Disability in the medieval period 1050-1485
This section describes the life of people with disabilities in the medieval period. It also explains how monasteries and convents cared for sick and disabled people and became the hospitals we use today.
In medieval England, the 'lepre', the 'blynde', the 'dumbe', the 'deaff', the 'natural fool', the 'creple', the 'lame' and the 'lunatick' were a highly visible presence in everyday life. People could be born with a disability, or were disabled by diseases such as leprosy, or years of backbreaking work.
Attitudes to disability were mixed. People thought it was a punishment for sin, or the result of being born under the hostile influence of the planet Saturn. Others believed that disabled people were closer to God - they were suffering purgatory on earth rather than after death and would get to heaven sooner.
Provision and care
There was no state provision for people with disabilities. Most lived and worked in their communities, supported by family and friends. If they couldn't work, their town or village might support them, but sometimes people resorted to begging. They were mainly cared for by monks and nuns who sheltered pilgrims and strangers as their Christian duty.
Care for sick and disabled people was based on the Church's teachings. The monks and nuns would follow the seven 'comfortable works' which involved feeding, clothing and housing the poor, visiting them when in prison or sick, offering drink to the thirsty, and burial. The seven 'spiritual works' included counsel and comfort for the sick.
The first hospitals
Over this period a nationwide network of hospitals based in (or near) religious establishments began to emerge. Specialised hospitals for leprosy, blindness and physical disability were created. England's first mental institution, later known as 'Bedlam', was originally the Bethlehem hospital in the City of London. At the same time, almshouses were founded to provide a supportive place for the disabled and elderly infirm to live.
Acting for themselves
We know that disabled people made pilgrimages on foot to holy sites such as the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury in search of a cure or relief. Sometimes disabled people had to battle injustice. In 1297 the residents of the leper house in the Norfolk village of West Somerton mutinied against the thieving abbot and his men, looting and demolishing the buildings and killing the guard dog.
The medieval legacy
The people, religious institutions and towns and cities of the medieval period were pioneers in terms of providing a specialised response to disability. Only a small number of their buildings remain, but over the next 500 years their early professional approach would eventually develop into our modern system of public services.