There is no scarcity of information on the life of the common man in the Middle Ages. One can learn how the common man made a living, what he ate, how he married, and how he died. However, the majority of information on the Middle Ages implies that the common man was both physically and mentally normative. Irina Metzler's book, Fools and Idiots: Intellectual Disability in the Middle Ages, pulls away at the at the social fabric of the Middle Ages to reveal the experience of another collective common man—the common man with an intellectual disability. One of Metzler's overarching goals is to explore the existence of intellectual disability in the Middle Ages, and to ponder its influence on medicine, the law, religion, and social norms. Additionally, Metzler seeks to refute the idea that intellectual disabilities are a purely modern occurrence and strives to dispel common misconceptions around intellectual disabilities during this time period. However, while Metzler argues that intellectual disability existed in the Middle Ages, Metzler cautions the reader not to be too quick to compare images of Modern and Medieval disability. Applying a modern understanding of disability to a centuries-old experience can lead to a misinterpretation of the social context.

Fools and Idiots opens the door to a time that has largely been ignored by scholars and medical professionals. The introduction of this book is very meaningful, as it asks the reader to confront her own assumptions about how those with intellectual disabilities may have lived, or died, in the Middle Ages. Metzler begins her discussion of intellectual disability in the Middle Ages by highlighting the gaps in the research of her predecessors, even noting the use of blatant stereotypes in works published a century ago. While previous arguments center on higher mortality rates of children with intellectual disabilities, Metzler points out that disabilities like Down Syndrome and Autism are not disabilities that correlate with juvenile mortality. Furthermore, the preconception that children with intellectual disabilities automatically became public charges is challenged, as poverty affected a multitude of children, regardless of ability (17). The introduction guides the reader into another perspective on intellectual disability, that helps frame the information in the succeeding chapters.

The first half of the book focuses heavily on giving the reader tools to understand the time period and the social norms of the day by examining possible intellectual disability from lingual, medicinal, and philosophical standpoints. Ranging from Latin to Ancient Greek, Metzler parses out how different words in a multitude of cultures would indicate an intellectual disability. While meticulously researched, a linguistic study of how different societies referred to those with intellectual disabilities felt overwhelming, and perhaps, unnecessary. While culturally important, a chapter on the different ways a culture defines the semantics of disability seemed frivolous to the broader goal of the book itself.

The Medieval understanding of the mind and body connection highlighted the idea of the othered body. Those in the Middle Ages believed that one could see intellectual disabilities in expressions of the face or the shape of the head. Therefore, the reader begins to see how the disabled body and mind have had a long history of being objects of a societal gaze. Additionally, Metzler explores Medieval superstitions on what might have caused an intellectual disability, which allows more insight into the social fabric of the time. However, while the use of primary sources allows for a richer layer of detail, those same primary sources often contradict each other as to cause, or cure, of intellectual disability. Therefore, with a multitude of primary sources that have overlapping ideations, the reader is left in a state of cognitive dissonance.

The second half of the book is more engaging, as it gives tangible examples of the lives of people with suspected intellectual disabilities through a social and legal lens. Here, the reader is able to connect the theoretical information that Metzler provided in the first half of the book to individual people and situations. The second half of the book feels more accessible to the actual audience, who may not have a specialized knowledge of the Middle Ages. While this section is well researched, it also allows the author's voice to come through more clearly than in the first half of the book, where the text was dominated by the theories of ancient philosophers and doctors. The second half of the book magnifies the social norms of the Medieval culture and how they affected those with intellectual disabilities.

As one might expect, those with suspected intellectual disabilities usually were confined to the role of the eternal child or the holy innocent. As institutionalization was not a common action, and, as such, those with disabilities were supported by their families or communities (187). Therefore, across multiple cultures, those who were thought to be intellectually disabled were typically exempt from facing the consequences of their actions or spiritual shortcomings (160, 174). In some cultures, if a person committed an injustice, or harmed another person, it was up to the individual's guardian to make amends, usually through monetary means (145, 147). Contrary to popular belief, though, those with potential intellectual disabilities were not always placing financial drain on a family member. As a person with an intellectual disability could not own property, or draw an income from that property, and any inheritance that belonged to him by birthright passed to someone who was deemed more capable—usually a family member. Even though the family member would be financially responsible for the well-being of the individual, it was better than the alternative—the king taking the land, and all its profits, under his own guardianship. If it was proven that a person was an "idiot from birth," meaning that they had not acquired a disability due to occupational hazards or old age, the king was entitled to the property (170). This would mean that the family would have a vested interest in keeping the individual from being declared an "idiot from birth" (170). This portion of the book was particularly fascinating because, through the legal documents, one can trace potential motivations of siblings, parents, and even potential spouses. In both of the aforementioned situations, the person with a disability is still an object that is being acted on by others. Metzler continues to illustrate how a person with a suspected intellectual disability would have been used as an object of fascination, and a sign of wealth as she discusses the use of fools and jesters in the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages are commonly associated with court jesters and fools, but in modern depictions, the fool is usually someone of high intelligence who is acting the part for economic, social, or political gain. However, in an incredibly well-analyzed chapter, Metzler notes that a shift away from using normative individuals as fools or jesters to using those with suspected intellectual disabilities was a sign of wealth and status (190). Prior to using people with intellectual disabilities as a means of entertainment, fools and jesters were usually tasked with other jobs, like delivering messages or taking care of animals. However, because these other tasks required a certain level of mental acuity, those with intellectual disabilities were confined to the role of fool and had no other responsibility. In many cases, caregivers or "keepers" would be employed to look after the jester with an intellectual disability (194). Metzler's discussion of "artificial" and "natural" fools shows how those in the later Middle ages were seeking objects that they could use as signifiers of their wealth as opposed for their practicality. For if one could afford to employ a person to look after a "natural" fool and to hire others to do the jobs that were typically reserved for an "artificial fool," this in itself was an outward statement of status and economic stability. Again, though, the person with the intellectual disability is not being valued for his personhood, but rather being objectified for what he represents. Metzler notes in this chapter that "natural" fools were viewed as pets, objects of comfort and control rather than people with feelings and needs (190). Here, too, we are able to see more clearly what life looked like for those with intellectual disabilities.

In her final chapter, Metzler presents the fact that, refreshingly, the person with an intellectual disability was not always defined by his disability, but was only viewed as disabled in certain situations. Unlike 21st century society, where the Medical Model of disability has forced an often life-long label on a person with a disability, the Middle Ages did not have such a system. A person with a suspected intellectual disability may have only been viewed as such in certain situations, but was able to "pass" as normative in others (230). The absence of a rigid system by which people were defined according to their mental ability changes the way the reader may view the Middle Ages. While the reader may finish the book with more questions than answers, about the time period and the treatment of people with intellectual disabilities, it is a superbly researched addition to a largely unexplored field.

Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2020 Katherine E. Smith

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)