An offhand comment from one of my supervisors a few weeks ago has really stuck with me. At first it seemed rather trivial, but the more I contemplate it, the more I think it is important.
How much do we see of impairment in the Middle Ages? Equally important, how much do we not see?
If you ask almost any medievalist about mental impairment (aside from the Enlightened Ones like yourselves, who read this high quality blog, or Greg's), you're likely to get a response along the lines of "I'm not sure there's enough source material to even study that." That's the first response I got, at least, and I've heard it many time since. If you ask a non-medievalist, you will almost certainly be regaled with horror stories of Bedlam, chains, abandonment, changelings*, sin, and violence. You might, as well, hear stories of court fools or especial holiness attributed to fools.
These two responses embody the questions I posed above. In many ways, mental impairment and abnormality in the Middle Ages is invisible. Lunatics and idiots do not tend to be powerful or noteworthy. There are exceptions, but on the whole, madness tends to preclude importance. It is also, simply, hard to see. Mental impairment isn't visual the way the loss of a limb is, or leprosy, or palsy. It exists in the brain and its only external signs are secondary characteristics.
It's these secondary characteristics that have caught the attention of so many previous historians. By "secondary characteristics," I mean the motley of a court fool or the travelling circus of the ship of fools. In the popular imagination, we also see the raving, chained, whipped madman in Bedlam Hospital. These are highly visual portraits: we can easily conjure the image in our mind's eye.** They are the portrayals that have dominated the histories, but they are severely limited.
It's not possible that every mentally abnormal person could have lived such a life. Kings are not that plentiful, and the ship of fools and Bedlam Hospital are extremely late phenomena, and highly local. (In the case of the ship of fools, it's not even certain that it's a historical phenomenon at all.)
It is to the detriment of disability historians that they never looked beyond these manifestations. There are so many references to everyday men and women in various legal, ecclesiastical, medical, and literary sources that it would stun you. They are not particularly special men and women. They're not remarkable. Their impairments only warrant mention because they need accommodating.*** They are very difficult to visualise, and thus more difficult to empathise with. Less dramatic. More difficult to write about.
And yet, they are arguably the most valuable references we have. They represent an invisible majority. They are what is important if one wants to write about madmen and idiots. And the silence of the records is actually quite loud**** - they tell us that abnormality was not as abnormal as most assume. If idiocy was truly exceptional, it would be described in far more detail. What is unusual warrants discussion. What is commonplace needs only be mentioned in passing.
It is the commonplace, undramatic, everyday fool that I am concerned with. I want to know their history. Highly visual representations may have been easier for historians (and pseudo-historians) to write about, but the invisible needs a chance, now.
* The blame for this one belongs almost exclusively to Martin Luther. See: Goodey, C.F. and Tim Stainton. "Intellectual Disability and the Myth of the Changeling Myth." Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences. Vol. 37, 2001.
** I'm trying to vary the metaphors here, but I fear we are all going to be sick of them before the end.
*** Not in the modern sense, but simply that any abnormality requires special attention to ensure the smooth operation of a community.
**** I got tired of the visual metaphors and switched to aural.