Disability history

How were disabled people treated during the reign of Richard III?

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Disability was viewed ambivalently in medieval society and could be seen as divine punishment for human misdeeds – usually the general sinfulness of mankind. Misshapen bodies could be symbolic of chaos and disorder in the world as a whole. However a person’s disability could also be seen as both an affliction and a gift from God; their suffering was seen as bringing them spiritual healing on Earth, and therefore a special and privileged relationship to God. Richard III himself, seen as “misshapen” or “crooked”, could have been understood in any one of these ways by supporters or detractors.

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In Richard’s time the “creple” the “blynde”, the “dumbe” and the “deaff” were a highly visible presence in everyday life. Disability could come from birth, through diseases like leprosy, or from years of back-breaking work.

Early institutional provision such as leper houses and almshouses emerged, run by monks and nuns. The first hospitals began as places of overnight stay (hospes) for pilgrims and evolved to allow those who were disabled and sick to stay permanently. However, the vast majority
of people with disabilities lived as part of their communities, working (or begging), marrying and having children.

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Answered by: Simon Jarrett is a Wellcome Trust doctoral student at Birkbeck, University of London, specialising in disability history