461 in Behringer). Therefore Kramer has to reluctantly concede that there are ‘natural causes’ for things like epilepsy, and only sometimes are such diseases caused by malicious magic.

Next up was the site, which stated: “The Malleus Maleficarum of 1487 declared that these children were the product of the mothers’ intercourse with Satan.”

By this are probably meant the changelings. However, the changeling topos is an old folklore story, that goes back centuries before the Malleus was written. Anyone interested in pursuing the pre-history, so to speak, of the changeling should look at Jean-Claude Schmitt’s book The Holy Greyhound. In the Malleus, changelings are mentioned in Book II, 1,3 (pp. 386-87 in Behringer), where it is asked whether demons can exchange children, a question answered in the affirmative with reference to Guillelmus Parisiensis (that is William of Auvergne, De universo 2,3,25) and incorporating all the stereotypical elements of the changeling (they cry incessantly, cannot have their hunger stilled even by four or five nurses, although they never seem to gain weight they are very heavy). In Book II, 2,8 (pp. 593-94 in Behringer) the passage is repeated in more detail, for instance the Latin term “campsores” is mentioned alongside the German “wechselkind”, and three differentiating characteristics of changelings are cited (their insatiable hunger without growth, exchange by incubi demons for the real child, and appearance of demons in the shape of the changeling child). Here Kramer also tries to explain how a loving God can permit such evil, arguing that this is punishment for the excessive love of parents for their children, as well as punishment for (mainly female) belief in superstition. Thus the blame is firmly laid on the parents, especially the mother, not on the changeling (or disabled) child itself.

Thirdly came with this extract: “In medieval times, witchcraft became linked with disabled people. During the ‘Great Witch Hunts’ of 1480-1680, the Malleus Maleficarum, a book also known as ‘The Hammer of Witches’, went to 70 editions in 14 languages. It told how to identify witches by their impairments, by ‘evidence’ of them creating impairments in others, or by them giving birth to a disabled child.”

You will notice how this is almost verbatim the same wording as can be found on the fourth and last site,, which conveniently manages to condense all the previous three stereotypes into one handy summary: “Back in the medieval times it was led to be believed disability was associated with witchcraft, evidence of such barbaric claims was engrossed by the Malleus Maleficarum, a book which was published in 14 languages and 70 editions. The book provided a guide on how to spot genuine witches by their impediments and their ability to give birth to babies with disabilities.”

It is difficult to tell who has been copying whom, in fact it barely matters, since the main point is that, surprise surprise, the Internet is a great place for the mushrooming of myths. Nowhere in the Malleus is there any mention whatsoever of blind, lame or epileptic people (the terms Kramer uses rather than the modern anachronism ‘disability’) being witches. In fact, Kramer is singularly uninterested in the physical appearance of witches. Witches tend to be female, that is all the Malleus remarks about their physical characteristics. All that popularised stuff about witches having a third nipple, being an ugly old crone or supposedly being disabled in some general way is later mythologising that is completely unsubstantiated for the medieval period in general and this text in particular.

Finally, let’s place the main author of the Malleus, Heinrich Kramer (‘Kramer’ is a small shop keeper in German, thus his Latinised name is Institoris), in the context of his times. I say ‘main author’, since by some authorities the prior of the Dominican convent in Cologne, Jakob Sprenger (1437-1495), is credited with co-authorship to a greater or lesser degree (the jury is still out on this case). Despite the massive influence this infamous book reached in later centuries, being blamed for the ideological foundations on which the witch-crazes and witch-hunts of the early modern period rested, in his own time Kramer’s work was far from universally accepted. The Dominican Kramer (c. 1430-1505) was inquisitor in the southern German-speaking regions, and during his lifetime was not exactly an uncontroversial figure. One particular episode may illustrate this (see Eric Wilson, ‘Institoris at Innsbruck: Heinrich Institoris, the Summis Desiderantes and the Brixen Witch-Trial of 1485′, in Robert W. Scribner and Trevor Johnson [eds], Popular Religion in Germany and Central Europe, 1400-1800, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996, pp. 97-100). In the autumn of 1485 Kramer was engaged on his inquisitorial duties in the diocese of Brixen, Tyrol, causing amongst other things the arrest of seven women on accusations of witchcraft. The local magnates, bishop included, felt that due judicial proceedings were not correctly followed, and raised doubts concerning Kramer. On 2 November 1485 all women were released, and within a fortnight Kramer was told to leave the diocese, which he refused to do, instead trying to re-open the prosecution. A letter survives from the bishop of Brixen dated 14 February 1486, in which he complains about Kramer. Kramer is said to have become childish due to senility (“propter senium gantz chindisch sein worden”) in his obsession to persecute, and the bishop recommends his retirement to a monastery, there to remain without causing further trouble; the bishop regarded Kramer as a dangerous and mad fanatic (“realiter mihi delirare videtur”) whom he tried to get rid of as quickly as possible (p. 63 in Behringer).

This is certainly not the picture of universal acclaim for the prosecution of ‘witches’ that later historiography has tried to present. As the editors of this new German translation noted: “The central message of the ‘Hammer of the Witches’ is that the damages purported to have been caused by witches are actually ascribed to them. The notable element of this message was that it reflected widespread beliefs among the populace in general, but that it stood in marked contrast to a theological tradition, which since Augustine held that magic had no directly effective powers, and that practitioners of magic were only to be punished because they had put their faith in demons and not in God.” (Berhringer et al, p. 18 ) During Kramer’s lifetime a number of voices criticised the belief in witches or their supposed abilities, notably the preacher at the cathedral of Passau, Ulrich Molitor, whose tractate of 1489 tried to prove the impossibility of witches flying, transforming into animals, or magically influencing the weather. One should note that in all of this disabled people hardly matter, neither as perpetrators of maleficium nor as victims of the supposed malefactors.

Disability, fraudulent beggars and medieval surveillance

In the chapter ‘Charity’ of my book A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages I mentioned something on the suspicion concerning ‘fake’ beggars, people who asked for alms pretending to be disabled. At the time of writing I had unfortunately not managed to read an excellent book, a micro-history of London’s relations between government and inhabitants, Frank Rexroth’s, Deviance and Power in Late Medieval London [(Past and Present Publications), trans. Pamela E. Selwyn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007]. Fraudulent beggars faking disabilities make a number of appearances in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sources Rexroth has looked at, but the question of how such ‘frauds’ were identified raises further thoughts on the interaction between disability as something deemed ‘true’ or ‘false’, and way the medieval precursors of neighbourhood watch schemes supplied the necessary information.

In London in 1355 a man called John Sharryngworth aka Eberton was referred to as a faytour, i.e. a fraud, because he had lived in the city as a vagabundus, with which was meant that he was deemed to be a fraudulent, workshy beggar who although capable of working begged for his bread by pretending to be poor and infirm, thus deceiving people. John was sent to the pillory by the mayor of London, the aldermen and the sheriffs for this offence, as was recorded in the Memoranda Rolls of London’s government. (Corporation of London Records Office, Plea and Memoranda Rolls A7 m. 8 verso, given in Rexroth p. 121)

Since the 1370s the courts in London had been dealing with cases of false beggars who extorted alms by trickery and lies “since proclamations and punishment rituals had constantly reiterated that their scandalous behaviour consisted in feigning (fingendo) bodily infirmity, faking injuries and mutilations, and thus ultimately in violating the rule of transparency.” (Rexroth p. 276)

In October 1380 the authorities in London recorded the case of two beggars, John Ward from Yorkshire and Richard Lynham from Somerset, who wandered about the city making horrible and unintelligible sounds and using their hands and feet to make signs – hence incidentally a rare if indirect reference to the nearest thing to sign language for the deaf in the Middle Ages – by which they tried to make people understand that they were merchants who had been attacked by robbers and deprived not just of their goods but also of their tongues. “In order to substantiate their assertions they carried with them two yardsticks meant to stand for their previous occupation, as well as the iron hook and tongs they presented as the robbers’ instruments of torture.” (Rexroth p. 129) They even asked people to look in their mouths to ascertain that their tongues had been cut out. However, it turned out that one of the cut-out ‘tongues’ they produced as evidence was a piece of leather, and once the fraud was found out, the mayor, John Hadele, ordered them to be put in the stocks for one hour each on three separate days, with the tools of their fraud suspended from their necks, three days of stocks being an unusually harsh penalty for this kind of offence. The record mentions that by doing this, the two spurious beggars were defrauding the debilitated poor (i.e. the genuine disabled) and deceiving the whole of the populace, repeating when handing out the sentence that due to their malice and falsity and deceivance of the whole populace the sentence should be the rather unusual three days. (The original text is from Corporation of London Records, Letter Book H fol. 125 verso) Does this not sound remarkably like the rhetoric about benefit frauds in modern Britain?

On 23 November 1381, the new mayor of London, John of Northampton, who had only taken office the previous month, issued a proclamation against ‘sturdy begging’ on the grounds that it was harmful to the real, truly deserving, needy beggars, and ordered any such fraudulent beggars to be arrested and taken to the pillory at Cornhill (Rexroth p. 145; the source is Corporation of London Records, Letter Book H fol. 137 verso). Just the day before, on 22 November 1381, mayor John of Northampton had caused a beggar with the telling name Adam Ryebred to be brought to trial, for allegedly “feigning disability although he was healthy and quite capable of earning his living with work at a reasonable wage” in many locations throughout the realm, so alluding to the desire to rid London of such frauds and scroungers. Exporting the ‘problem’ elsewhere is not a new tactic. “The name given to the defendant (to which he was, perhaps, already accustomed) summed up the nature of his offence: here was someone living beyond his means by deceit, whose fraudulent begging even allowed him to afford rye bread!” (Rexroth p. 145) Rye bread was a more expensive bread than the poor could normally afford, so his moniker reflected his suspicion-arousing lifestyle. A physical examination of Adam’s body made it apparent that he was not disabled – it seems that in the later fourteenth century already the authorities in London were doing what the assessors of Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which earlier in 2013 replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA), are doing today! By his actions, Adam Ryebred was said to have cheated “genuine beggars and paupers and deceived the public” (veros mendicantes et pauperes defraudat in decepcionem tocius populi), as the source states.

Mayor John of Northampton seems to have made it a personal campaign to rid his city of undesirables, and “continued his persecution of sturdy beggars: one week later, two men from Ireland and Somerset, respectively, were brought before him, and in mid-December the court considered the case of another Irishman. In February [1382], the accused were a Londoner and a man from Bristol.” (Rexroth p. 145). In yet another prefiguration of the practices of the modern state, mayor Northampton set up a register of sturdy beggars, of which a copy survives with verdicts from the court trials up until February 1382, hence our knowledge of the cases above. (Corporation of London Records Office, Plea and Memoranda Rolls A25 m. 3 recto, Rexroth p. 146) The original list is unfortunately lost, but the ethos behind this list reflects the increased surveillance that the authorities deemed it necessary to carry out over the inhabitants of London. Again, a rather startling similarity to modern practices. The government of fourteenth-century London did not, of course, have recourse to modern electronic means of surveillance, but we should not ignore the fact that paper or parchment scraps, or even the card index files of nineteenth-century criminologists, make just as good a ‘database’ system as our supposedly more efficient computer-based ones. For the context of the fourteenth century they were completely fit for purpose.

Knowledge is power, as these kinds of cases testify yet again. How the London authorities obtained such surveillance knowledge is a fascinating if rather scary (for a liberal mindset) aspect of social ties and control. As Rexroth explains in his book (pp. 191-98), the system of splitting London into wards, each with individual aldermen, beadles and constables, provided the ideal local information gathering techniques. Beadles kept a list of inhabitants of each ward. Wardmotes, assemblies of the entire populace of a ward drawn together in the presence of the alderman and officers, met “for the purpose of correcting defects, removing harmful things and promoting the common good of the ward in question” (pro defectibus corrigendis, nocumentis amovendis, et ejusdem Wardae commoditatibus promovendis), as the town clerk John Carpenter noted in his White Book in 1419. Such assemblies had probably been held since the late thirteenth century, but only leave administrative traces from the 1420 onwards, due to the natural attenuation of such records and sources.

With this brief excursion into administrative history as background, I want to now highlight some of the things that people were concerned about at these wardmotes. In general, they discussed comon defectyf, nusauncis and defautis, that is defects that affect the commonality, nuisances and defaults. The items of concern could be dilapidated houses, blocked streets, piled up rubbish, nocturnal noise disturbances due to the cackling of someone’s geese – or the lifestyle of particular individuals. This is where the fraudulent beggars come in. Neighbourly surveillance of individuals, their actions, appearance, and interactions with others is therefore regrettably an old, old practice, not simply to be treated as an aberration of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, what with the notorious interior security forces such as the Stasi in former East Germany, or the current debate about electronic spying by the UK and the US. The accusations, petty neighbourly wrangles, and denunciations of ‘defects’, meaning people as well as objects, the worst excesses of which may have existed under the Blockwart system of Nazi Germany, have unpalatable precursors in late medieval London – and undoubtedly anywhere else where ‘neighbourhood forums’, to use a word from current local government practice in the UK, meet to identify ‘defects’. It is one thing complaining about blocked drains, but as the examples above from medieval London show, complaints can easily transfer from objects onto people. Surveillance societies breed suspicious minds.

Charity is in the definition of the donor

If proverbially beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then apparently charity is in the definition of the donor …. The Europe-wide horsemeat scandal that surfaced in February 2013 invited some rather cynical attitudes toward charitable provision that had equally unpleasant antecedents in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

First the modern story: as readers will recall, in the early months of 2013 traces of horsemeat were being found in all sorts of processed and pre-packaged meat, mainly stocked by supermarkets, and thus with a complicated supply chain that made it all the more difficult to know where the meat originated from. As was pointed out at the time, correctly I think, this was more about fraud and less about food safety. As far as meat goes, the horsemeat was perfectly fit for human consumption, it’s just that consumers had paid for beef, lamb or pork, and not horsemeat. Suppliers therefore removed the contaminated products from their shelves. The result was tonnes of foodstuffs going to waste. Where the cynicism set in was when aid organisations in France suggested to redistribute some of these products to poor people, providing the meat was deemed edible. The French Red Cross, however, argued that such a gesture would be an affront to human dignity: “If one does not have enough to eat, then that does not mean one has to eat what others reject”, a spokesperson said.

In Germany, too, first a parliamentary member of the CDU, Hartwig Fischer, and then the development minister, Dirk Niebel, echoed the call to redistribute contaminated meat to the poor. German aid organisations and the opposition parties equally condemned this suggestion as respectless and insulting toward the needy. Just because someone had less income did not mean they were second-class citizens. However, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) maintained an ambiguous attitude. “We as a Church find the throw-away mentality in our society concerning. How and whether to distribute the products in question would have to be examined,” Prelate Bernhard Felmberg said. “But to throw away food that could be consumed without risk is equally bad as false labelling and cannot be a solution.”

The moral quandary is a valid one, for in a hungry world it is reprehensible to waste edible food, yet at the same time it is demeaning to our contemporary poor. The later Middle Ages had no such moral qualms.

Correct guidance on charitable discrimination was provided in the account-book of the Cistercian monastery of Beaulieu abbey, compiled 1269-70. This discrimination went so far that the poor sick people in the abbey’s infirmary were to be fed the meat of animals that had died of disease. One may also note that in 1506 the household records of the bishop of Lincoln contain a note that charity given to the poor consisted of fish that had become “corrupt and defective” (Christopher Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge, 1989, p. 241). Prof. Dyer (op. cit. p. 237) comments that this attitude of “attention to economy, the discrimination and the distrust of the poor would not have been out of place among the zealous administrators of the new Poor Law in the nineteenth century.”

One can find further medieval examples of such a cynical definition of charity. The guild of butchers of Toulouse exercised similar charitable discrimination, in that the 1394 redaction of their statutes specified certain kinds of dubious meat (including “flesh from pigs with leprous tongues and dead animals not properly slaughtered by butchers”) to be confiscated by guild officials and if deemed still edible to be given to the poor, otherwise to be disposed of in the river; hence “at least one guild passed off its refuse as a charitable donation” (Steven Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe, Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 168). And in 1356 St John’s hospital, Oxford which accommodated poor and sick people, was assigned “all flesh or fish that shall be putrid, unclean, vicious or otherwise unfit”, while St Giles’s hospital, Maldon, received all confiscated “bread, ale, flesh and unsound fish” deemed commercially non-viable (Carole Rawcliffe, Leprosy in Medieval England, Woodbridge, 2006, p. 79). According to Rawcliffe, the medieval rationale behind redistributing contaminated foodstuffs to, in the main, the inmates of leper houses was that such people were already affected by disease, and eating foodstuffs condemned as unfit for human consumption couldn’t make them any worse. Perhaps our present day political leaders think of the poor as lepers in this respect.

Disability History series on BBC Radio 4

Exceptions ratify the rules, as they say. The intention of this sporadic blog was to remain publicity-free and to be an outlet for more ‘serious’ academic pursuits, with mini-articles on various topics of interest to me. However, since everyone these days seems to be using their blog for publicity purposes, it would be counterproductive to stick too assiduously to self-imposed rules, even more so since it brings my main topic, disability in the medieval period, to the fore. The BBC’s decision to broadcast a series on Disability: A New History on Radio 4 cannot be praised enough, not just because I was interviewed for the programme, but because it is great news for anyone interested in advancing the study of disability in the pre-modern era. Historians are beginning, albeit belatedly, to discover the stories of disability in the past. “It is a hugely exciting area of research”, as Loftus, the production company for the radio series, rightly claims, and “the story is more nuanced and complex than we previously thought: there is sympathy and real empathy towards disability as well as fear and rejection.”

This ten-part series is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 27th-31st May and 3rd-7th June 2013 at 12.45pm GMT, plus it should be available to listeners outside of the UK on iPlayer, the BBC’s internet streaming facility. Disability in the Middle Ages is covered in episode 2 (Tue 28th May), with my interview. I was also asked to record the trailer for the entire series. This is a real milestone in terms of bringing disability history to a wider audience.


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