Disabled Clerics in the Late Middle Ages
Un/suitable for Divine Service?
Amsterdam University Press
The petitions received and the letters sent by the Papal Chancery during the Late Middle Ages attest to the recognition of disability at the highest levels of the medieval Church. These documents acknowledge the existence of physical and/or mental impairments, with the papacy issuing dispensations allowing some supplicants to adapt their clerical missions according to their abilities. A disease, impairment, or old age could prevent both secular and regular clerics from fulfilling the duties of their divine office. Such conditions can, thus, be understood as forms of disability. In these cases, the Papal Chancery bore the responsibility for determining if disabled people were suitable to serve as clerics, with all the rights and duties of divine services. Whilst some petitioners were allowed to enter the clergy, or – in the case of currently serving churchmen – to stay more or less active in their work, others were compelled to resign their position and leave the clergy entirely. Petitions and papal letters lie at intersection of authorized, institutional policy and practical sources chronicling the lived experiences of disabled people in the Middle Ages. As such, they constitute an excellent analytical laboratory in which to study medieval disability in its relation to the papacy as an institution, alongside the impact of official ecclesiastical judgments on disabled lives.
Ninon Dubourg is a doctor in Medieval History of the University of Paris Diderot, now a post-doctoral researcher at the Transitions Unit of the University of Liège (Belgium). She is in charge of the research blog History of Disease, Disability and Medicine in Medieval Europe and the co-organiser of the EHESS’ monthly seminar “Construire une histoire du handicap et de la surdité au travers des siècles” (Building a history of disability and deafness through the centuries) with Fab-rice Bertin (EHESS) and Gildas Brégain (Rennes, CNRS) (2021-2022). She is a foreign associate member of the research network Homo Debilis at the Bremen University and a member of the Re-search Group Handicap et sociétés of the Réseau Jeunes chercheurs Santé et Sociétés at the EHESS.