A comprehensive history of intellectual disability in the medieval world


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Fools and idiots? Intellectual disability in the Middle Ages.

The Medieval Review 17.06.26
Metzler, Irina. Fools and idiots? Intellectual disability in the Middle Ages. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016. pp. 246. ISBN: 978-0-7190-9636-5 (hardback).
Reviewed by:
Anne Koenig
University of South Florida

Given the great interest over the past few decades in both the history of medieval disability and the history of medieval madness, it is surprising that it has taken so long for a modern scholar to undertake a comprehensive history of intellectual disability in the medieval world. It is not surprising, however, that the scholar who has finally done so is Irina Metzler. Metzler has been on the forefront of the developing field of disability studies in the Middle Ages. Her 2006 Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment during the High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400 was a groundbreaking monograph that offered a comprehensive survey of the medieval discourses on physical impairment. Metzler then turned her attention to teasing out the meanings and experiences of the impaired themselves, publishing in 2013 A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment. Like her first book, this work was ambitious and wide-ranging, covering centuries of developments, multiple geographies, and numerous subfields, from judicial punishment to old age. Metzler newest book, Fools and Idiots? is similarly ambitious in scope and possesses many of the same scholarly strengths of Metzler’s previous projects.

While touted as a cultural history, this synthesizing survey of ideas about intellectual disability (ID) is really more of an intellectual history that traces conceptions of mental deficiency through a variety of medieval discourses, from law codes to literature. Metzler examines the vocabulary of ID, explores topics related to ID and rationality in medical, natural philosophic, and theological literature, discusses the legal definitions of intellectual deficiencies and the ways that cases played out in court systems, and raises the problem of distinguishing between natural and artificial fools in archival records. In pursuing conceptions of intellectual disability wherever they may be found, Metzler, while acknowledging the absurdity of treating « idiocy » as an unchanging phenomenon across time (13), and very much aware that ID is a category that would be unrecognizable to medieval writers (22), still hopes to uncover evidence related to the real conditions and persons who today would fall under modern categories of ID.

Metzler begins with an introductory chapter that engages the modern category of intellectual disability. She works through questions of biological determinism and social construction and begins to untangle the treatments of ID in medieval historiography. Metzler also raises the problems involved in the study of medieval ID, most notably, the scarcity of sources, the difficulty of untangling ID from madness, and the fact that ID itself is a modern and changeable category. But these problems are not ones that Metzler’s work will truly overcome, resulting in an overarching thesis that offers a corrective to historical assumptions about stable and unchanging categories but is so broad as to be largely unsatisfying: that medieval ideas of intellectual disability were not uniform and that ID was « not described as a single state of being, but brought together a range of ideas…which in turn informed social and behavior actions » (23).

Chapter 2 presents an in-depth study of the language of ID. Metzler traces the linguistic developments of terms for mental deficiency in a wide range of languages, from Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Arabic to Middle English, French and German. This linguistic survey is evocative of the changing nature of language itself, but its breadth scarcely allows for the terminology of mental states or intellectual disabilities in any one language to be fully explored. The great worth of this chapter, however, is that it offers a warning to scholars who have uncritically accepted and applied medieval terms and their modern cognates to medieval people, for Metzler convincingly argues that no medieval term maps easily onto modern notions of ID and none of the common terms for « idiot » or « fool » were stable in meaning. Metzler’s linguistic explorations, moreover, allows for one of the few clear diachronic arguments of Metzler’s work: that the meaning of idiota fundamentally shifted by the thirteenth century, from a person who was unlearned to one who lacked intellectual capabilities.

Chapters 3 and 4 delve deeply into intellectual discourses that addressed ID or related issues, from ancient texts to the formative writings of the twelfth and thirteenth-century scholastics. The first of these chapters confronts the problem of the basic lack of medieval medical and scientific writings on intellectual disability by casting a wide net to engage more broadly in how such texts might have understood ID in light of their conceptions of mental illness, psychological processes, and the rational development of the child. Many of Metzler’s interpretations in this chapter are by necessity suppositional, extrapolated from other medieval rationales. She does, however, offer close analyses of several case studies, most notably those of William of Conches and Konrad of Megenberg. Chapter 4 continues Metzler’s discursive explorations as she moves from medical literature towards more philosophic writings. Looking at ideas of the soul, intellect, and even childhood in authors ranging from Aristotle to Aquinas, Metzler convincingly shows that medieval authors were themselves concerned with questions of intellectual ability.

Chapters 5 and 6 then head towards the social and cultural historical questions surrounding disability. In Chapter 5 Metzler looks to law codes, and then law cases, to show that the courts of Europe distinguished between madness and idiocy. While she addresses regional laws as varied as Judaic, Islamic, Old Irish and German, the focus of this chapter is unambiguously on England. Perhaps one of the more interesting findings in this rich chapter is the nature of idiocy as it appears in English court records: as a descriptive term for what could be a temporary state rather than an ontological category. Chapter 6 is perhaps Metzler’s most concerted effort to find the disabled themselves, but it is largely a frustrated effort. This final chapter edges towards the beginnings of a much-needed social history of fools, but is quickly sidetracked by the problem of determining the actual mental state of any individual fool. While archival references to court fools do not truly allow Metzler to parse out the identities of the natural fools from the artificial fools, they provide the space for Metzler’s engaging discussions of the physicality and dependence of fool more generally.


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