Disability in the Middle Ages and other projects

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Disability in the Middle Ages – Work in progress


I am in the process of researching disabilities in the Middle Ages of Western Europe for the following groups: Deaf/deaf/hard of hearing, blind, and the physically handicapped.  This will be a four phase research projection. The following phases are as follows – Phase One – Deaf and Hard of Hearing; Phase Two – Blind; Phase Three – Cripple/Physically Handicapped; Phase Four – Disability from War and Crime.  I will be concentrating my efforts on primary resources and supplement it with peer-reviewed secondary sources. Help needed – Anyone working in academic willing to share their library log on so I access the research database since ILL is down due to Covid? I am a former librarian so passwords are safe with me.

Deaf/Hard of Hearing

The first phase of my research will be on the Deaf and hard of hearing in the Middles Ages. Much of the time we do not have memoirs from people who are Deaf or hard of hearing but luckily we are blessed with one – Teresa de Cartegena. To get dispensation from the Pope to be an abbess because she was deaf (this is lower case because she was not deaf by birth) is a remarkable feat. She wrote two treatises – Grove of the Infirm and Wonder at the Works of God.  Both describe her experience being deaf and the isolation she felt.

There are a number of individuals attributed to teaching sign language to those in the cloister and the laity. Scholastica, an abbess (1451-1504) is attributed as teacher of sign language to the laity. However, the person who was given the label of “teacher of the deaf” was Pedro Ponce de Leon (1508-1584). 

The Cistercians have a long history of sign language as part of their order since it is a silent order. The earliest text on sign language is the Monasteriales Indicia dating to the time of King Edgar (959-975) in England, which was result of the revision to Benedictine rules of order around that time.

Society and Legal Rights

Typically those individuals who were Deaf were not admitted into the cloister. The Rule stated that you had to be of sound mind and body. In special cases, dispensation would have be sought for the Deaf/deaf.  Ironically the monastic community were the pioneers in the field of sign language and teaching the laity. Sign language was a way of life for the cloister, especially for those members of silent orders.

In modern society we firmly believe that human life has value and basic inalienable legal rights. However, in the Middle Ages your voice made you fully human/person. If you couldn’t speak for yourself, you would not have the most basic rights allowed in during this time. A designated spokesperson was acceptable, but imagine not knowing if that person would represent you and your own best interests.

Language / Communication

This portion of the research will take a bit longer since I want to explore as much as possible the basic signs used in the cloister, how it was adapted to everyday life for the laity, and how it evolved into our modern American Sign Language.


Devotional Objects – Prayer Beads and Psalter


As part of my entry into Aquaterra’s Arts and Sciences Championship in November 2019, I selected to enter pater nosters/prayer beads and a small psalter. While the pater nosters were not complicated to make they were expensive due to the cost of the beads that were typically used during the Middle Ages. I constructed a small psalter. I am an early learner to calligraphy. I had experienced book binding as part of my professional training as a librarian/archivist.

The Arnolfini Portrait – Jan Van Eyk National Gallery of London


The type of prayer book or book of hours is also known as a psalter. A psalter is composed of psalms. It could have the most common psalms from the Bible, or all 150 psalms. A psalter could be very simple or very elaborate — such as the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Psalters could contain specific prayers, Bible passages, and writings about the saints.

Psalters that contained psalms were divided into groups, with each group beginning with a decorated initial. The first group was comprised of Psalms 1, 51, and 101. The second group collected Psalms 1, 41, 72, 89, and 106. The third grouping of Psalms were 1, 26, 38, 52, 68, 80, 97, and 109. These groupings followed the Divine Office for each day of the week for the church laity.

Detail from Arnolfini Portrait of a hung pater noster – Jan Van Eyck, National Gallery of London

Pater noster (see detail of pater noster in The Arnolfini Protrait) and rosary is used interchangeably in most of the academic circles even though they have slightly different connotations. Pater noster is actual two Latin words that mean “Our Father”. This one of the primary prayers recited by Christians during their devotional practices. The rosary didn’t become a common word related to an actually artifact until the 16th century. Rosary was also used for a garden that primarily grew roses and later evolved to imply a wreath of roses. The Virgin Mary is associated with roses and her visitations to medieval Christians.

The beads also have a significant definition that compliment pater nosters and rosaries. The old English word gebed from the Germanic word means prayer. Prayers are the companion aspect to the pater noster and its owner. The pater noster is also known as the “poor man’s psalter”. (Click the images below to see larger verions.)

Arrow Whistles/Whistling Arrows


Whistling arrows and arrow whistles were constructed for many centuries by several Asian and Middle Eastern culture for the purpose of sending messages, signaling troops, wounding foes, marking targets during ceremonies, and distracting prey during hunting excursions. Help needed – seeking a safe secure shop location where I can store and set up my lathe to start making whistles again.


“[A] whistling arrow has a sharp point and can be a lethal projectile. An arrow whistle has a whistle but no sharp point. The whistle element of a whistling arrow can have three, four or even five apertures, and, constrained by the presence of a sharp post, the whistling sounding box is often small. A arrow whistle, on the other and, is often larger with more holes and a border profile head-on. They can be made of bronze, iron, wood, bone, horn and with a woodier sound their calling power is clearer than that of whistling arrows”

Liao Wanzhen, “Whistling arrows and arrow whistles”, trans. Stephen Selby, Asian Traditional Archery Research network, (1999), 2.

This project was one of my first projects in the SCA and the first entry into any sort of competition. I fell in love with Turkish whistles due to their sheer beauty. Manchester Museum’s archery collection from Ingo Simon and the two arrows he created challenged me to try my hand at it. At the time of my construction, no one in the world had achieved any success in getting any arrows to whistle. I was fortunate enough to spend a day in the Grayson Archery Collection in the Museum of Anthropology at University of Missouri examining arrow whistles and whistling arrows. I consider myself fortunate to have met Dr. Grayson who gifted me with a feather from his own collection. Fast forward 20 years, many archers are successfully recreating them. I was very excited to see that an archer had created, tested and achieved excellent results with the elusive and little-known bouncing arrow. Arrow technology is an amazing field.

Tools and Construction

For all three whistles, I used a lathe and chisels to shape the whistle. The Japanese dog whistle is steamed cherry wood. The Chinese and Turkish whistles are Asian water buffalo horn. The Japanese whistle interior was hollowed out with wood-carving chisels. However the Chinese and Turkish whistles from horn proved to be more challenging. When heated, horn is very odoriferous, not to mention very hard. I found soaking the horn made it less smelly and easier to turn. Hollowing out the whistle required the use of a Dremel© tool, since I had precious little amount of time before my entry into the championship. I used a drill to provide the initial cut for the sound holes. After that I continued shaping the holes with a series of files and dental picks. The arrow shafts were purchases from Northwest Archery. The Japanese dog whistle is a steamed bamboo shaft with a horn nock. For the Turkish and the Chinese arrow whistles, I created the nocks.

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15 Replies to “Disability in the Middle Ages and other projects”

  1. Very interesting, esp. disability research. I’m looking forward to seeing where it leads you.

  2. I can’t wait to see where your disability research takes you. I loved hearing that they used sign language so far back – it seems obvious but never occurred to me. I’m especially interested in how languages develop and evolve so am really excited to see what you learn. I’m also glad to hear about Teresa de Cartegena and plan to read those treatises.

    I also enjoyed your work on pater nosters and psalters. Has your research explained why a pater noster was called a “poor man’s psalter”? My experience with pater nosters (rosaries) is as a focus object for saying repetitive prayers. I also appreciated your explanation of a simple psalter consisting of Psalms necessary for the Divine Office. I’m trying to picture how a pater noster would be used in the Divine Office.

    Cool research, thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you very much for the comment. My research paper does bring up the “Poor Man’s Psalter” The pater noster is the substitute for the laity for the Divine Office. If you could read, you could recite or read the psalms with special prayers. However if you could not read you would recite your 50 to 150 Ave Maries.

  3. Intriguing! I am also somewhat hard of hearing and find your research into disabilities fascinating. As others have mentioned, I am curious what other occupations the disabled may have found the occasional door to. I’m sure it wasn’t often, but who knows 🙂 Whistling arrows and arrow whistles are also cool!

    1. I am hard of hearing (deaf in one ear) as well and have been since I was one years old so I am drawn to the the Deaf of the Middle Ages. I don’t have sign language skills because I was of a generation where sign language was not discussed as an option. I am interested where this road takes me in the research.

  4. When I visited museums or read books on medieval life, I came to see that we know disabled people were there, but had not much representation in the way museums and books are arranged. How did people with a disability challenge live day to day? When I saw a costume display in London a few years ago and saw an incredibly detailed embroidered Tudor woman’s waistcoat covered solid in a motif of flowers and vines done with tiny, tiny stitches, I wondered if doing micro-stitched embroidery was one of the employments that was available to people with the type of vision where they can see acutely up close, while their vision of the streets or countryside is just a blur. Your research is thought-provoking. Thank you.

    1. I believe the disabled lived just as we do today however with limited resources, technological advances and education. The images that we see of the disabled are primarily those of missing limbs/body parts and the blind in manuscripts or paintings. I cannot say if a person was apprenticed to a guild as a form of employment. Guild law like monastic law could be restrictive. The nice thing about guilds many of them were prohibited form working before dawn and after dusk and any breaking of that rule could be met with stiff fines and penalties. Monasteries were prohibited by the rule to allow those not of sound mind/body of taking holy orders and because of this you can see on the records oblates and a record of their physical or mental challenges.

  5. Great research! I am curious what sort of medical treatments there were for some of these. I know I have read a few… Might give another facet of Disability in period.

    I would love to hear the whistling arrows in person. I bet they would have an effect of the psyche of the enemy too!

    1. Medical treatment was different for different cases. There is many accounts that Medieval society relied upon the stories from the Bible and the intercession of Saints for healing. There are a lot of prosthetic and aids for those that are missing limbs or crippled in some form or another. There were also “hospital” facilities where the patient would live with a care taker (family member/friend) until they either died or were rehabilitate enough to return home. What I do find interesting as that some people who were mutilated through no fault of their own could petition the courts for a “Certification of Mutilation” to state that their mutilation was a result of an accident rather than a crime. There is precious little writing from contemporaries on the issue. What is available is stories or accounts from people who became disabled due to aging.

  6. What fascinating research on disability and such amazing work on that book! Both for its own sake, but also because it marries up quite nicely with some of what I’m doing, I’d love to stay on top of your continued work. Do you have a website?

    The whistling arrows is so cool, too! I love how broad your display is 🙂

    1. The disability research is beginning but as a former librarian I am sometimes victim to the curse of book ADHD 😛 I would like create a small book of the Song of Roland because it is my favorite story. I don’t have a website anymore. I didn’t think any would be interested in my crazy projects.

      1. I am SO VERY interested in what you are doing. You have always been an awesome person, and you are now researching something I am incredibly passionate about and I can’t wait to see more of what you do! <3

        1. Hey Darlin’! I was hoping you would be presenting but life has thrown you some snaffu’s and some joys. I hope you are enjoying your new digs! I thought I would let you know via here that Bede’s Ecclesiastical Histories has number of references regarding pregnancies since it was viewed (and some what today) as a disability. Obviously it isn’t Italian but since Bede was commissioned to write the history he might have some sort of slate that you might be able to use on your research endeavors. I wish I could throw off this librarian helpful gene I have after leaving the profession. Dang for me, good for you 🙂 Hugs. ~k1

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