When in 1606 Justinian Mörder called forward his neighbours to describe the gravity of his late-wife's long-term disease in an inheritance case, the female neighbours uniformly described the epileptic Maria Magdalena as a hard-working, laborious individual who had overseen her husband's household as well as might be expected from any good housewife. This description seems surprising when it is considered that the neighbours all whole-heartedly agreed with the widower's claim that his wife had not mentioned a child as main heir for her considerable fortune in her will because she expected to die childless due to the "innate, dangerous and deadly disease" she had suffered from. At least four female neighbours described how they had attended to Maria Magdalena during one of her many seizures which they described as so violent that they often feared she would "die under their hands" during one of those fits (Gebrüder Friedrich und Arminius Rüttel, 1606). In contrast, Jost Grebe from Malsfeld, afflicted with the same condition, stressed in his petition for admission into the Hessian poor hospital Haina over one hundred years later that it was his severe case of epilepsy that had rendered him unable to work in his former profession and explained that he had gained his living as a servant until "I became so strongly afflicted with epilepsy, that everyone loathes me, so that [I] don't longer know where to find shelter much less how to gain a living" (Grebe, 1753, 11 June).

While both cases describe similar afflictions, the description of the effect on the afflicted individual's (working) life and their ability to work could not be more different. Whereas Maria Magdalena Mörder was described as a laborious and good housewife who led a life according to social convention despite her severe and frequent fits, Jost Grebe stressed in his petition how his frequent epileptic fits had rendered him a helpless outcast, unable to gain a living. The difference between these two accounts seems not so much rooted in the nature of their affliction but in the gender and social status of the afflicted: Maria Magdalena was a well-situated, wealthy housewife of a lawyer, overseeing her husband's household with the help of a maid, while Jost was the orphaned son of a soldier who had lived in poverty before he could earn his living as a servant and now was unable to provide for himself again due to his epilepsy. Comparing similar biographical descriptions of invalid and impaired individuals in German language ego-documents (e.g. petitions, courts records, diaries, letters) created between 1600 and 1800 reveals that the in/ability to work features very differently in the life narratives of impaired and chronically ill individuals depending on their social status, gender, degree of impairment, and line of work. The same illnesses and impairments were not necessarily seen as disabling depending on whose life-story was told by whom and under which circumstances.

The goals of this article are, first, to unearth the ways in which assumptions, narratives and expectations about working abilities were formed in contemporary discourses and how these social expectations featured and were answered in biographical accounts telling the life stories of impaired individuals. Second, the article aims to disentangle the contexts in which tropes about dis/ability and the in/ability to work were formed and became socially acceptable. For this purpose, the article compares how the ability to work was discussed in early modern Germany between 1600 and 1800 in the discourses used in the context of poor relief as well as in biographical narratives of impaired individuals.

The article engages with the historiography of systems of early modern poor relief and their mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, as well as the quite recently established field of the history of disability in pre-modernity (Turner, 2012, Frohne 2014, Schmidt 2013). The article draws upon evidence found in the context of the restructuration of poor relief in the German territories from the fifteenth century to the seventeenth, which had at its core a new distinction of worthiness for charity directly linked to failing working abilities. The first part of the article discusses ideas around in/abilities to work formed in contemporary discursive literature (treatises) and poor relief policies (poor ordinances). The second section is based on petitions for hospital admission submitted between 1600 and 1800 in the landgraviate of Hessen-Kassel and the city of Würzburg and analyses how petitioners incorporated ideas about disabled poor to tell their life stories. The third part focusses on different forms of work impaired individuals were expected to perform in the poor relief system. The last section is based on a rather eclectic set of German language personal testimonials in diaries, court records and letters between 1600 and 1800 to compare the language of the petitions with descriptions of working capabilities in biographical accounts of impaired people formed outside the context of poor relief. All of these source materials come with their own set of agendas, problems and contexts in which they and their narratives were created, which will be discussed in turn throughout the article.

Poor Relief and a developing concept of dis/ability

In the late Middle Ages, a discursive link was formed in public policy between poor relief and the in/ability to work. Contemporary public discourses on poverty called for an exclusion of the abled-bodied from poor relief while at the same time stressing the worthiness of public care for those 'disabled" from gaining their living. While charity towards the poor was widely encouraged as Christian duty throughout the Middle Ages, the impoverishment of ever larger parts of society sparked a shift in poverty discourses in Christian charitable doctrines. From around the twelfth century, theological doctrines focussed their discussions of charity on the in/ability of the individual recipient to help themselves out of poverty and subsequently distinguished between those poor who deserved Christian charity and those who did not. The doctrines argued that the able-bodied poor were in general not deserving of Christian charity or the support of the community because they were able to undertake manual labour and should earn their living through work rather than exploiting their fellow Christians' charitability. Good Christians should focus their charity towards those poor who were not able to earn their living through no fault of their own (Metzler, 2013, p. 89). While these doctrines were guidelines for good Christian behaviour that urged the Christian community to take account of an individual's worthiness before donating money, they were hardly enforced (Wagner, 2006, pp. 24-5).

This changed at the end of the fourteenth century, when the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor found its way first into municipal policies to control who was allowed to ask for and receive alms within city borders. To this purpose, city magistrates granted begging allowances to the local poor – townsmen or those who could prove they were born or had lived and worked for a substantial number of years in the town – who could prove their eligibility to receive alms. Everyone caught begging for or receiving alms without such allowances was criminalised and expelled from the city (Jütte, 2004, pp. 78-9; Schmidt, 2006, pp. 64-5). The eligibility for a begging allowance was based on several factors of which one's inability to work was the most important, followed by social and financial status. The begging ordinance of Nuremberg from 1478, for example, decreed that everyone applying for a begging allowance had to disclose "their social status, state of bodily constitution, marital status, number of children, to determine whether they were reliant on charity by others or not" (my translation, cited in German in Baader, 1861, p. 317). Local authorities explained the necessity of these policies as a protective measure to ensure that the most vulnerable poor would be sufficiently looked after and would not need to compete with undeserving, able-bodied poor for limited resources from their fellow citizens. During the reformation, Protestant reformers such as Johannes Geiler von Kaiserberg and Martin Luther employed similar arguments to call for a complete restructuring and even tighter control of charity and welfare in favour of the local deserving poor. Begging and thus acts of individual charity were to be abolished and outlawed in favour of a centralised charity system based on communal endowments and alms collected by the community that were to be administered centrally by local authorities (Wagner, 2006, p. 22; Jütte, 2004, p. 78-9).

In this discourse on the restructuring of poor relief in the German territories, the in/ability to make a living due to illness or impairment played a major factor in the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor. The reformer Wenzel Link, for example, wrote in a memorandum concerning "work and begging" published in 1523, that charity towards those poor who were not able to earn their own livelihood due to illness or impairment should not be considered begging but necessary Christian aid. He stressed the community's duty to care for those local infirm poor who could not rely on the financial support of their families and relatives:

their community owes to them [those unable to subsist themselves] and is obligated, not only to support them patiently in their infirmities, but also to help their recovery according to their poverty. It is the same as if one limb of the body is sick and cannot perform its service to the advantage of all others, so all others have to help the invalid, thereby to regain their strength or at least not to become fully deprived (my translation, originally in German, Link, 1523).

Most German poor laws and ordinances passed around and after the 1530s likewise singled out the domestic infirm poor explicitly as one group of the deserving poor. In the restructuring of the poor relief system in the landgraviate of Hessen-Kassel, for example, the ordinance for the common chest from 1530 stated that the parish priests and masters of the chest should "visit the towns, hamlets and villages and help to identify, where poor people lived, who were not able to subsist themselves due to their old age or illness, so they could be given a fair amount from the chest every week" (my translation, cited originally in German in Sehling, 1965, p. 69).

In a memorandum to the guilds in 1531, the guard of the common chest in Straßburg, Lukas Hackfurt, categorised the deserving poor in Straßburg as follows:

those who are blind, lame, incapacitated due to their age but not bound to the bed, those who are cursed with defects and the falling sickness, those lying in childbed, those who are not able to provide for themselves through their work or craft and those who have so many children, that they cannot provide for them with their work; also those discharged from the hospital but who are still too feeble to work fully. (my translation, cited in German in Winckelmann, 1922, p. 141).

Although the terms "disability" and "disabled" were not explicitly used in these poor relief ordinances, a collective concept was formed by local authorities for all those who were deemed incapable or too impaired to earn enough for their livelihood. Impairments and chronic illness in this context were seen as one of the most important (although not sole) disabling factors that led to involuntary and blameless impoverishment (as opposed to voluntary religious or self-inflicted poverty). The deserving poor, who were deemed entitled to the solidarity and charity of the community, were individuals whose impairments meant they were unable to earn a living, and who were at the same time poor and could not rely on the financial support and physical care of their family.

Although poor ordinances clearly defined poor impaired people as eligible for charity, not all impaired individuals were eligible for all forms of support that were offered by authorities. Turner (2012) has observed for early modern English poor laws that "impairment was a matter of degree, and throughout the early modern period people with disabilities – even the elderly and those with congenital impairments – were expected to work as long as possible" (p. 127). This was equally true for the early modern German poor relief system.

After the reformation, poor relief was organised locally and institutional help could differ widely in German territories. Cities were usually wealthier and had better funds for charity than rural communities. They usually maintained several charitable institutions catering for different needs and levels of support, such as financial aid for medical treatments, therapeutic appliances and cost of living, up to full-time in-patient care in a hospital. The poor ordinance of Würzburg, for example, distinguished between three different degrees of support:

  1. Financial aid for medical visitations and cures for the curable (heilbar), that is those with disabling conditions who might still be cured from their affliction with the right treatment;
  2. Financial support for 'ambulant impaired', meaning those unable to support themselves financially but still largely able to take care of themselves supported by their relatives;
  3. long-term in-patient care in hospitals for those heavily dependent on the physical support from others but who had no one to provide this support at home. (Almosenordnung, 1533)

Similar distinctions between levels of support can be found in nearly every larger German city with an organised charity system up until the nineteenth century.

Petitioning for help: Biographies of the disabled poor

The re-structuring of charity overseen by local authorities such as city magistrates or princes changed the way charity was asked for and received profoundly. Claimants now had to petition their local authority for charitable aid either in person or in writing. While the numerous verbal petitions that were commonplace in the early modern period are lost to us, written petitions for poor relief or hospital admission reveal a wealth of biographical information (professions, age, medical history) about the disabled poor that are often hard to find in such detail in other sources.

Due to their very specific goals – to demonstrate eligibility for charity – and the fact that petitions were rarely written by petitioners themselves but with the help of professional scribes, petitions have previously been criticized as "fiction in the archives.". Historians have debated whether such sources provide a unique voice of the poor at all or if rather they present a narrative constructed by the scribes who knew what the authorities wanted to hear (see the discussion of petitions e.g. in Bräuer, 2001 pp.294-303; Ulbricht, 1996, pp. 149-74; Healey, 2014, pp. 87-97). The call for caution is valid. The life narratives presented in these petitions must be read and interpreted carefully in the context of their origin. They do not tell us how disabled petitioners felt about their physical conditions, the course their life had taken so far or how they felt about petitioning the authorities in the first place. They also do not tell us what disabled petitioners thought of the expectations of them made by authorities, their families and neighbours.

For the purpose of this article, petitions for poor relief and hospital admission by impaired and invalid individuals are a valuable source to explore who was struggling with problems of employability and economic hardships due to infirmities, who thus decided to petition for the help offered to them by charitable institutions and why they sought help. In order to receive the help they sought, petitioners had to translate their needs and the story of their life into the terminology of eligibility set out in poor relief policies after the reformation. In this process, petitioners – potentially with the support of their educated scribes – (re-)interpreted their afflictions within the ideas of in/ability set out in the poor relief policies discussed above and (re-)telling their life in this process through the lens of their infirmity. It is these tropes that formed a common language to negotiate dis/ability and eligibility for care between authority, petitioner and the wider community. This framework likewise established for the infirm poor a claim of support from their local community beyond voluntary, individual charity (for similar evaluations of petitions, see also: Vanja 2006, pp.28-9; Healey, 2014, pp. 87-97; Bräuer, 2001 pp.294-303).

The following analysis of the narratives relating to the in/ability to work and care for oneself is based on approximately 400 petitions of infirm individuals and their families for hospital admission and poor relief to the local authorities in the landgraviate of Hessen-Kassel and the city of Würzburg. The holdings of these archives were chosen for their cohesiveness and their nearly continuous range from the sixteenth century through to the eighteenth century, giving a long-term perspective for these narratives. As only successful petitions were archived and handed down to us by both authorities, they also reveal who met the authorities' idea of a disabled poor person.

The analysed petitions were formulated by impaired members of social groups most vulnerable to impoverishment. A high percentage were male and female labourers and wage earners in the service of others, among them farmhands, servants, former soldiers, herdsmen but also lower-rank apprentices and craftsmen with demanding physical work. Christina Vanja (2001, p. 195) has pointed out the risk of impoverishment due to reduced working capabilities for these groups as they had no property or significant funds they could turn to when confronted with longer periods of diminished income. Even upper public office holders such as teachers or ministers were vulnerable as their posts came with service accommodation which they had to give up when forced to leave their position.

Soldiers had a heightened risk for developing chronic illness or becoming physically impaired due to wounds, malnourishment, straining physical conditions and the spread of disease in encampments. At the same time, the military had one of the highest standards for bodily ability amongst their staff and readily discharged soldiers from service when suffering from long-term illness or impairment (for a discussion of the vulnerable body of the soldier and disability see: Vanja, 2001, p. 201; Dinges, 1996, pp. 71-98, Hudson, 2007, pp. 105-117).

It is not perhaps surprising that all of the petitioners described themselves as suffering from a medical condition or described themselves generally as "lame," "crooked" (verwachsen), weak, infirm and helpless, as infirmity was the requirement for hospital admission. While conditions could be exaggerated, their descriptions still needed to be believable to be acceptable. Moreover, the claims made in the petition had to be, at least in the landgraviate of Hessen-Kassel, confirmed by a local figure of authority in a letter of reference and could easily be checked by the bailiff dealing with the petition (Vanja, 2006, pp. 28-9; compare also petitions for poor relief in Lancashire: Healey, 2014, pp. 87-97).

All analysed petitions followed a very similar pattern. After addressing the respective authority with utmost respect, the petition offered a short narrative of the individual's life-story, told in a narrative that prepared the explanation for the following request and demonstrating the petitioner's eligibility for support. This part was followed by the actual request and ended with an address to the recipient that the request might hopefully be granted. The petition of the former servant Jost Grebe, already cited in the beginning of this article, serves as an example for this pattern. After formally addressing the prince, Grebe explained in a few short sentences that he was the son of a local soldier, who became an orphan at a young age and was raised and provided for by the good people of his village until he was old enough to earn his keep as a farmhand. He had worked a few years as farmhand until "Hereby through an act of God I became so strongly afflicted with epilepsy, that everyone loathes me, so that [I] don't longer know where to find shelter much less how to gain a living" (Grebe, 1753, 11 June).

While Grebe's petition is rather unusual in stressing that his inability to provide for himself was caused by his fellow-villagers' prejudice against his severe illness that prevented him from finding employment, his social background and the form in which he presented his narrative are not. His fellow-petitioners' life-stories were rather similar describing their humble background, their line of work, how their medical condition had developed, then worsened until they finally were so impoverished that they saw no other option than to petition for help with the authorities. Unlike Grebe, however, most of the petitioners blamed diminished capabilities due to their various afflictions for their inability to continue their profession or line of work. Conrad Grone from Deissell, for example, described how he was apprenticed a few years previously as a smith before a stroke had rendered his left side of the body lame and his left arm shaking continuously which left him, according to his petition, unable to continue his profession and thus no longer able to gain his living (Deissell, 1713).

While Grone only hints at his diminished strength and dexterity with his description of his shaking left arm, other petitioners give a more detailed explanation for their inability to continue working. Herdsmen often explained their inability to continue employment with a diminished capacity for mobility (Gray 2001, p. 245). Epileptics often explained their inability to continue their professions with a heightened risk for injuries during their seizures. Epileptic soldiers were discharged as unfit for service as their irregular fits made them unreliable in battle, bakers could not be left alone close to a stove as they might burn themselves during a fit, while the occupation of roofer was just too dangerous as epileptics could fall from high above during a fit. (Schattner, 2012, pp. 147-8).

While male petitioners usually mentioned their former occupations or explained how they had gained their living formerly in their life-stories, female petitioners rarely explained their line of work and how they had gained their living in any detail. Most petitions from disabled female poor people merely used common tropes such as that they were no longer "able to earn [their] living with the work of my hands" (Schweinebraden, 1781). It seems that a more detailed explanation was not necessary, first because of the confirmations given by respected local spokesmen in the letters of reference and, second, because the authorities seemed to readily accept that women from lower ranks had a hard time to make ends meet when confronted with diminished working capacities as they were usually occupied in low-paid informal jobs. As such, the case of the epileptic Barbara Lutin who petitioned the Bürgerspital in Würzburg is rather unusual because of its detailed description of working capability and its request. Lutin did not petition for admission to the hospital, though she was a single woman with diminished working capabilities who had no family left in Würzburg to support her financially or take care of her. This was actually the classic social background story for those admitted to hospital care. Instead, Lutin specifically petitioned for financial help from the hospital's fund for outdoor placements, that was usually reserved for those unable to gain their living but who still had a family which needed financial support to care for them.

While Barbara Lutin had no family to look after her, she had struck a similar deal with her neighbour Hanns Adelmann. In her petition, she explained that she was still able to do a little fieldwork but her irregular seizures rendered her incapable at irregular intervals and did not allow her to earn enough to cover her living costs. Adelmann was willing to accept her into his household, look after her during her seizures and, in return, employ her on his fields "according to her ability." However, he was not wealthy enough to board and lodge her for free and her remaining working ability did not allow her to contribute enough to cover the costs for her additional food and other necessities. The Bürgerspital agreed to supplement her and her guardian's livelihoods with some grain quarterly which allowed both to make ends meet (Lutin, 1667).

Differing levels of support according to differing levels of working ability were quite common for the early modern poor relief system and gave the authorities flexibility to respond to different living situations, differing levels of family support as well as varied levels of working ability. Descriptions of working ability in this context did not only include impaired people themselves but also those of their primary carers. Petitioners, who were quite often a family member and not the impaired individuals themselves, described how the afflictions had not only rendered the impaired family member unable to contribute their share to the family income but also hindered their primary carer – most often their spouse, parent or sibling – to work enough hours to cover their joint sustenance. Financial help from funds for poor relief was usually given to support these families. Full care in a hospital away from the family was another layer of support that was usually only granted to those who could demonstrate that they could not, or could no longer, rely on the care of family members, perhaps because their relatives also had to look after small children and did not have the resources to look after a disabled family member at the same time. In other instances, a carer had perhaps become elderly and infirm themselves and was no longer able to take care of their charges (see Vanja, 2001, p. 195; Schattner, 2012, p. 149; similar descriptions for Lancashire in Healey, p. 173).

The narratives of inability to gain one's living in these petitions were remarkably similar regardless of gender or type of impairment. They also did not change throughout the period investigated but neither did the poor relief system in which context the petitions originated.

Disabled to work? The duty to work according to one's abilities

While local authorities accepted that it could be hard for those with diminished mental and physical capabilities to continue their profession or earn enough as day labourers to support themselves, the poor relief system embraced all forms of work as of intrinsic value. The very positive evaluation of manual labour had its foundation again in the poverty discourse formed since the thirteenth century. Theological treatises on poverty stressed the worth of labour as a means to overcome poverty but also as a path to spiritual salvation. Work or worthy occupation thus would lead to goodness and worthiness whereas idleness without cause was to shun God's mandate to earn one's bread by the sweat of one's brow. Idleness and laziness led conversely to vice and sin. Metzler (2013, pp. 43-4) found that miracle narratives often used the trope of "becoming able to work again" to reinforce the positive effect of the healing of "lameness" and other impairments as miraculous. And the willingness to work despite impairment was stressed as favourable with the saints. According to his vita, St. Walstan asked only for God's gift that all labourers who prayed to him after his death should be healed from all bodily infirmities that might prevent them from labouring. He became the patron saint of the agricultural worker.

The theme of salvation through work and work as a virtue in itself also played a central role in the reformation discourse on poverty, charity and begging. While able-bodied people in this discourse were warned to avoid laziness as sin and instead overcome their poverty through honest work, those not able to work due to youth, illness, age or impairment were described as unfortunate individuals worthy of the pity and mercy of their community. At the same time, these treatises emphasised that everyone should work according to their ability. As one among many, the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives championed the idea of providing the elderly and impaired with meaningful work according to their ability in his widely-read treatise on poor relief De subventione pauperum. (Wallner, 1998, pp. 74-8; Jütte, 2000, p. 282)

Local authorities followed this doctrine on several levels. As mentioned above, they supported those with the ability to gain at least a little bit by supplementing what they could earn themselves. On a second level, they put those still able to work but not able to participate in the open labour market to work for their own cause. The city of Straßburg, for example, provided incapacitated women in the sixteenth century with wool and flax for them to spin into yarn. The produced yarn was then sold by the master of the poor relief fund and all profits would be returned for the benefit of the fund (Fischer, 1979, pp. 302-3).

Hospitals similarly presented an environment of protected employment where elderly and impaired who could barely make a living on their own were able to find adequate forms of employment. Elderly and lightly impaired individuals sometimes preferred to petition for a position in the hospital, for example as porter, farmhand or nursing staff to gain a living in the protected hospital environment. They earned little in the hospital but would profit from the wider hospital network that provided them with additional food and shelter and was considerate of their abilities. Some petitioners specifically stressed their desire to continue working within the confines of the hospitals according to their ability. Georg from Scholley, for example, explained in his petition from 1576 that he was still able to assist others with wood clipping and other menial tasks as his community could testify (Gray, 2001, p. 250; Georg, 1576).

This was very much in line with the whole work ethic in hospitals where everyone was expected to work according to their remaining abilities. According to hospital regulations in Haina and Merxhausen, for example, only temporarily or chronic bedridden patients were exempt from work at all in the hospital. The expression "bound to the bed" described those who were either physically so weak or so severely paralysed that they could no stay unsupported outside of bed for longer periods.

The work hospital inmates were expected to do benefitted the hospital. Inmates of both genders helped to clean their dormitories, to prepare food in the kitchen, helped with fieldwork in the hospitals' gardens and cornfields, took care of the hospitals' animals and helped knit socks for other inmates. Men could also help in the hospitals' dressmaker or shoemaker shops, mill or bakery. Women would help to wash the laundry, to sew and mend clothes. Some inmates could earn extra bread by helping in more strenuous tasks such as carpentry and forestry or running errands for the hospital. Mentally disabled youths or those with congenital impairments who did not get a chance for an apprenticeship outside could make up for that by starting an apprenticeship in the sheltered environment of the hospital. In some cases, the hospital even made deals with local craftsmen families to foster and train these youths for a fee. Some would leave the sheltered environment of the hospital later on to try to earn their living on their own as they now had better means to provide for themselves (Midelfort, 1999, p. 331 and Vanja, 2001, p. 26). Haina and Merxhausen were of course not the only hospitals to run working programmes for their inmates. Similar programmes can be found all over the German territories, for example in the hospitals in Straßburg or Würzburg (Winckelmann, 1922, p. 23; Pflicht der Armen so in das Epileptische Haus aufgenommen werden, 1773).

The work of their inmates surely helped hospitals to keep their costs in check but profit-making was not their goal. The explanation for these work programmes in the foundation ordinance of Haina and Merxhausen is deeply embedded in the contemporary religious work doctrine: to prevent inmates from idleness and from temptation by the devil. They also had a medical background. Based on the contemporary dietary regiment that stressed the right balance between eating, drinking, sleeping, waking as well as rest and motion, the daily work routines gave hospital inmates the necessary exercise to keep their health in check. They also kept hospital inmates occupied and allowed them to participate in useful activities at their own pace without the pressure of being dependent upon their levels of productivity to earn their living (Vanja, 2004, pp. 15-22; Gray, 2001, p. 252).

Hospital work was not voluntary though. Everyone was expected to participate, unless patients were not able to leave their beds, and work was enforced with punitive measures such as cutting food allowances and even imprisonment if an inmate was suspected of shirking his or her responsibilities (Midelfort, 1999, p. 331). Gray's (2001, pp. 252-6) analysis of documented disputes between hospital staff and inmates, and also between inmates themselves, over working capabilities and responsibilities reveals that although those admitted to hospital were already those with severely diminished working capabilities and an increased demand for care and support by others, hospital staff and patients themselves still distinguished between different levels of infirmity and ability to work within the patient population. An individual's perception of their working capabilities did not always tie in with those of hospital staff or fellow inmates. Gray has shown how strongly inmates derived a sense of identity through their work and how they categorised themselves and their medical condition in relation to the work they were still capable of doing. Hospital brethren as well as authorities distinguished between those who worked and those who did not and considered those not able to perform any duties as a different stage of "ill" as those capable.

All those capable of leaving their beds but claiming not to be able to perform any duties were considered insubordinate and lazy not only by hospital authorities but also by fellow inmates. Gray cites the case of a group of women in Merxhausen who complained in 1742 to the hospital commission about another group of younger inmates who refused to perform tasks in the kitchen, garden, and bakery, such as picking fruit. The complainants rejected the younger inmates' claim that they were not able to perform these tasks outright by insisting that the tasks expected of the younger patients were of such a light nature and so easy that "even the smallest child" (cited from, Gray, 2001, p. 255) could perform them, implying that as long as the younger inmates could move they could participate in work. By accusing inmates of being lazy and workshy, hospital patients and authorities employed the same language the contemporary poverty discourse used to describe abled-bodied unemployed and poor. The willingness to work and to perform duties according to one's capabilities, even if admitted to hospital care due to an "inability to work," was thus seen as essential for an individual's worthiness to be cared for regardless of their physical or mental capabilities.

Integrative support: Biographies of impaired people beyond poor relief

Bianca Frohne and Klaus-Peter Horn (2013, pp. 17–18) as well as Patrick Schmidt (2013, pp. 163-5) have recently warned against a too exclusive concentration on sources of poor relief and poverty to study dis/ability in pre-modernity. They have rightly pointed out that infirmities were not the only causes for impoverishment and that poverty did not concern all groups of impaired people in the medieval and early modern periods. Petitions by poor disabled people only tell us about the experience of individuals who were members of the most vulnerable social groups whose infirmities were so severe that their diminished mobility, strength or dexterity would not allow them to perform their line of work in a way that allowed them to support themselves and whose social support networks had failed. They had reached a point of impoverishment and helplessness in their life where they felt they could no longer cope without institutional help.

Not all impaired people or those afflicted with chronic illness were, however, unable to gain a living and early modern society actually demanded of impaired people that they make an effort to participate in working life as well as to share in chores and duties as far as their abilities allowed. This included, on the one hand, expectations towards impaired and infirm individuals – even for the poor ones – to seek medical treatment to try and recover or at least improve their physical abilities. To this purpose, cities' poor relief funds granted payments for medical treatments and prosthetic devices to restore at least some level of working ability (Jütte, 1984, pp. 128-30, 324, Kinzelbach, 1995; Präger, 1995, pp. 875-6). On the other hand, society expected impaired people to find alternative ways in which to participate.

Petitioners' life-narratives occasionally describe how they had tried to answer these demands but had failed. Petitioners stressed the multitude of failed attempts to cure their condition to show that they had spared no effort. Others described how they had made do by accepting lower skilled work but how their still deteriorating health had not even allowed them to keep up this work. Johann Jacob Braun, a 36-year-old former journeyman cloth-maker, described how several "fluxes" had "left him a cripple" and unable to continue working as a cloth-maker. Instead, he had sustained himself for the last two decades in the subsidiary servant role of a Wollenknappe (wool knave) until his condition had worsened so much that he was no longer able to even "sustain this type of employment" or go begging (Braun, 1712).

Ego-documents outside the context of poor relief show that some impaired people successfully participated in working routines and social roles with the support of their social network. Sebastian Fischer from Ulm, for example, who suffered from a hearing impairment that worsened throughout his life until he was nearly deaf, described in his autobiography from 1554 how his condition made social interaction with others difficult and how much fits of dizziness and severe headaches disrupted his daily life. Nevertheless, his condition was mild enough in the beginning to be able to learn the craft as a shoemaker in his youth and Fischer was still able to continue working in his profession even when his hearing considerably deteriorated. It seems he did not suffer any major financial set-backs and was fully integrated into his local shoemaker guild. Although his condition was a source of discomfort throughout his life and he needed support in his social interaction, it did not alter Fischer's work identity in a conceivable way. Despite his successful participation in working life, Fischer's autobiography shows that his family and co-workers still expected him to try everything possible to improve his ability to hear in order to ease interaction with him. Fischer describes in his autobiography the dozens of sometimes quite painful treatments and cures he endured on the recommendations of others to meet these expectations (Frohne, 2014, pp. 319-21).

Integrative support was much more readily available in the upper ranks of society whose members had the financial means and networks to provide support for impaired family members and spouses. Equally, physical impairments at least were often easier to integrate into the social roles and business pursuits of the upper ranks. Maria Magdalena Mörder, from the beginning of this article, who was, according to her neighbours, a hard-working, laborious individual, was able to oversee her household and fulfil her social role despite her severe case of epilepsy with the support of her maid and a social network of neighbours. Moreover, her unpaid work in her husband's household was very different from the manual labour described in the poor relief petitions and her household was not dependent on her being employed by others.

Bianca Frohne (2014, pp. 310-7) found plentiful evidence in personal testimonials, family and travel registers that merchant families and wealthier craftsmen made considerable effort to integrate male infirm offspring into traditional roles by finding alternative means of training and employment for infirm family members.

These sources come with their own set of problems. Most ego-documents and personal testimonials outside the context of poor relief were created largely by male elites who were not threatened at all by impoverishment. The infirm and impaired body was mentioned and described in these documents mainly in its implications for the individual's success or failure to fulfil their expected social role and participate in the family heritage rather than precisely describing impairments and abilities. The working and life prospects of infirm and impaired girls and women of the elite were hardly delivered to posterity at all. Their lives were most often mentioned in sources such as family registers in formulistic expressions after their death (see for a more detailed discussion of elite personal testimonials: Frohne, 2014 p. 384-6; Turner, 2012, pp.107-11, 122-3).


Biographical narratives of impaired people from various social backgrounds are a rich but difficult source. They offer the possibility to unlock key social expectations towards impaired people and their abilities to work and participate in social life in pre-modernity. Biographical narratives of impaired people – as any form of biographical account – were created for a specific purpose. They were intended to argue eligibility for charity, for example, or meant as part of a family history in which their life was told as either a story of success or re-interpreted as an account of true Christian suffering and part of the conditio humana (Frohne, 2014, pp. 383-4; Metzler 2013, pp. 59-62). As such, their narratives are all formed by specific tropes responding to social expectations towards impaired people. Although these accounts need to be interpreted with care, and accounts from different social backgrounds need to be compared to allow us a fuller picture and to bridge the gaps of the specific narratives, life narratives of impaired people in ego-documents reveal a detailed and multi-layered view regarding the working capabilities of impaired people.

Impaired people were not per se perceived as unable to work. On the contrary, early modern society expected impaired people to participate in all sorts of work and duties to fulfil their social roles. Ability was perceived as a matter of degree and multiple levels of ability existed in the early modern perception between those able-bodied poor who were excluded from communal poor relief because of their full ability to work and those bedridden hospital patients, who were not even able to leave and stay out of bed without support.

Impairment in the early modern period, at least when congenital or derived from disease, was perceived as a rather fluid state which could potentially be improved or even cured by treatments available in the vast medical marketplace but which could equally worsen easily. Family members, social networks and even the local poor relief authorities expected at least some effort from impaired individuals to improve their condition and lessen their reliance on the support of others, even when they managed quite well in daily life. The biographical accounts – at least those considered here – show that impaired people knew quite well about these expectations and tried to meet their expected patient role even if they did not always do so successfully and not always happily.

At the same time, efforts were made by families to support impaired members in participating as long as their capabilities somehow allowed in gainful employment. Not all impaired people were seen as disabled or unable to participate in gainful employment and traditional work identities. In the upper ranks neither trouble nor expense was spared, especially for male offspring, to support participation in their social roles and work identities. Poor labourers and their families on the other hand had to find alternative means for employment and sustenance out of sheer necessity. These attempts to secure support were not always successful. While those in upper ranks became socially disabled but were at least financially secured, poor disabled individuals often had no financial means to deal with long periods of unemployment and their family members were often equally disabled to provide for their family while looking after an impaired family member. The acknowledgment of these social differences in the lives of impaired people by local authorities lay at the core of policy changes for the restructuring of poor relief at the end of the Middle Ages. The new poor relief system laid at the same time the foundation for a new way for the poor disabled to communicate about their needs and abilities. Still local authorities, and in fact impaired people themselves, expected to share in household work and smaller tasks according to their ability. Only those who were bound to the bed were considered exempt from this expectation as these were perceived as incapable of any manual work.


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