In Middle English, the adjective “blind” (“blynd” etc.) designates a range of abilities, from (temporary or permanent) visual impairment to a complete lack of sight [MED 1a]. In a metaphorical sense, “blind” could also suggest negative connotations, such as being (spiritually) unaware [MED 2a], or being deluded, mistaken, or deceived [MED 2b]. Middle English Dictionary
In French, the adjective is “aveugle” (or “avogle” etc.) from Latin ob oculus = “deprived of eyes.” This French adjective has no cognates in any other Romance language, and might be connected to the use of blinding as legal punishment in France (Wheatley 2010). Anglo-Norman Dictionary
In Latin, the adjective is caecus (“blind”); when used as a substantive adjective, caecus means “blind man” (person). The Latin caecus can connote negative traits like “aimless, confused, random” (1) or “rash” (4); more broadly, it can mean “dark, hidden, secret” (3). Oxford Latin Dictionary
Blindness, in its most basic sense, refers to visual impairment and any person who does not see can be considered “blind.” In the medieval West, the social meanings attached to blindness were not unitary and could vary tremendously; in some contexts blindness could be portrayed as a divine gift (associated with privileged insight, prophecy, or musical talent); in other texts like medical treatises blindness could be approached as a physical impairment in need of a cure, and in a wide range of literary and religious texts blindness serves as an external sign of sin or a person’s spiritual imperfection.
Recent studies of medieval disability in the Western Middle Ages have paid increasing attention to blindness as a social construct; that is, any given culture can attach its own particular meanings to visual impairment. This being said, blindness in medieval culture can also be studied as a medical issue (a physical condition that requires therapy or healing) or as a deep religious concern (in religious texts, blindness can often be interpreted as a punishment for sins). Regional and cultural differences all play a role in shaping attitudes towards blindness in the medieval Christian West. Moreover, linguistic, legal, and political factors can work together to inform the social meanings of blindness and profoundly affect the living conditions of blind people. In late medieval France, blinding was used as legal mechanism of punishment; since blindness was increasingly associated with criminality, hospices were established to house communities of “innocent” blind people. In late medieval England — where blindness was not used as a punishment for crimes — no such institutions for the blind arose (Wheatley 2010).
One of the difficulties in studying artistic representations of blindness in the Western Middle Ages — in literature, painting, drama, or sculpture — is an underlying notion that physical blindness is metaphorically associated with spiritual blindness. In the Christian West, Jews, pagans, or non-Christians might be depicted as blind (or wearing blindfolds) in order to indicate their incapacity or refusal to recognize the truth of Christian belief. Recent assessments of theological understandings of disability have demonstrated how inextricably anti-Semitic stereotypes are tied to stigmatized notions of blindness, and such scholars have stressed the need to interrogate the “damaging effects” created by discourses that seek to exclude disabled people and Jews from inclusion in a Christian community (Koosed and Schumm 2005).
Initial scholarship on medieval Islamic contexts suggests that social attitudes toward blind people could be quite flexible and that blind people were not necessarily marginalized or stereotyped as morally imperfect (Malti-Douglas 1989). One reading of the Qur’an foregrounds its call to address the social and economic disadvantages faced by blind people and others who are perceived as disabled (Bazna and Hatab 2004).
Evidence and Images
Evidence of lived experience of medieval blind people comes from many sources, including writings composed by blind people themselves; authors who wrote poetry about their own blindness include John Gower (d. 1408) and John Audelay (died c. 1426). Visual representations of blind people are varied; blind women and men appear in scenes of pilgrimage, healing miracles, or representations of everyday life. In the visual representations, a person’s blindness might be signaled by closed eyes, a walking stick, or a dog on a leash. In some medieval representations blindness can be associated with poverty (in the case of blind beggars) or abject postures suggesting a plea for aid or healing (in the case of miracle stories). In other instances, blind people could be afforded privileged status and power — acting as poets, musicians, and artists, and courtiers. Francesco Landini (d. 1397), for instance, was a much-revered Italian composer and organist, and medieval chroniclers invariably depicted the blind knight Jean l’Aveugle (d. 1346) as noble and heroic.
Bazna, Maysaa, and Tarek Hatab. “Disability in the Qur’an: The Islamic Alternative to Defining, Viewing, and Relating to Disability.” http://www.scribd.com/doc/15623193/Disability-in-the-Quran
Koosed, Jennifer, and Darla Schumm. “Out of the Darkness: Examining the Rhetoric of Blindness in the Gospel of John.” Disability Studies Quarterly 25.1 (2005). http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/528/705
Malti-Douglas, Fadwa. “Mentalités and Marginality: Blindness and Mamlûk Civilization.” In The Islamic World from Classical to Modern Times: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lewis, ed. C.E. Bosworth et al. Princeton, NJ: 1989. 211-37.
Wheatley, Edward. Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability. Ann Arbor, MI: U Michigan P, 2010.
Jonathan Hsy, The George Washington University