The Middle Ages, Original Sin, and the Solidarity of Disability

Beinecke MS.229 fol. 257v

I suffer from rare disease called erythromelalgia. This neurological disorder causes intense burning in my legs and feet, and I have difficulty walking, standing, and even sitting.

Due to my disability, I spend a significant amount of time at home. Chronic pain makes reading difficult, so I listen to audio book and podcasts.

Everyone, it seems, has their own podcast, and finding an interesting one can take some time. Not long ago, I stumbled across the The Medieval Podcast from Medievalists.net.

The host is Danièle Cybulskie. One of her recent episodes is an engaging conversation with Dr. Kisha Tracy from Fitchburg State University on “Disability in the Middle Ages.”

When we think of disabled people in the middle ages, we might imagine that that they were treated as pariahs suffering God’s judgment. Surely, we assume, the superstitions of the day tended to stigmatize people with leprosy, intellectual disabilities, or speech issues.

Not necessarily.

The social construction of disability points to the ways societies interpret, treat, and accommodate people with disabilities. This is true in our day and in medieval Europe.

Dr. Tracy points out that there is no single way of understanding disability in the Middle Ages. Just as we wrestle with understanding disability, referring to disability, and dealing with disability, so did people living centuries ago.

Some people in some medieval societies might have thought some disabilities resulted from sin, but they also recognized that many of their disabilities had medical causes. For instance, we might suppose people living in the middle ages thought someone with a mental disability was demon possessed. Instead, they might know that the person had fallen and hit their head.

People with disabilities participated in medieval society just like people do today. We find evidence of people with hearing and speech disabilities using sign languages. Some blind people used service dogs.

Other folks needed assistive technologies. One of the most enlightening aspects of the podcast dealt with accessibility and the use of prosthetics. Archaeological evidence of prosthetic limbs. One person attached knife to the end of his arm with a ring and tightened it by pulling a leather strap with his teeth.

At one point, the conversation turned to canes. This captured my attention since I use one. My cane, though, is unlike one found in a medieval drawing of a knight in battle. The knight rests his left leg on a half-crutch, balances himself on a cane with his left arm, and holds a sword with his right arm. (You can find the image on the top of this essay or on the Medievalists webpage.)

Another part of the conversation touched on the social aspects of disability. Caretakers helped their friends and family navigate their way through society, as illustrated in a drawing of a disabled person being pushed in a wheelbarrow.

This reminded me of my visit to the erythromelalgia clinic at the May Clinic in Minnesota. My wife pushed me through the hospital complex in a wheelchair.

Caretakers also helped individuals with cognitive and emotional disabilities. The cult of St. Dymphna in Belgium actually welcomed people with mental disabilities to care for them. Devotion to St. Dymphna continues today, and that radical welcome reminds me of L’Arche community founded by Jean Venier.

Another form of disability experienced then and now is temporary disability. People can suffer bouts of “temporary insanity” due to rage and commit heinous acts. In the middle ages, these incidents often set the stage for people to seek redemption and eventually sainthood.

None of this is to suggest that all people with disabilities were treated with dignity. I think of St. Francis and his revulsion at the sight of lepers. However, the man from Assisi eventually embraced the man with leprosy in a transformative hug. This is not much different than today. People sometimes feel fear or abhorrence at the sight of people with disabilities. Consider the time when Pope Francis embraced and kissed the man who was severely disfigured with neurological disorder.

The real issue is not disability itself. Instead, we have to examine how we treat people regardless of their real or perceived abilities. How do we view our fellow community members with disabilities? What are our biases, fears, and background experiences?

Toward the end of the podcast, Dr. Tracy mentioned the work of Dr. John Sexton who made a prescient observation. He noted that if you were born into the medieval Christian west, you were born into a society that believed in Original Sin. As such, everyone was born into a “disabled world.” Everyone, then, has a disability.

Criticisms of original sin often describe it as a belief that fosters a negative view of humanity. However, there are a positive elements to associating original sin with a disabled world. if we all experience original sin, we all experience a sort of “spiritual disability” that makes us equal to one another.

This is not to suggest that physical disabilities result from sin. Jesus rejected that notion in the Gospels — especially in John 9:1–3.

If we accept original sin as a theological concept or not, we can all see that we live in societies that are less than ideal. Today, we live in a post-9/11 world. A post-Shoah world. A post-Christchurch world. A world with nuclear weapons. A world that has been at war for nearly two decades. A world that is warming. A world that has extreme poles of wealth and poverty. A world of racism, sexism, ableism. A world divided in countless ways.

A healthy view of original sin (whether theological or sociological) enables us to recognize a shared condition in our humanity. Because of our shared condition, no one has a claim to superiority based on physical, mental, or emotional characteristics.

Additionally, the deep connection of our condition can compel us to practical solidarity with one another.

We have a responsibility to help one another thrive. We have a calling to create a world in which each person is respected, cared for, and loved. We have a duty to make the world accessible.

Every individual, by the fact that they exist, matters and has something to contribute. No one is exempt, and everyone is included. Everyone can be a knight balancing on crutches fighting a great battle alongside other disabled knights.

Medievalists.net is on Twitter @medievalists.

Danièle Cybulskie is on Twitter @5minMedievalist

Kisha Tracy is on Twitter @kosho22.

I am on Twitter @disabledsaints.

Image of the knight is Beinecke MS.229 fol. 257v

Image of the person in a wheelbarrow is Disabled person being pushed on a wheel-barrow, from a scene in The Luttrell Psalter, British Library MS Add MS 42130 fol. I86v.

A former elementary educator with a physical disability. @disabledsaints

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