Intellectual Disability: A Conceptual History 1200-1900

How does the language we use shape how we think about disability? In Deborah Thorpe’s review of Intellectual Disability: A Conceptual History, 1200-1900 (2018), the history of intellectual disability emerges as one of contested terms.

‘You know a subject has achieved maturity when a book series is dedicated to it,’ write the series editors of Patrick McDonagh, C. F. Goodey and Timothy Stainton’s edited collection Intellectual Disability: A Conceptual History, 1200-1900. Indeed, with this collection, intellectual disability receives specific attention, beginning with the medieval period and ending with the nineteenth century and its institutions. The editors’ introduction begins with the issue of language, demonstrating that the fluid terms used in the ‘literature of idiocy’ worried the physicians of the nineteenth century as ‘both an obstacle to understanding idiocy (and related concepts) and as an indication of its universality’ (1). And so it worries researchers today. Appropriately, then, McDonagh et al emphasise the challenges of historical and modern language and terminology, stating convincingly that a study of the history of intellectual disability requires ‘an investigation of changing socio-cultural contexts’ (5). Importantly for disability scholars, they argue that the ‘plethora of terms’, both modern and historical, ‘is, in part, the subject matter, and certainly the starting point for research’ (3).

Intellectual Disability opens with three chapters addressing its subject in a medieval context. In Chapter Two, Wendy Turner continues in the vein of her research elsewhere by bringing the question of how intellectual disability was characterised in medieval law to life using carefully-excavated case studies. With useful references to the original language, plus a well-organised discussion of the different intellectual characteristics discussed in medieval documents, she demonstrates the breadth, nuance, and sophistication of medieval conceptualisations of intellectual disability. The theme of law is also visited in Simon Jarrett’s study of the ‘idiot’ in the long eighteenth century (Chapter 9) in which he presents fascinating case studies from the courtrooms, insight into ideas passed upwards from the streets into lawyerly discourse, and an account of the emergence of medico-legal discourse about idiocy in the early nineteenth century. Given the intriguing synergies between these two chapters, it might have been interesting if the authors had been able to read and reference each other’s work, but each stands on its own capably.

Irina Metzler’s contribution, Chapter 3, examines the idea of ‘will-nots’ in medieval thought, with a focus on the problem of distinguishing these from the ‘cannot’, or ‘genuine fool’. Chapter 4 continues the medieval theme as Janina Dillig investigates the ‘fool’ in German medical and literary texts. Like Metzler, Dillig considers the relationship between different forms of foolishness, bringing this to life with compelling examples of the ‘natural’ and ‘will’ fools from Middle High German literature. I was grateful for Dillig’s provision of full references to the original medieval language, accompanied by her own modern translations into English, which both guides our understanding of her argument and allows us to form our own interpretations of the source material. By Chapter 5, we have moved into the seventeenth-century with C. F. Goodey’s work on ‘the re-shaping of idiocy in the seventeenth-century church’. D. Christopher Gabbard’s Chapter 6 explores cognitive ableism in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, arguing that the characterisation of Gulliver with his ‘intellectual narcissism that epitomises cognitive ableism’ in Book Four challenges the notion of intelligence as a person-man distinction laid out by John Locke (112). Demonstrating Gulliver’s lack of intellectual stability, Gabbard argues insightfully that ‘he answers to a dispositional disability’ – ‘thinking variably’ – ‘that would have been recognised by some doctors of his own time’, and thus can be identified as a Lockean ‘changeling’ (120). In Chapter 7 we find Tim Stainton’s account of the contribution of sensationalism – that is, the theory that all knowledge is acquired not from innate ideas but from our sensory experiences – to Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard’s understanding and treatment of Victor ‘the Wild Boy of Aveyron’, underpinned by the ideas of Locke, Rousseau and, especially, Condillac. A minor but important point of contention, perhaps, was Stainton’s description of Itard’s treatment of Victor – holding him out of a window ‘head directly turned towards the bottom of the chasm’ – as ‘almost humane compared to electric shock and other aversive methods in use today’ (141), a heavy comparison that left me seeking elucidation of the history and current use of ECT in psychiatry, as opposed to its well-known – and vivid – literary and cinematic depictions that many of us might be more familiar with.

Chapter 8 is written by a team of storytellers who have learning disabilities, and in it we return to the ‘Wild Boy’ as the co-authors discuss their project on the eighteenth-century figure ‘Peter the Wild Boy’. Their creative contribution seeks to demonstrate the importance of understanding historical experiences in informing and supporting modern-day struggles for ‘recognition and empowerment’ (159). The chapter is innovatively crafted by one of the authors from a roundtable discussion, with each contributor acknowledged by name. Among the highlights is the argument that instead of trying to identify Peter’s specific condition, we should ‘look at the story for what it tells us about Peter as a person, how he was viewed and what people said about him at the time, and what his experiences mean for us today’ (152)—is this what scholars should be aiming for in medical history, seeking to understand the range of individual experiences of disabilities, health, and medicine as opposed to imposing retrospective diagnoses? By Chapter 11, written by Patrick McDonagh, we have moved well into the last century under consideration in this collection, as we look at the ‘asylum travelogues’ produced in the mid nineteenth-century in which, for a time, the asylums were presented idealistically as places where ‘idiots’ could be visited and ‘civilize[d] as much as possible’ by curious upper-to-middle-class tourists (213). These documents, McDonagh demonstrates, became ‘important elements in a nascent “discourse on idiocy”’, and he anatomises their shared thematic concerns compellingly (212).

Intellectual Disability is a wide-ranging collection and the editors have compiled a mélange of new sources for, and approaches to, the topic. The authors, as would be expected in a volume on this topic, take care to define their individual perspectives on the terminology relating to ‘intellectual disability’, the understanding of ‘intelligence’ in different periods, and the contentious issue of retrospective diagnosis, and it is interesting to read this range of perspectives within a single set of covers.


Dr Deborah Thorpe is a Visiting Fellow of the University of York, interested in research at the intersection between the humanities and sciences.

Intellectual Disability: A Conceptual History, 1200-1900 edited by Patrick McDonagh, C. F. Goodey and Timothy Stainton was published by Manchester University Press in 2018.

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