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Intellectual disability in the Middle Ages

Using an interdisciplinary approach, including historical semantics, medicine, natural philosophy and law, the book considers a neglected field of social and medical history and makes an original contribution to the problem of a shifting concept such as 'idiocy'. The book considers the semantics of intellectual disability (ID) by looking at the words and labels used across time and place for conditions that might be subsumed by the umbrella-term 'intellectual disability' in modern Western society. The book discusses concepts of ID in medieval natural science, that is, anatomical and medical texts, now termed as the neurological foundations. Turning from the material aspects of neurology to the immateriality of psychology, it treats mind and soul in relation to ID. Discussing the theme of childishness, the book considers the legal position of persons with ID. The question of whether a legal case related to mental illness or ID is analysed. Thinking about legal agency returns to the themes of idiocy and infancy. The book then looks at the socio-cultural implications of ID through the lens of court fools, pets and entertainers. An overview of the link between court fools, idiots and social theories of dominance leads on to classical antiquity and the origin of 'fools', with the fully fledged medieval court fools noticeable and remarkable for 'foolish' behaviour rather than medicalised traits.

Tracing a trope in medieval thought

For medieval thinkers, a prominent philosophical, religious and legal problem concerned how to distinguish between the ‘will-not’ and the ‘can-not’. Amassing medieval evidence for the characterization these 'types', this chapter considers the tension between people regarded as not wanting to do something and people incapable of doing something despite perhaps wanting to. The 'genuine fool' was accorded preferential treatment in all these realms, but the 'pretend fool' was regarded with suspicion, and was perceived as morally dubious, even dangerous. Precisely because cognitive disability is not something writ large on the body, like a crippled limb, medieval commentators were worried by it, just as they were worried by deafness (equally invisible and also causing communication and moral issues). It is the behaviour rather than the physique that is highlighted as being different from 'the norm'. It is a sign of more modern times that physical appearance comes to be more strongly linked to cognitive disability. Medieval children appear to have been categorised by their learning ability as expressed through behaviour, not physiognomy.

in Intellectual disability
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Semantics of intellectual disability

Since medieval concepts were much influenced by biblical and Graeco-Roman literature, it is appropriate to start with intellectual disability (ID) as presented in such texts. Lexemes for 'idiot' and 'fool' are found in many languages, such as in Akkadian and Hebrew. Before we look at Greek, Latin and the medieval vernaculars, a comparative philological examination of linguistic evidence for the Indo-European language family provides suitable etymologies and terminologies. This sheds some light on the antiquity of semantic concepts. In ancient Greek there were two competing terms for 'fool': salos and moros. The word salos is usually translated as 'fool', but the word is of uncertain origin. The etymology of 'fool' takes us from English to French lexemes. In Anglo-Norman French the word fol related both to fools and madmen.

in Fools and idiots?
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Problems of definition and historiography

World Health Organization's definition of intellectual disability (ID) incorporates social and environmental factors. American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which since the mid-twentieth century and over successive editions has become a standard reference for clinical practice in the mental health field. The question of social constructionism in medical history elicited two important articles by Ludmilla Jordanova, and David Harley, the latter arousing a lively debate, all in the journal Social History of Medicine. This chapter presents some concepts discussed in this book. The book considers the semantics of ID by looking at the words and labels used across time and place for conditions that might be subsumed by the umbrella-term 'intellectual disability' in modern Western society. It looks at the socio-cultural implications of ID through the lens of court fools, pets and entertainers.

in Fools and idiots?
Natural science and intellectual disability

Basil Clarke had made some educated guesses as to the incidence of mental illness in general and intellectual disability (ID) in particular for medieval England. The confusing and overlapping medieval medical terminology of madness, mental illness and mental disability may partly be explained by the main categorisations of the various medical schools and authorities a writer followed, e.g. Galenic or Hippocratic. The nearest thing to mental disability ever mentioned in medical texts might be 'lethargy', which, like congenital idiocy, was associated with too much cold and moisture. Lethargy 'is representative of a group of disorders which involved extreme somnolence or stupor and were conceived of as cold diseases, calling for remedies to warm and stimulate the patient and to thin and disperse an accumulation of phlegm'. Humoral reasons concerned with wet and cold are the main aetiologies, and the few therapeutics attempted tended to reflect the 'warming' actions.

in Fools and idiots?
Mind, soul and intellectual disability

Philosophically, and subsequently judicially, medieval intellectual disability (ID) was considered the absence of reason, the irrational, which contrasted the intellectually disabled with the bowdlerised Aristotelian concept of man as the rational animal. Late antique and early medieval authorities already debated the importance of intellectual abilities, especially logical reasoning and abstraction, for example Nemesius in his tractate on the soul. This chapter enhances our understanding of how late antique through to medieval notions of reason, intellect and the definition of being human had informed a discourse of ID. Augustine could consider that while people with ID 'may not be particularly valued in this world, they are at least part of the divine plan and as such human'. Albertus Magnus, in Ethica, considered the three things within the soul that guide action and truth, namely sensory perception, intellect and the appetitive urge.

in Fools and idiots?
Laws and intellectual disability

Pre-modern laws mainly concentrated on the dis/ability of intellectual disability (ID) for agency and contractual powers, inheritance, also culpability and guardianship. English laws had different results for persons with ID, depending on whether they were subject to the Prerogativa Regis or to borough custom. By the end of the thirteenth century, four English jurists and their legal texts, Bracton, Fleta, the Mirror of Justices and Britton, had assimilated notions derived from those in the Prerogativa Regis. Britton, an Anglo-Norman law book of the late thirteenth century, was probably written during the reign of Edward I and appears to rely heavily on the earlier Bracton and Fleta for passages relating to idiocy and insanity. In medieval English legal history, the judicial inquiry into the state of mind of Emma de Beston, who was certified an idiot in July 1383, is probably the best-known case.

in Fools and idiots?
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Rationality, intelligence and human status

The construction of a link between psychological and social inferiority may be traced back to ancient Greece. Considering medieval writers' frequent reference to 'authorities' such as Plato and Aristotle, antique aspects of intellectual disability (ID) certainly underpinned and influenced medieval notions. The stereotype of ID, and its subgroup, learning disability, dictates a picture of slow, ponderous unintelligence and, in contrast to the dull minds of the learning disabled, those quick on the uptake are bright, fast learners. With regard to fixed identity or labelling of a person, it seems that medieval ways of treating ID were much more fluid than modern ones. Christopher Goodey regarded the twelfth century as forming the beginnings of European social administration which, together with late-medieval scholasticism, initiated the formal human science disciplines in the modern era.

in Fools and idiots?
Socio-cultural considerations of intellectual disability

An ahistorical stereotype still abounds concerning the linkage between persons with intellectual disability (ID) and so-called freak shows. Stereotypes of social class, especially alleged rusticity, also abounded in connection with ID. Modern society expects specialist educational and/or care provision for people with ID, to the point of segregation from the mainstream. Courtly entertainers, dwarfs and fools replaced needy, poor and disabled people in the attention of potentates. Medieval court fools are therefore seen by many commentators, not just Tuan, to resemble affectionately treasured but dominated pet animals in the property of a lord. Greek and Roman antiquity had depicted 'fools' in imagery, focusing on physiognomy, pathology and pandering to the grotesque, before depicting them in texts. Natural and artificial fools may be differentiated, but both have in common the idea that their folly should be harmless.

in Fools and idiots?