Inventing Idiocy: Law, Land And The Construction Of Intellectual Disability In Late Medieval England

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During the late thirteenth century the English Crown claimed the right to take the lands of so-called idiots into its possession, and developed a set of juridical practices to assess whether these individuals were mentally competent enough to rule themselves and their property. This dissertation examines how these developments informed the way society imagined intellectual disability in the Middle Ages and beyond. Since the publication of Foucault's Madness and Civilization, scholars have treated insanity as a concept with a cultural history. Less however has been written about the conceptual history of "idiocy." People outside the academy naturally assume that intelligence and its absence are natural categories, while historians who work on the cultural history of intellectual disability tend to locate its emergence in early modern medical discourses. Rejecting both of these claims, Inventing Idiocy suggests that intellectual disability was not initially a medical concept, but an invention of medieval jurists and administrators concerned with practical matters of land and inheritance. For while a concept of idiocy existed in the Middle Ages, the idiocy that preoccupied medieval jurists had little to do with a specific idea of intelligence. Rather it was a narrow legal term, used to refer to people who were unable to manage landed wealth. People outside the legal profession had little idea what idiocy entailed, and no disorder resembling the law's idea of idiocy-or our own-existed in medieval medicine. Nevertheless hundreds of alleged idiots were called before the courts between the late thirteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Examining records of these inquisitions, I show that qualities associated with idiocy in later medical discourses reflected the idea of mental incompetency that arose in of these contested trials. In doing so, I reject the view that intellectual disability originated when medical discourse supplanted older religious constructions of foolishness, and is indeed medical in origin. Instead, I suggest that a stable and distinctive concept of intellectual disability entered Western thought when a category invented by lawyers to deal with practical problems of inheritance burgeoned beyond the legal sphere, and became assimilated into general culture.

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2013-01-28
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medieval England; history of disability; intellectual disability
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Hyams, Paul R
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Corpis, Duane Joseph
MacDonald, Scott C
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Medieval Studies
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Ph. D., Medieval Studies
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Doctor of Philosophy
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dissertation or thesis
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