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(Bosch, the Ship of Fools)

(Bosch, the Ship of Fools) – medieval disabilities

Were a lot of people disabled in the past?

In the ancient and medieval worlds, many more people were physically and mentally challenged than there are in the United States, or practically anywhere, today. There were no operations to fix club feet, or cleft palates, or heart murmurs. There were no antidepressants or antipsychotics for people who heard voices, or any hospitals for them to go to.

Ancient Egyptian medicine
Early Indian medicine
Doctors in early China

When people broke bones or dislocated shoulders, they often were not set right and healed wrong, so that you lost the use of your arm or leg. When children didn’t get enough milk, they got rickets and their legs would be weak and bent, so they couldn’t walk well. Eye infections, with no antibiotics, often left people blind in one or both eyes. And even if you were only near-sighted, there were no glasses to help you see.

Who invented eyeglasses?

Joan of Arc (painted about fifty years after she was killed)

Joan of Arc (painted about fifty years after she was killed)

How did people treat their friends with disabilities?

People’s attitudes toward physically and mentally challenged people were also very different then. A lot of people thought that some kinds of physical or mental differences brought you closer to the gods.

What is an oracle?
Who was Joan of Arc?
Joan of Arc project

A lot of people thought that blind people, especially blind children, knew what the gods (or what God) wanted. People also thought epileptics were closer to the gods than other people were. People who heard voices, like Joan of Arc, often became important religious leaders. Many challenged people supported their families by prophecy.

Prejudice against people with disabilities

On the other hand, it was different with differences that you could see, like bent legs or club feet. Sometimes people thought these meant that the gods didn’t like you. The Greeks, especially, thought that the gods liked bodies to be perfect.

Infanticide and exposure

Because of this, sometimes people exposed their babies if their bodies weren’t just right, and sometimes people were cruel to these children as they were growing up.

Main people page
Ancient medicine page
Teachers’ guides on people

Bibliography and further reading about challenged people in the ancient world:


More about ancient medicine home