Blind Priests and Mad Rectors: Health, Disease and Disability among the Later Medieval European Clergy 

This Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities University Award, worth £183,147, will provide Dr. Irina Metzler with funding for five years to carry out an in depth study of health, illness and disability as reflected in ecclesiastical records in western Europe of the high and late Middle Ages.  She will investigate the experience of disability or illness among the clergy and what the consequences were for this significant section of the later medieval population. The project will be of interest not just to other academics working in this area, but also to a wider public with a greater understanding of health and well-being in the past holding relevance for informing the present situation.

Today we assume that anti-discrimination legislation provides equal opportunities for most in the job market. But members of the Catholic priesthood were, and still are, subject to an examination for physical and mental 'fitness for work'. For example, in 1995 the Vatican “provoked fury by issuing a decree banning men who suffer from an allergy to gluten from becoming priests” (Madeleine Bunting, ‘Wafer allergy bars priests’, the Guardian, 10 October 1995). The Vatican insisted on communion wafers containing gluten as the only suitable kind of wafers. This episode highlights the cultural and socio-economic consequences of what happens when impairments (the underlying medical phenomenon) are loaded with disabilities (the imposition of cultural construction).

In the later Middle Ages careful records were kept by the Church as to what kinds of illnesses or disabilities priests had, and we can use these records to inform us about the range of health and disease in that demographic group. We can also use these records to tell us which illnesses or disabilities were seen to be more detrimental than others, and which permitted or prohibited a career in the Church. And these records can tell us something about the general lifestyle issues of the clergy, such as a larger number of the elderly than commonly found in the rest of the medieval population, so that similarities with modern concerns over an ageing population and provisions in retirement may be looked at. By studying such material we can gain a better understanding of why particular groups of people were considered to be physically and mentally ill or disabled back in the past, and how their lived experience differed from the situation today.

More specifically, the Award aims to:

- examine what the theoretical underpinnings were for the concept of physical and mental integrity of the clergy, termed priestly idoneity;

- explore the opposite of idoneity, that is cases of clerical unsuitability on physical or mental grounds;

- investigate how ecclesiastical decisions were justified, by asking what were the medical or canonical reasons for questioning idoneity of the clergy;

- study the actual practice, as evidenced by individual case-histories in the bishops' registers and, from the fifteenth century onwards, the supplications to the papal curia, which will be used to provide an emerging picture of the state of health, illness and disability within this particular demographic group;

- question how much of a medieval issue age-related retirement and incapacity were, and what considerations there may be for contemporary society. 

Thus this project hopes to make a significant contribution to medical humanities and medieval history as well as to disability studies.

Dr Irina Metzler is a Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Arts and Humanities (RIAH), Swansea University.


Medieval Image of four sick men.