From the small centres of religious care founded in the medieval period to the growth of asylums in the 19th century, the way that society has treated its disabled communities has changed greatly since the Middle Ages. However, the subject has seldom received the scrutiny it deserves.
“With this in mind,” says disability historian Simon Jarrett, “English Heritage has tracked the influence of disabled communities on the historic built environment – from the medieval period to the late 20th century – finding out how people with disabilities were seen, and how they saw themselves.”
Disability in the medieval period was viewed in two distinct, and rather contradictory, ways. On the one hand a mental or physical impairment could be viewed as a punishment from God; on the other, those disabilities were sometimes seen to actually bring sufferers closer to God.
“To be charitable to those with a disability in the medieval period was thought to speed a person’s journey into heaven after death,” says Jarrett. “It was not uncommon to find particularly pious people washing or kissing the feet of lepers, or endowing leper hospitals. Henry II himself visited a leper hospital in Canterbury to atone for his sins following the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170.
“People with learning disabilities were usually cared for within their families and communities, and almshouses could sometimes be accessed for those without such help. And, as ‘deserving poor’, many physically disabled people were granted begging licences to enable them to earn money.”
But where the medieval period is notable for the religious orders that provided care for disabled people, the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII saw many physically and mentally impaired people lose their sole means of survival.
“The Tudor period heralded a move towards a more secular type of support for disabled people,” says Jarrett, “and some of the religious hospitals that had been closed during the Reformation were re-founded by boards of governors, with charitable contributions.”
Those with a disability were not always confined to a life of poverty or secular care, though, and some were welcomed into elite circles. Research by historian Suzannah Lipscomb has even revealed that ‘fools’ employed to amuse the Tudor court may have in fact had learning disabilities.
“There were deemed to be two types of ‘fool’ during the Tudor period,” says Jarrett, “‘natural fools’ (referring to those with a learning disability), and ‘artificial fools’ (those who acted the part). Will Somer, Henry VIII’s ‘fool’, had his own apartments at court and was finely dressed, yet was deemed unable to look after himself and had a paid carer. This, Lipscomb believes, indicates that he may have been what was then known as a ‘natural fool’.”
Warfare has always promoted advances in the care of wounded or disabled people and the aftermath of the Elizabethan wars of the late 16th century saw the development of pensions and other types of practical, non-religious support for returning soldiers. The move from a religious to a secular view of disability continued through the 17th and 18th centuries, as large military hospitals such as the Chelsea Hospital for disabled and infirm soldiers and Greenwich Hospital for disabled and infirm sailors became more commonplace. The treatment of mentally ill people also went through substantial changes during this period, as private ‘madhouses’ grew up around Britain, where wealthy patients could stay until they ‘recovered their reason’.
The 18th century also saw the introduction of the first deaf and blind schools, and the beginnings of what we now know as British Sign Language. The first school for the blind was opened in Liverpool by Edward Rushton, himself blind through disease, in 1791, and attempted to equip those with visual impairments with skills to enable them to support themselves.
Things changed again in the 19th century – the heyday of the asylum system, when people turned to institutional solutions to mental and physical disabilities rather than the community and familial care of the past. “The Victorian idea that those with a mental illness were somehow dangerous meant that many were confined to lunatic asylums,” says Jarrett.
Subsumed into lunacy legislation were those with lifelong learning disabilities who failed to respond to treatment. Many remained in asylums indefinitely.
The treatment of disabilities improved rapidly in the 20th century, especially in the wake of the two world wars. Two million servicemen returned from the First World War disabled and unable to resume their former lives. Rehabilitation – as well as medicine – would prove key to their treatment.
The Second World War saw huge leaps in surgery, as well as prosthetics and plastic surgery. It also precipitated the development of a disabled rights movement, which saw blind ex-servicemen protesting about pensions and levels of support in the early 1950s.
“The English Heritage project aims to dispel some of the myths surrounding disability history,” says Jarrett, “but also highlights how attitudes have changed since the medieval period. Disability history is often dominated by the asylum period of the 1840s–1980s, but the story is so much bigger than that.”
Eight places associated with the history of disability
St Mary Magdalen Chapel, Ripon, North Yorkshire
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