London, British Library, MS Harley 603, fol. 6v — drawings of variously impaired individuals.

London, British Library, MS Harley 603, fol. 6v — drawings of variously impaired individuals.

Medieval Disability Studies

May be taught as a graduate seminar or as an upper-level undergraduate seminar—the syllabus that follows is more suited to an undergraduate seminar.

This course explores medieval European concepts of individual and community identity through bodily difference, utilizing the interdisciplinary and intersectional approach of critical disability studies. We will consider medical and archaeological histories of disability, conceptualizations of disability in law and religion, and representations of disabled bodies in literature and art. By the end of this course, students will:

  • Understand numerous models for disability and their application to the Middle Ages;

  • Develop critical perspectives on the legacy of medieval thought regarding experiences and concepts of disability to the present day; and

  • Practice analyzing literary and artistic representations of the disabled body.


Attendance & Participation

As this course is a seminar rooted in discussion, I expect you to participate actively in class throughout the semester. “Participating actively” looks like: contributing to conversations that we have in small groups or as a class, responding thoughtfully to questions I ask of you in class, and/or asking questions about the course material either of me or of your classmates.


You will take four online quizzes, primarily composed of short-answer and short-essay questions, which will gauge your understanding of course concepts and invite deeper consideration of those concepts’ relation to one another. The quizzes will be timed for twenty minutes, will each be open for one week, and must be completed by 11 pm on the Fridays in Weeks 4, 8, and 12, and by 11 pm on the day of the scheduled final exam.

Group Project: Medieval Disability Glossary (due Week 6)

In groups of 3–4, you will research and draft entries for the online Medieval Disability Glossary. Your group will choose a word related to disability from a provided selection, research the etymology and definitions of the word, assemble examples of its usage in the Middle Ages, and craft a 800–1,000-word entry appropriate for the Medieval Disability Glossary. (This project will be assessed in isolation from whether your group’s contribution is ultimately published, but if it is accepted, students will be credited in the entry’s publication in the Glossary.)

Research Project (due Finals Week)

You will complete an analytical paper of 3,000 to 3,500 words (not counting bibliography), drawing on secondary scholarship to discuss one of the primary texts or topics from this course, or another text/topic pertaining to disability in the Middle Ages. You should identify a question about the representation or conceptualization of disability in this text/topic, research historical contexts, and analyze the primary evidence in order to craft an argument about how disability was understood in the geographical and temporal moment of your text/topic. Your secondary research should draw upon the study of disability in the Middle Ages, but may also adapt theories of disability built on the study of other historical periods.

As parts of this research project, you will be expected to meet the following benchmark deadlines:

  • Topic selection—Week 10

  • Research plan—Week 12

  • Conference with me about your essay (bring a rough draft)—by Week 15


Quizzes: 20% (5% each)

Group Project: Medieval Disability Glossary: 20%

Research Project: 35%

Participation & Discussion: 25%

Course Schedule

With the exception of Week 1, students are expected to complete the readings below by the first meeting of the week for which they are assigned.

Week 1: Intro to Medieval Disability

  • Introduction to The Medieval Disability Sourcebook (2018)

  • Edward Wheatley, “Monsters, Saints, and Sinners: Disability in Medieval Literature” (2018)

  • Joshua Eyler, introduction to Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations (2010)

Week 2: What is “Normal”?

  • Karen Bruce Wallace, “Hælu and Unhælu: The Anglo-Saxons’ Concept of the Normate Individual and its Implications for Impairment and Disease” (2018)

  • Elizabeth Bearden, “Before Normal, There Was Natural: John Bulwer, Disability, and Natural Signing in Early Modern England and Beyond” (2017)

  • Lennard Davis, selections from Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (1995)

  • Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, selections from Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (1997)

Week 3: Disability and Medieval Christianity

  • Edward Wheatley, “Cripping the Middle Ages, Medievalizing Disability Theory” from Stumbling Blocks before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability (2010)

  • David T. Mitchell, “Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor” (2002)

  • Augustine of Hippo, The City of God against the Pagans, XXII.19 [MDS]

  • Gospel passages [MDS]

Week 4: Miracles of Healing

  • Snorri Sturluson, “Ólafs saga helga” from Heimskringla [MDS]

  •  “A Miracle of Thomas Becket: Concerning a boy suffering from a wasting disease” [MDS]

  • Stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral and York Minster Cathedral

Quiz 1 due Friday of Week 4 at 11 pm

Week 5: Medicine

  • Ritu Lakhtakia, “A Trio of Exemplars of Medieval Islamic Medicine: Al-Razi,Avicenna and Ibn Al-Nafis” (2014)

  • Marion Turner, “Medical Discourse in Premodern Europe” (2016)

  • Patricia Skinner, “Paths to Rehabilitation? The Possibilities of Treatment” with Appendix: “Narrative and Archaeological Evidence for Disfigurement,” from Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe (2017)

  • Julie Orlemanski, “How to Kiss a Leper” (2012)

  • John Cule, “The Court Mediciner and Medicine in the Laws of Wales” (1966)

Week 6: Law and War

  • Anglo-Saxon law codes [MDS]

  • Selections from Táin Bó Cúailnge

  • Germanic law codes, selections from The Body Legal in Barbarian Law, ed. Lisi Oliver (2011)

  • Patricia Skinner, “Disfigurement, Authority, and the Law” with Appendix: “Disfigurement in Early Medieval Law Codes,” from Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe (2017)

Medieval Disability Glossary Group Project due Friday of Week 6 at 11 pm

Week 7: Neurodiversity

  • Hoccleve, My Compleinte [MDS]

  • Leah Parker, “A Medieval Poetics of Neurodiversity” (in progress essay)

  • “William de Bridsall, a deponent in Alice Redyng c. John Boton” [MDS]

  • Wendy Turner, selections from Care and Custody of the Mentally Ill, Incompetent, and Disabled in Medieval England (2012)

Week 8: Gender and Disability

  • Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Portrait and Prologue [MDS]

  • Tory Vandeventer Pearman, “Disruptive Dames: Disability and the Loathly Lady in the Tale of Florent, the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and the Weddynge of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle” (2010)

  • Edna Edith Sayers, “Experience, Authority, and the Mediation of Deafness: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath” (2010)

  • Patricia Skinner, “Defacing Women: The Gendering of Disfigurement,” from Living with Disfigurement in Early Medieval Europe (2017)

Quiz 2 due Friday of Week 8 at 11 pm

Week 9: Race and Disability

  • Morien

  • Paintings of Saints Cosmas and Damian and “The Ethiopian’s Leg”

  • The Hereford Mappamundi

  • Asa Simon Mittman, “Are the ‘monstrous races’ races?” (2015)

Week 10: Monsters, Space, and Narrative

  • Brendan Gleeson, selections from Geographies of Disability (1999)

  • Asa Simon Mittman, selections from Maps and Monsters in Medieval England (2006)

  • Selections from The Wonders of the East

  • Selections from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

  • Marianne O’Doherty, “Imperial Fantasies: Imagining Christian Empire in Three Fourteenth-Century Versions of the Book of Sir John Mandeville” (2017)

  • Bring Research Project topic selection to class

Week 11: Technology and Travel

  • Irina Metzler, “Have Crutch Will Travel” (2015)

  • Selections from The Book of Margery Kempe [MDS]

Week 12: Ableism and Antisemitism

  • Croxton Play of the Sacrament [MDS]

  • Le Garcon et L’Aveugle [MDS]

  • Edward Wheatley, “‘Blind’ Jews and Blind Christians: The Metaphorics of Marginalization” from Stumbling Blocks before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability (2010)

  • Bring research plan for Research Project to class

Quiz 3 due Friday of Week 12 at 11 pm

Week 13: Burials

  • Sally Crawford, “Differentiation in Later Anglo-Saxon Burial Ritual on the Basis of Mental or Physical Impairment: A Documentary Perspective,” from Burial in Later Anglo-Saxon England, c. 650-1100 AD (2010)

  • Stephan A. Lütgert, “Victims of the Great Famine and the Black Death?” (2000)

  • Ileana Micarelli, et al., “Survival to amputation in pre-antibiotic era: A case study from a Longobard necropolis (6th–8th centuries AD)” (2018)

Week 14: Prosthetic Ecologies

  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

  • Richard H. Godden, “Prosthetic Ecologies: Vulnerable Bodies and the Dismodern Subject in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (2016)

Week 15: Crip Authority

  • Elizabeth Bearden, “Monstrous Births and Crip Authority” (2016)

  • Teresa de Cartagena, Arboleda de los enfermos

  • Last week to complete Research Project draft conference with me

Research Project due at the start of the scheduled final exam time

Quiz 4 due the date of scheduled final exam at 11 pm