Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Ole Imsen on The Disabled in the Historical Record

I was really excited for Ole to be part of this event. The reason why is quite simple. Ole always seems to come out of left field with a perspective or insight I would have never, in a million years, thought of. What makes me mad is that his internet sucks, so I’m not regaled with his impressive insights nearly as often as I’d like to be. However, ignoring that small fact, Ole is someone who has some incredible insights and opinions fueled by a true passion for the speculative fiction genre. On top of that, his reviews are fantastic. He writes some high quality, in depth stuff that always makes me step back and think about things a little differently.

I am a real sucker for different perspectives. I love when someone challenges the way I see (insert topic here) and forces me to expand my understanding. Ole is incredibly good at that. He’s also very fun to talk to on Twitter, or whatever medium you have him on. His discussions are lively, and he always has unique insights into speculative fiction that make me wish I was half as intelligent as he is.

So when he accepted the offer to be part of this event I was very excited. I knew he’d bring something incredible to the table.

I wasn’t disappointed.

About the author

Ole lives in the deep forests of Norway. When not fending off trolls and wolves while trying to get food he’s usually reading a book. He runs the blog Weirdmage’s Reviews.

The Disabled in the Historical Record

When Sarah first contacted me about the series of “Special Needs in Strange Worlds” posts she was planning to do, my first thought was to write about historical evidence for people with disabilities. There was two reasons for this, the first is that I am very interested in history myself. The second one was that I see people use the word “realistic” a lot when it comes to Fantasy, without seemingly having any more grasp of history than you’d get from watching TV/movies, or indeed reading Fantasy.

As someone who reads quite a bit about history and archaeology I know there is plenty of evidence for people with disabilities living their lives throughout human history. A little research on any time period will give you some results (, although I found general searches online to not be very helpful when writing this article); I’ll give a few examples.

THE OSEBERG SHIP – NORWAY, A.D. 830-870.

Two female skeletons were buried with this ship. The oldest, about 60-70 years old, is the interesting one in this context. She had suffered from osteoporosis (brittle bones), and had been bedridden for a longer period at least twice in her youth. She also suffered a knee injury at least ten years before her death. Due to this she would have had a stooping posture and maybe trouble turning her head, in addition to a limp that made it difficult for her to move. (Source, page six) Other sources give the disability she suffered from as what we would today call chronic arthritis.

THE YDE GIRL – NETHERLANDS, 1st CENTURY A.D.

This “bog body” of a girl of about 16, shows she suffered from scoliosis (curvature of the spine). And an apparently swollen area on her right foot suggests she put most of her weight on that leg. (Source)

JULIUS CAESAR – ROME, 100-44 B.C.

Although it is not known to what degree Julius Caesar suffered from it, several Roman sources clearly states that he did suffer from epilepsy. Plutarch even says he had a seizure during the Battle of Thapsus. (Source)

I’ll move on to some more general sources. First one that is perhaps most of interest to Fantasy, in that it deals with the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Here’s a longer citation from an article appearing in The Guardian written by Christopher Baswell (Source).

“In fact, the “able” body was neither quite so frequent nor so dominating in the middle ages or Renaissance as it became later. Eccentric bodies abounded in the middle ages and Renaissance, as illness increased the proportion of the deaf, blind, and lame.

Medieval manuscripts and Renaissance prints have many images of the blind and of people using crutches. Others, more disturbingly to the modern western eye, are shown dragging their twisted bodies about by means of small hand trestles. But in these images the blind and lame emerge from the general crowds of ordinary civic life, neither institutionalised nor hidden away. If not “normal”, they often seem quite ordinary.”

Though the text cited suggests that the disabled where common in the Middle Ages, it is also well known that there was what we today would classify as discrimination during that time.

This discrimination had to start somewhere, and in this case we do have evidence of both where it started and why it started. Not surprisingly it comes down to religion.

As with most matters pertaining to the major religions in the west, the origin of disabilities as a form of divine punishment started in the Ancient Near East, more specifically to ancient Mesopotamia. Interestingly different Mesopotamian sources give us two views on the disabled. They are described as both someone to be shunned, and as someone that have a place in society. (Source, page 2-4)

In ancient Israel, and in the Hebrew Bible, we find direct prohibitions for the deformed and disabled to enter “holy places”, this may have been relaxed for priests but ordinary disabled people were likely excluded from Temple. (Source, page 5-8)

Going back to the Middle Ages, the prohibitions from ancient Israel was continued by the Christian church. And they certainly reached a height in The Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches Hammer, 1487), that declares that disabled children are the result of a union between their mother and Satan. Martin Luther (1483-1546) also saw the Devil in these disabled children, and advocated killing them. (Source, page 2) Although to be fair, this paper also points out that the care of the disabled were a part of Christianity and the other major Western religions.

CONCLUSION

  The historical record shows that there have been disabled people present during our entire recorded history. So there is absolutely no reason why they should not be present in a Fantasy story set in a world that is an approximation of any historical period in our world.

As can be seen from above, it is entirely up to any author to decide for him/herself if these disabled individuals are shunned by their society or not. But if you are asking for realism in the depiction of any pre-industrial society, there should be plenty of room for the disabled. And the evidence seem to suggest that if they don’t have a place in society, then it is up to the author to explains why this is so.

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If you haven’t stopped by Weirdmage’s Reviews you really should. His reviews are some of the best on the net and well worth following. Agree or disagree with Ole’s take on the books he reads, it doesn’t really matter. He’ll make you think about books differently and that’s a wonderful gift.

You can also follow Ole on Twitter.

One Responses

  • Interesting article Ole! I’d never even heard of rhe Yde girl 😀 Another museum to visit once my girls are a bit older!

    Reply

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