See picture and description of Battle of Carnival.
It is interesting to note that in the Middle Ages, the "typical" included human activity consistent with many conditions that are today classified as anomalous. According to historical researchers, so many individuals lived in poverty and squalor that they were the rule rather than the exception. Thus exposure to severe living conditions rendered typical in the middle ages what might be considered as atypical today. It was not unusual to see extreme variation in physiological condition, mobility and sensation (not seeing, not hearing and so forth) in poor communities.
See picture and description of the plague stricken.
Further, given the limited knowledge about disease and nutrition, even the wealthy experienced illness and activity limitations considered preventable today.
Scholars have noted the existence of various competing explanations for visible atypical activity. Among them were both religious, spiritual explanations and explanations of demonology (Braddock, 2001). Listen to Giacomuccio Fatteboni text/audio below. Reflecting the disparate views of the times, some medieval documents show that "cripples" were viewed as part of a group that included "criminals, the sick, and paupers." However, other works make the distinction between the treatable sick and the untreatable "lepers, lame, one-armed and blind" (Braddock, 2001). The small likelihood of survival for those who were unable to thrive at birth eliminated consideration of birth-based atypical activity from the literature or history of medieval times. Listen to this text about Giacomuccio Fatteboni.
In medieval times, individuals who behaved, communicated or expressed thoughts differently from others were regarded as evil or as demons. This religious explanation for activity that today is classified as mental illness was not surprising, given the dominance of the Catholic Church in the western world at the time. In contrast, simplicity in cognitive activity that today would be regarded as mental retardation was explained as the possession of divine inspiration, or a blessing given by God (Winzer, 1997). Listen to this explanation of the influence of religion in the Middle Ages:
The Influence of Religion
See picture of the Fool
While Christian beliefs about personal responsibility for atypicality resulted in condemnation of ones character, the Catholic church took the opportunity to place atypical individuals as the object of charity through the addition of a social responsibility explanation for atypical conditions. Thus, atypical conditions, while explained by divine punishment, provided the community with opportunity for charity and thus were also socially purposive. While still considered as monstrous, individuals who were anomalous in appearance or activity were purportedly placed on earth to engender charity and tolerance in the masses.
See picture of the Madonna of the Crippled
However, for believers in demonology, atypical thinking, expression and behavior most often evoked fear, rejection and persecution.
Due to the variety of explanations for the occurrences of diversity in activity and appearance, treatment and community responses were variable. Of particular note was the growth of institutional and charity approaches (Winzer, 1997). It was not unusual to find members of the clergy involved with providing medical treatment, and thus hospitals were often located near monasteries (Castiglioni, 1941). In addition, people who could not see or who thought atypically, among other human differences, were often the objects of faith-healing, a practice which provided concrete evidence of God's love, presence and power.
See picture of Healing the Crippled.
Charity in the form of service and almsgiving exonerated the giver in the eyes of God, once again providing a purposive explanation for the extremes of human difference. Particularly through the work of St. Francis of Assisi, the suffering of the poor and sick (particularly lepers) glorified the recipients of care, as well those providing care (Stiker, 1999).
Braddock and Parish (Braddock, 2001) refer to evidence of some town support for people with mental disabilities. However, citing the extreme poverty of the population at large, Braddock and Parish assert that families would not have been able to provide long-term supports and so these individuals ultimately turned to begging for survival.
See picture of beggars.
This phenomenon is reflected in the art work of the times, in which beggars are depicted as individuals who see and walk atypically.
Economy in the Middle Ages
Not all differences were met with charity however.
See picture of Last Judgment.
In geographic areas where belief in demonology prevailed, those who behaved in ways that were considered "mad" were feared and persecuted as witches. Increasing social disorder was in part attributed to such individuals and their murders therefore served as a rallying point for the masses. Listen to this description of social chaos in the Middle Ages:
Social Chaos in the Middle Ages
In summary, the Middle Ages brought some important changes in the way that atypical human activity was conceptualized, explained and treated. Due to the hegemony of the church, explanations and purposes for human anomaly were anchored in religion and morality.
See picture of Treating the Poor.