Exclusion or Inclusion? Disability and Community in Late Medieval France


I recently had the opportunity to leave my comfort zone a bit and attend a history of science lecture. Typically, the lectures that I attend are focused on current international events, so it was an exciting change of pace to attend an event focused more on history.

The talk I attended was given by Dr. Sasha Pfau, an associate professor from Hendrix College. I was not sure what exactly to expect from such a lecture, but I found myself quickly fascinated with Dr. Pfau’s research. Her study’s goal was to investigate the treatment of disability in Medieval France. Whenever I think about disability in the Middle Ages, I, like many people think of people locked away from society in mental institutions or shunned in leper colonies. During this talk, I was surprised to learn that this was often not the case.

Dr. Pfau found her evidence by pouring through thousands of pardon letters. These letters were written to the king of France by either convicted criminals or their families or friends requesting pardon. The king granted these pardons as a show of power; he was above the law, and excused people’s crimes in an attempt to flaunt it. Those seeking pardon worked with court scribes and paid a fee to write the letters, and if the king granted the pardon, they could pay extra to have it transcribed in the official books. These approved, transcribed pardons are all that survive, so today, we have no way of knowing how many pardons were approved or what an unapproved pardon looked like, but the letters give modern historians insight into ordinary life at the time.

Each letter included the story of the crime with a justification. It is these stories that Dr. Pfau was interested in; though the stories may have been embellished, they reflected plausible, normal events at the time. Thus, any treatment of disability that came up in the letters was likely indicative of how disability was regularly treated in those days. Dr. Pfau said that most letters did not contain any mention of disability; she had to read hundreds of letters to find what she was looking for. However, the letters she did come up with painted a picture of disability treatment that looks very different from my assumptions. From these letters, it is apparent that those living in late Medieval France included disabled people as members of society and practiced a great deal of familial care. Rather than casting the disabled out, they were brought into the fold and included as much as possible.

Her case studies varied from a disabled man who participated with his friends in a bar fight to a blind man who was killed by his wife for intentionally sabotaging her work. In each case, the disability was never the focus of the letter, but the reader could see that it was often treated very differently to what many have previously imagined. When the disabled were mistreated, it was due to their own negative actions, rather than their disabilities. Their families felt and upheld the responsibility to care for their disabled family members, and the disabled were as integrated into society as possible.

I was impressed with Dr. Pfau’s ability to make such a strong case for something so surprising to me, as well as her method of obtaining it. Before this talk, I had never heard of pardon letters, nor had I given much thought to the treatment of disability throughout history. The lecture was a fascinating reminder that often, dominant historical narratives are not accurate; they are shaped by biased historians choosing the version of history that they want to pass down. I learned some interesting things about Medieval France and had some of my preconceived notions of history shattered. It was a nice reminder that, while studying current events is immensely important, studying historical events can be equally so.

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