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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: December 2017

2 - Monsters, Saints, and Sinners: Disability in Medieval Literature


There is a certain degree of linguistic anachronism in writing about disability in medieval literature, because the term “disability” itself did not exist in English in the Middle Ages. Its absence from the language until the mid-sixteenth century meant that conceptually, medieval people would probably not have thought of people with disabilities as a group but would have differentiated among them, especially on the basis of recognizable disabilities for which terminology existed (blindness, deafness, lameness, and so forth). Recognition of less easily identifiable disabilities such as cognitive disabilities or mental illness would also have been problematic in this period because medicine as it developed through later centuries was only beginning to appear. So if scholars of medieval literature are sometimes uncertain about how to identify and analyze what appear to be disabilities in medieval texts, such uncertainty can nevertheless yield fruitful readings that contextualize the history of and social responses to apparently non-normate characters and historical figures.

What must be acknowledged before turning to the literature of this period is that historically, not all disabled people were considered monsters, and not all of the people who could cure or aid them were considered saints. Disabilities ranging from minor to severe must have been very common in an era when medicine was only beginning to develop, and therefore they must have been understood and accepted as part of daily life. But if medieval society found most disabilities unremarkable, such was not usually the case with medieval literature. As David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have theorized, disability in literature generally requires a narrative explanation of its origin or a narrative of its eradication, whether through cure or social exclusion. Even so, with historical contextualization, we can move beyond the sometimes extreme representations of disabilities to a greater understanding of their place in medieval culture.

If the saints and monsters of this chapter's title were relatively rare, sinners were not: in medieval Christian culture, everyone, both disabled and normate, was considered sinful. The institution that defined sin, the Catholic Church, also exercised a good deal of control over disability-related discourse.

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The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability
  • Online ISBN: 9781316104316
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