Saints, Beggars and Scapegoats

Why depictions of status and disability in the Early Middle Ages still matter


‘A lame man crawling along on his hands led a blind man to the paupers’ hostel at St Gall, where both of them stayed the night, and were both healed at the tomb.’ – Walafrid Strabo, Life of St Otmar[1]

Walafrid Strabo’s account from ninth-century Frankia is representative of most early medieval sources that describe disability. Yet it also speaks to present-day imaginings of pre-modern ailments and even current perceptions and depictions of disabled people. The Covid pandemic has brought depictions of disability into a sharp focus. Advocate Baroness Jane Cambell articulates the fear that if we don’t watch it, we will soon move from the “vulnerables” to the “expendables”.’ This trend of invisibility and dehumanisation can be traced all the way back to early medieval sources and the process can even help us to understand the way disabilities are thought of today.

According to the World Health Organisation 15% of the global population is disabled, and a similar percentage has been estimated for pre-modern societies.[2] This covers a significant cross-section of any society, yet the image of disability both in the past and the present is still largely focused on suffering and poverty or the inspirational surmount of challenge. This is why I wanted to use my research to look at the impact of social status on depictions of disability in early medieval sources: to challenge the lack of variety in images of disabled people in the past and also see how these trends continue to inform how disabilities are represented.

Understanding disability in the past

Early medieval understanding of disability was very different from current mainstream perceptions. There was no unified concept of disability as an umbrella term. Disability was not considered a medical concern and different people with different ailments were often given different legal statuses.[3] Instead, individuals’ impairments were judged in relation to their ability to fulfil their duties, their physical appearance, expectations of behaviour and (although less often than is often believed) as potential indicators of sin.

The social model of disability is fundamental for understanding and analysing these different conceptions. Separating physical impairment (for example, a deaf person not being able to hear) from social disability (in the Middle Ages congenitally deaf people had restricted legal rights), makes it possible to discuss the way such impairments were portrayed without forcing anachronistic assumptions about their social impact onto the source material.

Disability and status

In the UK, 40% of the people living in poverty have or live with someone who has a disability.[4] Poverty was also a common part of the lives and portrayal of people with impairment in the Middle Ages. Ability to work and the necessity of recovery was emphasised across Europe. Einhard, a Carolingian scholar, expressed this clearly when describing how the relics of saints Peter and Marcellinus were used to cure the impaired people that gathered near them: those ‘brought by the hands of others … returned home on their own feet’.[5]

Figure 1. Man with tresses, Topographia Hiberniae (c.1196-1223). British Library.

Outside of the elite, the most common stated occupation for impaired people was begging. Einhard also tells of a man who does not want to have his vision restored because he is too old and feeble to work, but it would not be honourable for a seeing man to beg, showing how disabilities and begging were linked.[6] But it is important to note that people with both sensory and physical impairments also worked as merchants, maidservants and porters – to name just a few examples – and most were depicted in charge of their own healing journeys.[7]

Impairment also had strong social and religious connotations. The idea that disabilities were caused by sin was not very common, but impaired people were used as community scapegoats to make moral points. This led to dehumanised depictions where the impaired people were described as ‘the dupe and the tool, of the Devil’, ‘ugly, destitute and dumb’ and even resembling ‘more closely some monster than the appearance of a man’.[8]

Yet all people outside the elite were mostly invisible in early medieval sources and at times impairments, and their miraculous cures, improved a person’s status. A blind man called Aubrey, for example, is told to have received visions from the saints, allowing him to find and help other impaired people in his community and even dictate a book for the emperor Louis the Pious.[9]

Much as for modern-day celebrities, an immaculate body was an expectation for the elite. Einhard described Pippin, the oldest son of Charlemagne who revolted against his father, as ‘fair of face but deformed by a hunchback.’[10] Pippin’s fair face marked his royal lineage, while his hunched back was intended to communicate moral crookedness and illegitimacy as a potential ruler. Aversion to impaired rulers was also used, especially in Italy and the Byzantium, to depose rulers or competing aristocrats by blinding them, which made them incapable of ever ruling. 

Some impaired rulers, such as Sigibert and Lame or Louis the Blind, had long reigns, but the prevailing prejudices against impairment led to diminished political importance for Louis, while Sigibert was murdered by his son, who had been coaxed to do so on account of his father’s impairment and age.[11]

Yet for members of the ecclesiastical elite impairments were depicted in a largely positive light. In the hagiographies of saints like Cuthbert and Æthelthryth, impairments were depicted as an opportunity to prove the strength of their faith and to atone for sins.[12] Similarly, many bishops, abbesses and monks were portrayed as strong in character and favoured by God in their endurance and recovery of disability.

Figure 2. Pilgrims, The Luttrel Psalter, British Library

Sources and visibility

Disabled people have always been a part of society, but lack of representation in the past – and present – has often left them invisible. Early Medieval art only depicted humans in an idealised way and it was only in the High and Late Middle Ages that people with disabilities found their way into visual culture, even as caricatures.[13] In literary sources miracle accounts of saints healing impairments provide vivid depictions of non-elite or ecclesiastical individuals with disabilities, but they emphasise those outside the elite or in the ecclesiastical realm, while historical narratives tell of the rulers and aristocracy. The source themselves lead to certain distortions, miracle accounts emphasise the suffering and need of those seeking help to show the power of the saint. Likewise, historical narratives tell of rulers and aristocracy and distort our understanding by focussing almost exclusively on dramatic, punitive mutilations.

Developments in gender, queer and post-colonialist histories show that representation matters and opening up the past for previously overlooked peoples can help challenge present systems of inequality. Status was an important factor in the representation of disabled people in the Early Middle Ages and the same appears true for the present. It took a nondisabled public figure like Jo Whiley to make visible the difficulties of people with learning disabilities in dealing with Covid and accessing vaccines.[14] Additionally, despite the recent push for greater diversity and representation, only about 2.5% of characters on film or TV are disabled and 95% of these are portrayed by non-disabled actors.[15] The stereotypical and harmful depictions this can lead to is heartbreakingly perfectly illustrated by films like Sia’s ‘Music’, which reproduces many of the medieval tropes for one-dimensional depictions of disability to make moral points to build up the nondisabled characters.[16]

Recognising the diversity of disability across human history enhances and completes our understanding of past and present societies – their ideas of the body, sanctity, hierarchy and health. As well as showing how these factors influence current perceptions and portrayals of disabled people across social and economic strata – and why they might need to be changed.

Jutta Lamminaho is a student at the University of Glasgow, where her dissertation research was selected for the award-winning Let’s Talk About [X] undergraduate conference scheme. Next, Jutta will continue her research into early medieval disability as a graduate student at Utrecht University.

[1] Walafrid Strabo, Life of St Otmar in Irina Metzler, Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment during the High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400, (New York: Routledge, 2006) 13 p.193.

[2] Metzler, Disability, p.3

[3] Irina Metzler, A social history of disability in the middle ages: cultural considerations of physical impairment (New York: Routledge, 2013) p.4, 7 

[4]Andrea Barry et al. , ‘UK Poverty 2019/2020’, Joseph Rowantree Foundation, (2020) p.8 file:///C:/Users/Omistaja/Downloads/jrf_-_uk_poverty_2019-20_report_4.pdf

[5] Einhard, The Translation and Miracles of the Saints Marcellinus and Peter, in Paul Dutton, Carolingian Civilisation: A Reader (Cardiff: Broadview Press, 1993) II.5 p.213

[6] Ibid. IV.4 p.232

[7] Marit Ronen, ‘A Still Sound Mind: Personal Agency of Impaired People in Anglo-Saxon Care and Cure Narratives’, in Erin Connelly, Stefanie Künzel (eds) New approaches to disease, disability and medicine in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, 2018) p.19

[8] Gregory of Tours, The Miracles of Bishop of St Martin  in Raymond Van Dam, Saints and their miracles in late antique Gaul (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1993) II.24 p.197; Rudolph of Fulda, Life of Saint Leoba, in Paul Dutton, Carolingian Civilisation: A Reader, (Cardiff: Broadview Press, 1993) p.319; Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in Rowan Williams, Benedicta Ward, Bede’s ecclesiastical history of the English people: an introduction and selection (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p. V.2 p.150

[9] Einhard, The Translation, III.12 p.222

[10] Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, trans. David Ganz, Two Lives of Chaelmagne, (London, Penguin, 2008) XXI p.33

[11] Liudprand of Cremona, Retributions, in Paolo Squatriti, The complete works of Liudprand of Cremona, (Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 2007) II.41 p.93-4; Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, II.37 p.153

[12] Bede, Prose Life of Saint Cuthbert, in Bertram Colgrave, Two lives of Saint Cuthbert: a Life by an anonymous monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s prose Life,(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1940) pp.141-309; Ælfric, Life of Saint Æthelthryth, ed. W. W. Skeat, Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, Vol. 1 (London: Early English Text Society Publications 76 and 82, 1881-1885) pp. 432-40

[13] Patricia Skinner, Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017) p.4

[14] ‘Jo Whiley: ‘I’d give up my Covid vaccine in a heartbeat’’, BBC (16.2.2021), [Accessed 29.4.2021]

[15] Katie Ambler, ’Disabled TV Characters Played by Disabled Actors’, Disabled Living, (28.1.2020) [Accessed 40.4.2020]

[16] Clem Bastow, ’ Sia’s film Music misrepresents autistic people. It could also do us damage ’ The Guardian (26.1.2021) [Accessed 1.5.2021]; Helen Brown, ‘Face the Music: Why Sia’s dangerous film doesn’t deserve a Golden Globe’ Independent (1.3.2021) [Accessed 1.5.2021]

Cover image and Figure 2. Pilgrims on their way to Mount St.Michel in France. The Luttrel Psalter, (British Library MS Add. 42130, fol. 104v), c. 1325-1335. Made available by British Library Images © British Library Board.

Figure 1. A man with tressels. Topographia Hiberniae (British Library Royal 13 B VIII, fol. 30v), c. 1196-1223. Made available by British Library Images © British Library Board.

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