03 Jan 2014 Conference Report: Disease, Disability and Medicine in Medieval Europe - Patricia Skinner


Disease, Disability and Medicine in Medieval Europe
Georgia Regents University, Augusta, Georgia, 6-8 December 2013

Incorporating speakers from the US, UK and Germany (the Homo Debilis project team from Bremen University), and hosted by Dr Wendy Turner at GRU, the conference addressed the theme 'Defining health and non-health, ability and disability'. In the keynotes, Christina Lee (Nottingham) and Edward Wheatley (Loyola) offered thoughts on labelling Anglo-Saxon disability, and the representation of Aesop with impairments in early printed books. A roundtable, in which Turner, Lee and Dr Cordula Nolte (Bremen) were discussants, explored the problems of acquired v. congenital disability, the competing models of disability (social, religious, medical), and the inherent problems of attributing the label 'disabled' to people in the pre-modern era. 

Twelve further papers then presented case studies of specific evidence, offering new frames of reference including the role of the horse in mitigating hard agricultural labour, disability as metaphor in religious texts and comparison between literary tropes and historical figures, and pictorial representations and the actual physical state of their subjects. Evidence was drawn from all parts of Europe, and several papers explored how high social status might mitigate, or be undermined by, physical or mental impairment. Whilst ability and disability formed the core of the conference (and impairment, it became clear, might be deployed rhetorically as a source of power), the question of health and non-health was also discussed – generating debate on what was the 'normal' state of health in the medieval and early modern periods. Participants were also given the opportunity to sample some herbal remedies based on historical recipes.

The conference, which is an annual event, reconvenes in Nottingham in December 2014, and will be hosted by Swansea University in December 2015.


Patricia Skinner is an Honorary Research Associate at Swansea University.