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.