Research Interests & Activities

Blind Priests and Mad Rectors: Health, Disease and Disability among the Later Medieval European Clergy This is the title of the new project I am working on. In 1480 Johannes Kyslings, a priest from the diocese of Würzburg in Franconia, Germany, received a papal dispensation which allowed him to continue officiating as priest despite having a wooden leg; in his supplication he stated that he had fallen off his horse, breaking his shin, and following advice from experienced surgeons, after many other treatments were unsuccessful, he had allowed the damaged leg to be amputated, so that instead of the missing shin he had made himself a wooden apparatus with which he now walked. This little anecdote is an illustration of the kind of narrative my project uncovers. In outline, the topic that I an now concentrating on is a study of health, illness and disability as reflected in ecclesiastical records in western Europe of the high and later Middle Ages. Although ecclesiastical records have been frequently considered from the point of view of church history or administrative developments, the topic of disease and disability in such records is an under-researched area with good potential for new findings that can shed light on the experience and consequences of disability or illness for a significant section of the later medieval population. Thus this project will be of interest not just to academic medievalists, but may bring benefits to non-academics in terms of a greater understanding of health and well-being in the past informing the present situation.

Disability in the Middle Ages Finally I have braved new territory, and have moved to look at medieval instances of what we now generally call ‘intellectual disability’ or ‘learning difficulties’ – although I have quickly come to realise that the sheer number of modern terms is a conceptual and ethical minefield. I have started a new project (in September 2012), with the help of funding by the Wellcome Trust, on ‘Cognitive Impairment in the Middle Ages: Uncovering medical and cultural aspects of intellectual disabilities according to medieval normative texts’. Today we speak of people who are learning, intellectually or cognitively disabled, and we now recognise the discrimination that until fairly recently used to be encountered in using words like spastics or mongols. The change in words reflects a change in attitudes. But did similar words always mean similar attitudes in the past? If you called someone a fool in the Middle Ages, you may have described their occupation and not their alleged state of mind. To find out more about how the names and words used to describe people also influenced the social and environmental treatment of them, this project will look at what the medieval equivalents to our modern scientific or psychiatric experts had to say about mental disability. It was medieval doctors and surgeons, lawyers, and the schoolmen of the emerging universities who wrote the texts where we can find their definitions of intellectual ability and its counterpart, disability. By studying such texts, which form part of our contemporary scientific and cultural heritage, we can gain a better understanding of which people were considered to be mentally disabled back in the past, and how their participation and inclusion in society may have differed from the situation today. In my initial work on the previously unexplored topic of medieval disability I very much concentrated on establishing a workable theoretical background to discussing disability (the social construct) and physical impairment (the physiological condition) during the medieval period. My first book therefore covered the following areas:

  • an introductory examination of definitions and stereotypes of disability;
  • positioning disability within a theoretical framework by investigating historiographic considerations, and looking at modern theories of disability and disability studies in sociology and anthropology;
  • medieval theoretical concepts of the (impaired) body, covering thisworldly notions of health, impairment and sin, and otherworldly ideas concerning impairment and corporal resurrection;
  • central chapters concentrating on impairment in medieval medicine and natural philosophy, discussing impairment in the medieval ‘sciences’, aetiologies of impairment, preventative medical measures, and social and ‘alternative’ medicine;
  • finally medieval miracles and impairment, contextualising saints, miracles and healing with regard to impairment, in particular looking at medicine, transgression and miracle, based on an analysis of narratives of impairment in eight medieval miracle collections ranging from the eighth to the early thirteenth centuries.

A second monograph on disability in the Middle Ages, A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment has been completed early in 2013, with focus on

  • the legal status and the effects of law on disabled persons (chp. 1);
  • work and disability, in particular accidental disability caused through work-related injuries and social and economic support networks available in such cases (chp. 2);
  • ageing and its effects on physical deterioration, together with social, medical and technical attempts at amelioration (chp. 3);
  • and finally linking all these previous themes together an exploration of what ‘charity’ meant for the disabled, especially the relationship of charity, work ethic and legitimate begging for disabled people (chp. 4).

These economic and social aspects of disability in the Middle Ages allow one to draw conclusions with regard to the position of the disabled person in medieval culture, besides the more theoretical ‘framework’ covered in my first book. The new book will not just be of interest to those concerned with disability issues, since an understanding of medieval disability illuminates wider cultural attitudes. Perceptions of the natural world in the Middle Ages: I have a long-standing interest in medieval notions of nature and the environment (thinking here of questions such as definitions of nature, what is natural), together with their influence on human life and activities; researching environmental history, in particular the weather and climate, and its impact on not just land use and agriculture but on people’s mentalities. Hence I like to think of nature as economic product

  • landscapes of the medieval world: highlands vs. lowlands, inland vs. coastal, northern vs. southern Europe
  • forest, agricultural land, pasture and arable, gardens and horticulture
  • non-productive land, waste, marginal
  • ‘industry’: mining, woodburning etc., causing pollution and evoking regulation
  • water, its management, fenland drainage, fishing
  • the natural world and communication: nature as obstacle (mountains) and communication channel (rivers, seas, ocean)
  • power: wind, water, animal power
  • animals as economic products

which may be contrasted or compared with nature as ideal and symbol

  • macrocosmos <-> microcosmos, the medieval universe, cosmography, geography
  • humans as part of nature in medieval thought
  • medieval sciences on the natural world, especially texts of the type de res naturae: thirteenth- and fourteenth-century encyclopedists on the natural world
  • animals and the symbolic: physiologus, bestiaries, beast fables; medieval attitudes to animals and human-animal interaction
  • literary aspects: husbandry manuals, advice books
  • ‘spiritual geopgraphies’: ideal landscapes (e.g. the monastic idea of ‘wilderness’) and reality, the pleasure garden and the productive garden, garden of Eden/earthly paradise
  • depiction of landscapes, the natural world and animals in art
  • ‘other’ landscapes: travellers writing on foreign regions, lands and animals, but also visionary landscapes (the various texts on journeys to the Otherworld).

There are two offshoots from this theme of the natural world. One is Medieval cats: Alongside disability I have pursued my ‘hobby’: cats and attitudes to cats in the Middle Ages. The other sub-topic of the natural world is: Medieval travel and exploration: I would like to engage in some further work on historical anthropology, building on my (reprinted) article on perceptions of climate and how climate and race were seen as interlinked, here especially to focus on ideas of race in the Middle Ages, also to investigate if racism as we now understand it existed in medieval Europe. This leads on to the topic of knowledge of the geographical and geological (there is some fascinating material on proto-theories of geological erosion and the rock cycle among fourteenth-century scholastics) world in the Middle Ages and how such experience gained from observation through travel interacts with received authorities and revered classical texts. A little sideline is the question to which extent medical practitioners (physicians, surgeons, barbers), who often accompanied expeditions (e.g. one of the few crew members we know of in Cabot’s 1497 voyage from Bristol was his Lombard barber), had an influence on the ‘scientific’ exploration and understanding of the world. Knowledge and heritage I am curious about the transmission of ideas, how factors such as levels of literacy, provision of education and availability of books in the medieval period impacted on what these days is called ‘the knowledge economy’. As a sub-topic here I am interested in medieval books as material objects, with the old-fashioned book in mind here as a near-extinct artefact ousted by electronics, hence I am fascinated particularly by the use of some medieval books as quasi-magical objects in their own right. Both texts and material objects underlie what in the wider sense we term ‘history’. I therefore want to take the contemporary heritage debate back to the Middle Ages, and investigate what constituted ‘heritage’ in the Middle Ages, the medieval perception of its own history: what was meant by ‘the past’ for different groups of medieval people? Besides the obvious aspect of religious heritage (i.e. saintly relics), what other recognised forms of ‘heritage’ existed at different periods and in different localities of the Middle Ages? Single tangential chapters in e.g. A. Schnapp, The Discovery of the Past, or passing references in general works like D. Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, are all that exists at present on this question. When Richard of Cornwall in the mid-thirteenth-century obtains a license to dig into prehistoric burial mounds, is he being an early archaeologist discovering ‘heritage’, or is he simply a treasure-seeker?