20 November, 2008

Accommodation, Medieval Style

I got a question in response to my recent post on the visibility of impairment. I didn't forget about it; I wanted to give it more thorough discussion than a comment usually warrants.

The question was for an example of the accommodation of a medieval impaired person. The situation I was referring to actually seems fairly common, so I've picked a representative case from the calendar of the Patent Rolls.

Nov. 19, 1412. Westminster.
Commission, by mainprise of Peter de Pole of the county of Derby and Robert Suthwell of the country of Hertford, to John Leventhorpe, esquire, of the keeping of the body of John son and heir of John Petbrigge, knight, an idiot, and all his lands in the counties of Essex and Huntingdon with reversions, to hold so long as the lands are in the king's hands for that cause, rendering to the king of the same John be proved an idiot before the council by due examination 20l. and finding competent maintenance for the heir, maintaining the houses and buildings and supporting all other charges.*

John Jr. here is an idiot (or whatever the editors decided was an idiot). I said in the previous post that I did not mean "accommodation" the way we use it in modern discussions. There's no ADA here. But John Jr. is an unusual situation, and because of the possibility that he would "waste" his lands (squander them away or alienate them from the family inheritance), his abnormality demanded that he be treated abnormally.

Briefly, John Jr. was given into the care of Leventhorpe, along with all of his lands and property - things that he had a responsibility for according to the laws of inheritance. It sounds cold and cruel and far from "accommodation," but I find it sensible, in theory. (How do we treat our idiots today? Often they are put into homes before their parents die, and rarely do they inherit, and almost never do they retain control of any inheritance they come into.) In this case, John Jr. retains titular rights to his inheritance: it's still his, he just can't control it. He isn't cast into the streets, as the common myth would suggest. He is given a guardian and his care is ordered and he is to live comfortably.

Sadly, we have few records, if any, that discuss what happens after an idiot is taken into guardianship. We don't know how common it was for guardians to ignore care instructions or act abusively. Very rarely, an idiot or an idiot's family and friends will bring a case forward that the guardian is acting outside his jurisdiction, but it's always he-said-she-said and politics inevitably clouds the reality.

However, it remains that an idiot's social group had to find a way to deal with his presence. That is what I meant by accommodation. They didn't ignore him, kill him, or cast him out of town. They created rules governing the care of such idiots and legal mechanisms to enact the rules. There are occasionally cases where people tried to act outside the standard rules, but once found out, the investigation starts right from the beginning.

Instances of physical impairment being accommodated are somewhat different, because the situations are more varied. Hopefully this will explain the general gist of my point, though. When we speak of accommodation in the modern sense, we often conflate it with "accessibility." We have to be careful: accommodation, especially in reference to the Middle Ages, is simply the process whereby a society deals with the presence of abnormality in its midst.

And that's what's the most important thing, I feel, when we speak of medieval accommodations. Impaired people still existed in society. They had a midst to be in.

* Calendar of the Patent Rolls. Henry IV, Vol. 4, pg. 453.


Anonymous said...

Thankyou very much for this, it demonstrates the sort of thing you mean very clearly. But there's an asterisk after the cite that implies a lost footnote? Should there be more?

Alison Purnell said...

Ah yes, there was. My internet went down mid-post, and I must have missed the citation when I re-posted. Thanks.