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Approaching medieval disfigurement: a medical problem?

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12/02/2015

By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

The next seminar in the 2014-15 History of Pre-Modern Medicine academic seminar series, will take place on Tuesday 17 February.

Small drawing in margin of manuscript showing the head of a man with nasal polyps protruding from his nose. Wellcome Library reference: MS 544.

Small drawing in margin of manuscript showing the head of a man with nasal polyps protruding from his nose. Wellcome Library reference: MS 544.

Speaker: Dr Patricia Skinner (University of Winchester)

Approaching Medieval Disfigurement: a Medical Problem?

Abstract:

This paper reviews the results of the Wellcome Trust-funded project Losing Face? Living with Disfigurement in the Early Middle Ages. After examining the types of evidence for disfigured people in Europe from c.800-1100CE, it then explores why disfigurement has been a relatively neglected subject for historical inquiry. I will argue that it has fallen into a gap between histories of medicine and disability. For most medieval victims of disfigurement, there was apparently little hope of medical or surgical intervention, meaning that medical historians have focused largely on surgical texts emerging in the early modern period. Studies of disability in the medieval period, on the other hand, focus on sensory or motor impairments, which are much better documented – thus if disfigurement is picked up at all, it is tangential to the concerns both of medieval authors and modern commentators. The social disability inherent in a damaged face is hardly considered. Drawing on research undertaken in the past 3 years, I will suggest that societal attitudes towards disfigured people have remained largely static, and that the ongoing use of deliberate disfigurement as a sign of moral lack (in modern communities and media representations) has very old roots.

Location:

Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE. Doors open at 18.00, seminar will start at 18.15.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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