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Disability in the Medieval English Community

This section explains that most disabled people, including those with leprosy, did not live in institutions but remained in the community, working or supported by others, or sometimes living on streets and begging for charity.

Holy Cross almshouses, Stratford-upon-Avon
Holy Cross almshouses, Stratford-upon-Avon © Helmut Schulenburg. Source Historic England

Living in the community

In medieval England, the first institutions for disabled people were established - leper houses, hospitals and almshouses. However only a small proportion of people with disabilities lived in these places.

The others - the blind, the deaf, the 'lame' and the 'crippled' - lived in their communities. Those who could work did so, while those who could not work were supported by their family, neighbours and their local communities. If they had no support, they had to rely on charity. The 'impotent beggars' competed with the 'sturdy vagabonds', begging on the streets of the towns and cities and in the byways of the countryside.

Richard Sunlieve, being given food by his mother. Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel
Richard Sunlieve, being given food by his mother. Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel © Annaliza Gaber

'Natural Fools'

From the 13th century, the King held rights and duties towards 'natural fools or idiots', people we might recognise today as learning disabled. He would have custody over their property and assets, but also a duty to make sure they were properly cared for.

Emma de Beston

Special 'inquisitions' were held by officials in front of county juries to determine a person's mental status. From the records, we know something about the lives of people with disabilities in this period.

In July 1383, a Cambridgeshire woman called Emma de Beston was examined and asked a series of questions. When asked where she was, she was able to say that she was in Ely. However she couldn't name the days of the week, her son, or two of the three husbands she claimed to have had. She did not know how many shillings there were in forty pence.

As she was also thought to have the 'face and countenance of an idiot', the officials decided she had insufficient intelligence or memory to manage herself, her lands or her goods.

The Leper’s Well, Lyme Regis, Dorset. This well is said to date from the 14th century or earlier and to be the only remaining structure of a medieval lepers ' hospital. Leprosy was regarded as highly contagious and the result of a curse or a punishment for sinful behaviour.
The Leper’s Well, Lyme Regis, Dorset. This well is said to date from the 14th century or earlier and to be the only remaining structure of a medieval lepers ' hospital. Leprosy was regarded as highly contagious and the result of a curse or a punishment for sinful behaviour. © Mr Duncan Miller. Source Historic England.NMR

Lepers

Many lepers chose to live outside institutions, or could not find a place in one of them. Groups of lepers lived in small informal settlements just outside or even sometimes within towns. Some remained in their homes, cared for by their families and visited by monks and clergy.

A native of King's Lynn observed that the many lepers in the streets reminded her of Christ, 'with hys wowndys bleeding'.Municipalities', fearful of a rebellious underclass and wary of 'wild' lepers (as opposed to the more 'docile' sort who lived in leper houses) drew up laws to try to control the problem. Permits for begging were strictly controlled and in 1367, the London authorities tried to impose a blanket ban on lepers entering the city.

Thomas Beckett’s Shrine at Canterbury Cathedral
Thomas Beckett’s Shrine at Canterbury Cathedral © Annaliza Gaber

Disabled pilgrims

Many disabled people including the deaf, blind and 'crippled' travelled as pilgrims to the holy sites of patron saints of disability and diseases, or to healing springs and fountains. These included the shrine of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury, Kent; the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, and the 'Lepers' Well' in Lyme Regis, Dorset.

On the streets

Recognising a disability was not always straightforward. In 1380, two London men were set in the pillory for pretending that they were mutes, 'making a horrible noise like unto a roaring' to deceive people into giving them money. Some beggars were accused of mutilating themselves or their children to stir up compassion from passers-by.

That we know about these events and rumours today is a strong indication of just how many disabled people were on the streets of medieval England, looking for support and help from their fellow citizens.

Watch the BSL video on disability in the medieval English community

 

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Disability in the Community

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Engraving of a measured drawing showing design of mosaic pavement before the shrine of Thomas a Becket, Canterbury, 1807
  • Illustrated extract (plate ix) from unknown source entitled 'Beckets shrine; from the cottonian ms'
  • Holy Cross almshouses, Stratford-upon-Avon
  • The Leper’s Well, Lyme Regis, Dorset. This well is said to date from the 14th century or earlier and to be the only remaining structure of a medieval lepers ' hospital. Leprosy was regarded as highly contagious and the result of a curse or a punishment for sinful behaviour.
  • Richard Sunlieve, being given food by his mother. Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel
  • Thomas Beckett’s Shrine at Canterbury Cathedral