Disability in the Middle Ages: Impairment at the Intersection of Historical Inquiry and Disability Studies

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Abstract

Disabled people have existed in all periods of history, but until very recently the discipline of Medieval Studies had not concerned itself with historical questions as to who, for instance, were the physically, sensory or mentally disabled in the Middle Ages, how did medieval society interact with its impaired members, or what socio-economic consequences being disabled might have implied for a medieval person. The sociological and cultural insights gained from the disciplines of Disability Studies and ethnology have provided recent emerging scholarship with a theoretical framework from which to approach the study of impairment in the pre-modern past, which supersedes the medical model of disability favoured by older historiography. Arguably a transdisciplinary approach is central to research on the topic, covering not just the various sub-disciplines of the historical sciences, such as social, economic, legal, or cultural history, but also religious studies, archaeology, history of art and literary studies. This is an exciting and important new field of research, allowing both historians and sociologists to gain insights into the lives of a previously neglected demographic group.

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