14.03.04, Metzler, A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages

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Eliza Buhrer

The Medieval Review 14.03.04

Metzler, Irina. A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment. Routledge Studies in Cultural History. New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. 336. ISBN: 978-0-415-82259-6.

Reviewed by:
Eliza Buhrer
Seton Hall University

In 2006, Irina Metzler concluded her pioneering first book, Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment during the High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400 (Routledge, 2006), with the bold assertion that "we can only speak of impairment, but not of disability during the Middle Ages." [1] This claim, which rested upon a distinction between impairment (a condition of the body) and disability (the ways that condition limits one's participation in society), was somewhat surprising in a book hailed as, "the first book that comprehensively describes disability and physical impairments in the Middle Ages." Nevertheless, it was well supported by Metzler's sources. For through a wide-ranging survey of philosophical, medical, and hagiographical texts, Metzler had discovered that impairment was less associated with sin in the Middle Ages than commonly assumed, and accordingly less stigmatized. As interesting and novel as this conclusion was however, its applicability was also limited. For while the erudite sources Metzler examined may have revealed much about how the elite perceived impairment during the Middle Ages, they offered little insight into how people with physical impairments actually lived.

It is both fitting and welcome then that the major goal of Metlzer's new book, A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages: Cultural Conceptions of Physical Impairment (an installment in Routledge's Studies in Cultural History series) is to "tease out from the many disparate sources some inkling of the 'lived experience'" of medieval disabled people (1). Since few sources record the voices of the disabled themselves, this entails an investigation of the social attitudes and mentalities that can be gleaned from a dizzying array of legal, economic, and administrative texts, however Metzler certainly achieves this modestly stated goal. In four thematically oriented chapters, she explores how medieval laws, attitudes toward work and charity, and the physical consequences of aging, shaped the lives of people with physical impairments between roughly the 6th and 15th centuries. Due to the nature of the sources available and, I suspect, the project's ambitious aims, the end result is as much a synthesis and reframing of previous work on these four thematic strands, as the product of Metzler's own sustained engagement with a cohesive set of primary sources. But it is an interesting synthesis, which provides a broad yet meticulously detailed overview of the various ways that people could become disabled during the Middle Ages, the social positions they occupied, and the provisions that existed for their care.

Chapter 1 examines the relationship between law and disability, with a strong focus on the practice of judicial mutilation. Metzler suggests that through its role in creating disabled bodies, judicial mutilation forged lasting associations between physical impairment and criminality that the disabled needed to work to overcome. Chapter 2 broadly explores how disability became all but synonymous with an inability to work. It opens with a detailed discussion of the ways in which medieval people became impaired through occupational injuries, and how guilds and mutual aid societies helped support their newly disabled members. The second half of the chapter then argues that the shift to wage labor during the later Middle Ages limited the types of work people with physical impairments could perform, since they were unlikely to work as productively as able-bodied workers during a specified unit of time. This is perhaps the most historically focused section of the book, and in my mind the most theoretically compelling. Building upon the work of Jacque le Goff, E.P. Thompson, and others, Metzler identifies these changes as among the historical forces that have contributed to the marginalization of people with impairments, and implicitly suggests that impaired individuals may have fared better in pre-industrial society when work was task-oriented rather than time-oriented.

Continuing the previous chapters' survey of the factors that could make previously able-bodied people disabled, Chapter 3 uses numerous case studies involving elderly individuals to examine how medieval society perceived the relationship between old age and disability. These cases not only provide the reader with glimpses into the lives of actual people, but highlight the hardships that many of the elderly faced at a time when a concept of retirement did not yet exist, and no standardized system of charitable aid was in place to provide for people unable to work due to age. The final chapter then explores intersections between charity and disability. Drawing upon previous work on the history of poverty in the Middle Ages, Metzler shows that medieval charitable institutions and practices firmly located people with physical impairments among the deserving poor when identifying the proper recipients of Christian charity. On account of this, the physically impaired came to occupy a social position distinct from that of other paupers, when they were not suspected of feigning their conditions or having acquired them through judicial mutilation (as they often were). From this and other discoveries, Metzler ultimately concludes that there were in fact disabled people in the Middle Ages-- a reversal of the claim advanced in her previous book; for the permanence and incurability of certain impairments, "in social, legal, and general cultural terms, sometimes led to a 'special treatment' of medieval disabled persons." (205)

Like Metzler's first book, A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages, is ambitious and sprawling, endeavoring to reconstruct the lived experiences of people afflicted with all variety of physical impairments, across all of Western Europe, over hundreds of years. This has both its benefits and its drawbacks. On one hand, its breadth of focus will make it useful to a wide range of scholars who work on the history of disability, or any of the four themes Metzler examines. On the other hand, its analysis at times glosses over differences that surely must have existed in how the disabled experienced life during the nearly 800 year period with which the book is concerned, and across different regions with their own local customs. For example, when discussing mutilation in Chapter 1, Metzler jumps between describing how a ninth century Bulgarian ruler slit the noses of his vanquished Byzantine prisoners in one paragraph, to detailing how Lombard soldiers cut off the hands and feet of one of Barbarossa's captured knights during the 1159 siege of Crema in the next (16).

This is fairly representative of how historical evidence is presented in the book, which uses densely packed examples to support broader theories and claims, without much effort to contextualize them, or describe their relation to each other. This does not take away from the book's utility as a resource for other scholars, and the examples marshaled are frequently fascinating. However, it would have been interesting to hear more about how the experiences and social attitudes that Metzler reconstructs changed over time, especially as phenomena like the commercial revolution, the Black Death, and the labor laws enacted in its wake, transformed European attitudes toward work. An in depth investigation of these questions would have been difficult to accomplish in a book of this scope, since it would likely necessitate extensive work with a limited body of sources, produced in a defined region during a much shorter period of time, but I do hope that future scholars take up this gauntlet. As compelling as Metzler's work is, it is certainly debatable whether one book can accurately capture the experiences of people with physical impairments during such broad period, and I think that there is much to be gained from a more focused inquiry.

Regardless, in picking up where Metzler's previous first book left off, A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages, adds considerably to our understanding of disability in pre-industrial Europe. Should anyone attempt to write one of the studies proposed above, it will be required reading. More broadly, it will be useful and thought-provoking to anyone interested in understanding how the disabled lived during the Middle Ages, both for the conclusions it draws and its exhaustive and impressive bibliography.


1. Irina Metzler, Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment during the High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400 (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 190.

2. Ibid., front page.

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Eliza Buhrer

Seton Hall University