BMCR 2016.11.51

Infirmity in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Social and Cultural Approaches to Health, Weakness and Care

, , , Infirmity in Antiquity and the Middle Ages: Social and Cultural Approaches to Health, Weakness and Care. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015. xiii, 319. ISBN 9781472438348. $134.95.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the discipline of Classics has seen a deluge of scholarship taking a leaf out of the book of the discipline of Disability Studies and focusing on aspects of impairment and disability in the ancient world. 1 While the remit and the terminology utilised with regard to impairment, disability, deformity, disfigurement, etc. has varied somewhat according to author, certain subjects, issues and individuals have a tendency to recur. The volume under review takes a slightly different approach, casting its net far wider than has so far been typical by focusing on infirmity rather than impairment, which means that in addition to mental and physical problems, it also discusses political, social and spiritual ones at specific moments and locations in time over the course of almost two thousand years. It had its origins in the conference Passages from Antiquity to the Middle Ages V: Infirmitas: Social Approaches to Cure, Caring and Health held at the University of Tampere in 2012. The fifteen papers, of which seven focus on the ancient world (one Greek, six Roman) and nine on the medieval, are divided into three sections: Defining Infirmity and Disability, Societal and Cultural Infirmitas, and Infirmity, Healing and Community.

The editors’ ‘Introduction’ seeks to explain and justify their approach while situating their work within the context of scholarship on marginalised groups in antiquity and the Middle Ages. In it, they take issue with the use of terms such as ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’ on the grounds that they are modern conceptions, preferring instead ‘infirmity’ due to its breadth and fluidity. Thus the term ‘infirmity’, originating from the Latin infirmitas, is referred to throughout, although it is of questionable relevance to at least one chapter (Dasen’s, on short stature in Classical Athens).

The first section (Defining Infirmity and Disability) opens with Mary Harlow and Ray Laurence’s ‘Age, Agency and Disability: Suetonius and the Emperors of the First Century CE’, which draws on the authors’ previous research into the ancient Roman life cycle but focuses on the ways in which Suetonius presented age, whether too young or too old, as disabling the early Roman emperors, before offering an intriguing new interpretation of the emperor Claudius, who has been much discussed in studies of disability in the Roman world. Véronique Dasen’s ‘ Infirmitas or Not? Short-statured Persons in Ancient Greece’ likewise draws on the author’s earlier work into dwarfism in antiquity and argues that dwarves played an important role in Athenian social and religious life, standing between the human and divine worlds. Bianca Frohne’s ‘Performing Dis/ability? Constructions of ‘Infirmity’ in Late Medieval and Early Modern Life Writing’ observes a pattern in this genre and presents it by using the autobiographies of Johann von Soest and Gottfried von Berlichingen as case studies. She demonstrates that in these autobiographies, the writers’ infirmities are overcome and they both achieve greatness, the result of which is that their infirmities subsequently disappear from the narrative and seem to play no further part in their social identities. Jenni Kuuliala’s ‘Nobility, Community and Physical Impairment in Later Medieval Canonization Processes’ highlights the role that one’s position in the social hierarchy played in how one’s body was viewed, with members of the social elite being held to different and higher standards than the peasantry. She argues that this accounts for differences in how their miraculous healings were recorded, but does, however, admit that since recorded instances of members of the nobility experiencing infirmities are relatively rare, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions. Donatella Puliga’s ‘Towards a Glossary of Depression and Psychological Distress in Ancient Roman Culture’ comes the closest to offering some sort of definition in her discussion of the Latin term veternus, a sort of ‘death in life’ that is typical of old age but also occurs when one experiences existential anxiety.

The second section (Societal and Cultural Infirmitas) opens with two chapters that explore the phenomenon of stigmata, albeit from almost diametrically opposed perspectives. Miikka Tamminen’s ‘The Crusader’s Stigmata: True Crusading and the Wounds of Christ in the Crusade Ideology of the Thirteenth Century’ argues that crusaders were actively encouraged to put themselves in Christ’s position and so adopted stigmata and related disfigurements to demonstrate their piety. This enabled them to develop a special relationship with Him and so made physical infirmity a desirable rather than undesirable condition. Gábor Klaniczay’s ‘Illness, Self-inflicted Body Pain and Supernatural Stigmata: three Ways of Identification with the Suffering Body of Christ’ utilises more recent and consequently better recorded cases of stigmata as a means of exploring the relationship between chronic physical infirmity and the subsequent development of stigmata, suggesting that illnesses can be heavily invested with religious significance. Reima Välimäki’s ‘Imagery of Disease, Poison and Healing in the Late Fourteenth-century Polemics against Waldensian Heresy’ surveys the metaphors used in works of literature that recount heresy and discusses why particular authors use certain metaphors. He argues that authors purposely develop specific rhetorical strategies when dealing with individual outbreaks of heresy. Katariina Mustakallio and Elina Pyy’s ‘ Infirmitas Romana and its Cure – Livy’s History Therapy in the Ad urbe condita ’ likewise discusses the way in which particular circumstances are recounted in a work of literature using the metaphor of sickness, treatment and cure.

The third section (Infirmity, Healing and Community) opens with Svetlana Hautala’s survey ‘From Mithridatium to Potio Sancti Pauli : The Idea of a Medicine from Antiquity to the Middle Ages’, which focuses on pharmaceutical knowledge and the ways in which this has been applied over time. Then follow two chapters that explore different aspects of bathing in the Roman period. Alison Griffith’s ‘Alternative Medicine in Pre-Roman and Republican Italy: Sacred Springs, Curative Baths and ‘Votive Religion’’ suggests that despite the Romans acknowledging the centrality of the role of water in healing, bathhouses were devoid of religious activity. Ria Berg’s ‘Bathing the Infirm: Water Basins in Roman Iconography and Household Contexts’ investigates the central role that the seemingly humble basin could have played in domestic medical practice. Susanna Niiranen’s ‘Sexual Incapacity in Medieval Materia Medica ’ argues that there was no single attitude towards sexuality in the medieval period and moreover sexuality was not isolated but rather related and connected to all other aspects of life before describing a wide range of possible treatments for sexual problems. Jonas Van Mulder’s ‘Miracles and the Body Social: Infirmi in the Middle Dutch Miracle Collection of Our Lady of Amersfoort’ argues that miracles were deeply embedded in society and served as a means of offering instruction and conveying appropriate attitudes to the extent that they functioned as a sort of social glue. Christian Krötzl’s ‘Saints, Healing and Communities in the Later Middle Ages: On Roles and Perceptions’ offers a succinct general summary of healing practitioners and their practices in the literature of this period.

Finally, there is an extensive bibliography containing sections on manuscript sources, primary sources, scholarship and online resources, and a serviceable index.

As stated at the outset of this review, the volume casts a deliberately wide net and in the process reveals how important context is when considering impairment and disability in the past. It also offers an entry point into the diversity of foreign language scholarship on impairment and disability in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Due to the breadth of chronological and geographical coverage, very few of the individual chapters explicitly and deliberately complement each other. They use diverse methodologies and bodies of evidence, and are not really arranged in a way that lends itself to utilising their contents in conjunction with each other. Consequently, it is the type of volume that one might dip into for one paper while dismissing the rest. Conversely, this means it has a potentially wide appeal to historians from a range of periods and scholars from a range of academic disciplines beyond history. It also offers an opportunity for classicists and historians to build on the important work so recently done, turn their attention in different directions and start to think about the possibility and potential of studying impairment and disability in the past in alternative ways.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Infirmitas in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Kuuliala, Mustakallio and Krötzl
Part I Defining Infirmity and Disability
Age, agency and disability: Suetonius and the emperors of the 1st century CE, Harlow and Laurence
Infirmitas or not? Short-statured persons in ancient Greece, Dasen
Performing dis/ability? Constructions of ‘infirmity’ in late medieval and early modern life writing, Frohne
Nobility, community and physical impairment in later medieval canonization processes, Kuuliala
Towards a glossary of depression and psychological distress in ancient Roman culture, Puliga
Part II Societal and Cultural Infirmitas
The crusader’s stigmata: true crusading and the wounds of Christ in the crusade ideology of the 13th century, Tamminen
Illness, self-inflicted body pain and supernatural stigmata: three ways of identification with the suffering body of Christ, Klaniczay
Imagery of disease, poison and healing in the late 14th-century polemics against Waldensian heresy, Välimäki
Infirmitas Romana and its cure – Livy’s history therapy in the Ab urbe condita, Mustakallio and Pyy
Part III Infirmity, Healing and Community
From Mithridatium to Potio sancti Pauli: the idea of a medicine from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Hautala
Alternative medicine in pre-Roman and republican Italy: sacred springs, curative baths and ‘votive religion’, Griffith
Bathing the infirm: water basins in Roman iconography and household contexts, Berg
Sexual incapacity in medieval materia medica, Niiranen
Miracles and the body social: Infirmi in the middle Dutch miracle collection of Our Lady of Amersfoort, Van Mulder
Saints, healing and communities in the later Middle Ages: on roles and perceptions, Krötzl


1. R. Garland, The Eye of the Beholder. Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World (first published 1995 and reviewed in BMCR 97.9.04; reissued 2010, reviewed in BMCR 2011.04.47); M. L. Rose, The Staff of Oedipus. Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece (first published 2003, reissued 2013); R. Breitwieser (ed.), Behinderungen und Beeinträchtigungen/Disability and Impairment in Antiquity (2012); C. Laes, C. F. Goodey and M. L. Rose (eds.), Disabilities in Roman Antiquity. Disparate Bodies a Capite ad Calcem (2013), reviewed BMCR 2014.04.20; C. Laes, Bepurkt? Gehandicapten in het Romeinse rijk (2014); C. Laes (ed.) Disability in Antiquity (2016). A useful resource is the Disability History and the Ancient World research network, which includes a comprehensive and regularly updated subject bibliography, available at Disability History and the Ancient World.