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Disability in Medieval and Modern Societies Case Study

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Updated: Nov 19th, 2020


The term “disability” is used to define the category of individuals who do not have all those capabilities and potential that are associated with “absolutely healthy,” normative majority. Thus, the concept of “disability” implies the criticism of the dominant norm − the only acceptable physiological and psycho-emotional standard related to people who do not conform to it. According to Jere Paul Surber, the popular perceptions of the bodily norms are artificially constructed similarly to ideas about norms about gender and sexual orientation (19). The major purpose of such norms is the acquisition of privileges for the dominant social group.


Secondly, the term “disability” in the present-day studies is closely associated with the changes in the status of people with various disorders. For instance, according to the postmodern theory of disability, individuals who, for some reasons, have the non-normative body and maybe unaccepted by the healthier majority, nevertheless, are not disabled or invalid in the original sense of this word − they are not outcasts dislodged out of the social-cultural space. They are different, others. Some types of activities maybe not suitable for them. However, their contribution to the development of society can be significant and it can be directly related to their physiological and mental peculiarities.

In this case study, different perspectives on disability will be reviewed and evaluated. The essay will also explore the major stereotypes which were associated with the concept throughout history since the Middle Ages.

Perception of Disability in the Middle Ages

The category of the body as an outer shell of the human soul becomes a central element in the established medieval cultural norm because, while the spirit is unseen, the body parameters can be semiotized as the manifestation of the interior world of individuals. According to Eyler, there were mixed attitudes to disability in the Middle Ages − whereas some could perceive it as the punishment for sins, others believed it is a sign of closeness to God because it was for the illness and troubles a person could get “the treasure of eternal life” in heaven (76).

The medieval culture is characterized by androcentric, masculine views. As stated by Ouweneel, androcentrism is primarily associated with a strict gender polarisation (58), but it is possible to say that biological essentialism is interrelated with the perceptions of disability as well because a disabled man is not seen as equal to a healthy man.

In History of Madness, Foucault evaluates the image of the Other, i.e., a madman or a person with physical flaws, and states that he or she became “the Outsider,” “The Excluded” (131). In the social-cultural order of the classical period, mental disabilities had their place in the hierarchy of vices and merits. The paintings by Hieronymus Bosch may illustrate this assumption. The Dutch painter depicted all those vices in the images of distorted and tortured human bodies, as well as animals eating sinners.

Later, Pieter Bruegel the Elder portrayed blind people and individuals with impairments as the carriers of spiritual flaws. For instance, in The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), physical defectiveness may be regarded as a symbol of inner blindness, i.e., moral degeneration (Figure 1). Thus, in the Middle Ages, compliance with physical, bodily norms was the foundation of the social-moral order. Any deviation from the standard could lead to psychological and social isolation.

Disability in Modernity

In the contemporary society, the beautiful and healthy body is a significant attribute of the social success whereas the non-normative body is a reverse side of this category and is opposed to the idea of well-being which not merely includes the economic welfare but the romantic relationships as well. “Self-preservation depends upon the preservation of the body within a culture in which the body is the passport to all that is good in life” (Turner 168).

The perfect body and attractive appearance in both modern and pre-modern societies imply the opportunities to improve status. It is the symbol of power and sexuality while ugliness and asexuality are correlated with failure in the collective unconscious. Thus, people may fear disability as it symbolizes the limited potential to realize their dreams. At the same time, in comparison to previous historical periods, disability starts to be associated with some positive connotations in modernity.

The deviation from the norm and otherness may sometimes be linked to creativity and other talents. Thompson draws an example of Frida Kahlo (Figure 2) for whom the disability became a center of aesthetic representation in many of her works (viii). Although Kahlo’s impairment caused her a lot of distress, she used it as a source of inspiration for painting. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second president of the United States, may serve as a good example of how the deviation from the physical norm could be associated with positive public perceptions.

Although Roosevelt was confined to the wheelchair, he showed the strength of the character when bravely confronted Nazis whose ideology implied the creation of perfect humans. It is possible to assume that the president’s image could symbolize the victory of humanism and cultural tolerance over the anti-human or super-human ideologies.

During the 1970s-1990s, images of people with disabilities appear in various forms of visual art more frequently. One of the reasons for this is the development of ideology and aesthetics of multiculturalism, i.e., striving for presenting various types of cultures and subjective opinions in cinema and television. For instance, in the late 20th century in the United States, people with disabilities are not portrayed on the screen as rejected by society, but as individuals who found inner freedom.

In such movies as Scent of a Woman (1992), Rain Man (1988), and Forrest Gump (1994), persons with mental and physical “abnormalities” are the leading characters and, what is more important, the directors and screenwriters of those movies tried to reveal the interior world of the personages. Thus, it is possible to say that the late 20th century in the U.S. cinema was associated with a humanistic movement.

The Elephant Man (1980) by David Lynch depicts the tragic story of a man with a rare genetic disorder that provokes severe deformations of the entire body. The film is based on real events that occurred in 19th-century England. The main character, Joseph Merrick (Figure 3), has a clear mind and sophisticated soul; he is interested in poesy and reads poems by heart. However, he cannot withstand the pressure of social stereotypes and is exploited in one of the freak shows. The movie criticizes the social system in which a deviant person has no place focusing on the inner experiences of such an individual and showing his true self that is very human and vulnerable.

The German film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) by Werner Herzog is an exceptional picture depicting the life of a person with a disability. It is the biography of Kaspar Hauser, a mentally ill adolescent, who appeared in Nuremberg in 1828 and was killed a few years later under mysterious circumstances. The director’s attempt to link the history of the 19th century with the reality of the 20th century may be considered a unique feature of the film.

The main role is played by a non-professional actor with a disability who lived in the basement in his early childhood and was not aware of the existence of other people similar to the hero of the movie. In this way, Herzog aimed to represent the character with a high level of authenticity and also prove that people with mental and physiological disorders have the potential to be full members of the society and actively participate in creative cultural activities.

Additionally, since the end of the 20th century in western cinema, a person with the disability is not merely represented as a positive and/or main character but also as a subject of sexual desire. In this way, such characters could legitimate the variability of social-cultural and gender norms. Philadelphia (1993) is one of those movies − it raises awareness regarding the issues associated with AIDS, homosexuality, and homophobia. In the film, gays with the disease are depicted with sympathy yet they are represented not just like victims of the social repression but as defenders of human rights, as well as their dignity. When revealing this inner strength and other qualities, the characters become able to provoke empathy in people with the heterosexual orientation.

Disability and Queer Theory

In collaboration with feminist theory, the modern disability studies point at the similarity between the semiotics of bodily non-normativity and queer sexuality. For instance, post-modernist theorists state that the traditional culture silently disapproves of the sexuality of people with body impairments in the same degree as those individuals with queer orientation (McRuer 28). A person with the disability or queer identity opposes the idea of obligatory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness, i.e., the integrity of the body functions, in the mass conscious (Davis). This body integrity is placed on the top of the cultural hierarchy in the conservative societies while the disability is inferior in comparison to it.

Kosofsky Sedgwick even introduces the concept of “homosexual panic” denoting the behavior of individuals with white heterosexual identities, their fear of the spreading of the queer subculture, it’s legitimating, and the consequent change in the patriarchal value and power systems (19).

Rosemarie Thomson suggests that the stereotypes associated with disability and bodily deviations from the norm should be dispelled and the relativism in the understanding of the norm should be established to psychologically liberate those individuals “whose bodies have been defined as defective” (23). From the perspective of the theory of hegemony, culture is regarded as a result of the confrontation between ideas and perceptions associated with different social groups who protect their interests.

Hegemonic masculinity, which demands strength, represents a form of social relationships in which a white heterosexual male who possesses property is seen as a dominant subject that subordinates women, homosexual men, people with disabilities, and members of other racial groups (Gerschick and Miller 184). From this point of view, the traditional mass culture is established by the representatives of the dominant class with the purpose of cultural legitimation of their privileges.

In the given context, the theorists of disability find the similarity between the subordinate racial relationships (i.e., white-black), and the links between the categories of the normal and abnormal body (Linton). Like the bodily differences, the skin color of a black person is marginalized by the white society, in the same way, a person with the disability is seen as an alien element. It means that racial, gender, and bodily minority pose a threat to a normative society by personifying fears of alternative values and views.


It is possible to distinguish three major levels of analyzing disability in modern social theory: political, social-legal, and cultural-semiotic. In the context of political rights, the theory of disability evaluates social attitudes towards body abnormality through liberal and democratic ideals. Such a perspective reveals that Western democracies cannot be regarded as democracies at all because the present-day concept of citizenship implies the superiority of a bodily normative male.

From the social-legal point of view, citizenship may be regarded as social and legal status and, for a significant historical period, minorities of all kinds were deprived of it. For instance, as the results of the literature review make it clear, in the medieval and early modern epochs, individuals with disabilities were pushed out to the periphery of the social hierarchy while the normative subjects were in its center and enjoyed all the privileges.

Disability becomes a semiotic sign in the modernist culture, and the image of a disabled person serves as a container for multiple unconscious fears. However, later, the emphasis was made on the establishment of social equality, as well as recognition of rights for differences of all types.

Overall, it is apparent that political, cultural, and social-legal perceptions of disabilities are deeply interrelated. It is possible to presume that one of the possible ways for the development of those perceptions is the egalitarian citizenship or the democratic cultural pluralism which implies both the equality of rights and the equal representation of different people in the dominant culture.

Works Cited

Davis, Lennard J. The Disability Studies Reader. Routledge, 2017. Google Books. Web.

Eyler, Joshua R. Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations. Ashgate, 2016.

Foucault, Michel. History of Madness. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Gerschick, Thomas, and Adam Miller. “Coming to Terms.” Men’s Health and Illness: Gender, Power, and the Body, edited by Donald Sabo and David Gordon, SAGE Publications, 1995, pp. 183-205.

Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve. Epistemology of the Closet: Updated with a New Preface. University of California Press, 2007.

Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York University Press, 2010. Google Books. Web.

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York University Press, 2006.

Ouweneel, Arij. Freudian Fadeout: The Failings of Psychoanalysis in Film Criticism. McFarland, 2012.

Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. Columbia University Press, 2017.

Turner, Bryan Stanley. The Body and Society Explorations in Social Theory. Sage, 2008.

Appendix A

An excerpt from Bruegel's The Blind Leading the Blind
Figure 1: An excerpt from Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind (1568).
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Pharill
Figure 2: Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Pharill (1951).
Joseph Merrick (John Hurt) in The Elephant Man
Figure 3: Joseph Merrick (John Hurt) in The Elephant Man (1980) by David Lynch.
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