In Old English, the noun cripple (crypel, creople, crypol) is related to the Old Frisian kreppel Old Norse kryppill, and Middle Dutch cröpel, crepel and generally refers to a person who is physically disabled by impairment to the limbs. Cripple is most often associated with mobility impairment. Indeed, the OED explains that the krup– ablaut stem of kriupan is to creep, “either in the sense of one who can only creep, or perhaps rather in that of one who is, in Scottish phrase, ‘cruppen together’, i.e. contracted in body and limbs.” The term’s association with mobility impairment continues in Middle English (crupel, cruppel, crepil, cripel, cripil, crepel, crypylle, crebull, crepell, crepill crepyle, creeple, creaple, cripple). Its transitive verb form denotes the deprivation “wholly or partly of one’s limbs; to lame, disable, make a cripple of,” while its intransitive from indicates “to move or walk lamely, to hobble” (OED, v. 1, 2). As an adjective, crippled describes one “disabled from the use of one’s limbs” (OED, B).
Most often, cripple denotes a person with physical mobility impairment, either congenital or acquired through accident or old age. Jane Roberts, who has surveyed the use of cripple(d) in Old English, notes that the term was not used regularly, citing only five uses of crypel and nineteen uses of eor¶crypel (366), a variant Keith Armstrong surmises might be related the physical proximity of a person with a mobility impairment to the earth: “The term eor¶-crypel may have had the ‘poetic’ significance of someone who could only move themselves along at ground level on their hands and knees” (6). The earliest of uses of crypel and eor¶crypel are by Aldred in his glosses of the Lindisfarne Gospels. In Old English, cripple is used most often as a noun; its use as an adjective does not pick up until the twelfth century. In Middle English, cripple(d) is used interchangeably with synonyms like lame, feeble, and crooked, indicating that the status of being crippled signified some kind of injury to, weakness of, or even deformity of the body that impedes movement. For example, The South English Legendary describes “twei crupeles Þat in heore limes al ful-crokede were” (I. 51/157), while Cursor Mundi mentions “ani man […] crepil or croked” (22829). The fifteenth-century romance Tournament of Tottenham features boys so weary that they “creped Þen about” like “croked crepyls” (170-1).
Although cripple and its variant forms could cover a wide spectrum of physical disabilities in the Middle Ages, in some cases, it was used to specify a particular impairment. For instance, Middle English provides one instance in which crepyll is used to describe a dwarf (Catholicom Anglicum, 29b). More often, being “crippled” is specified as paralysis, whether partial or total. The Bosworth-Toller Dictionary defines crypelness as “lameness, paralysis,” and notes that the Aldred translates paralytico and paralysi as “crypel” and “crypelness,” respectively. Cursor Mundi further describes a man “criplid in parlesi,” (20885-6) and the Alphabet of Tales finds the person “in Þe parlesie” as synonymous with “a crepyll” (I. CCXXXIV, 164).
Interestingly, despite New Testament emphases on Christ’s healing of the lame and sick, biblical uses of “cripple” are sparse. In addition to the examples from the Lindisfarne Gospels noted above, it is used in the Wycliffe bible in the books of Leviticus and 2 Samuel in reference to prohibiting the “crippled” from becoming priests and entering the temple, respectively. In later versions of the bible, crippled is found throughout Acts to describe the congenitally impaired man that Paul heals. Presumably paralyzed, the man is described as having “crippled,” “impotent,” or “crokid” feet across the various versions of the Bible examined for this project (Latin Vulgate, Wycliffite, Geneva, and King James). Cripple(d) and its variants are similarly used throughout saints’ lives to describe some of the people with disabilities who sought cure from saints, their relics, or their shrines (See, for example, the Old English Life of St. Giles and the Old English Lives of St. Margaret, as well as examples cited in Metzler 219, 223).
Evidence and Images
Matthew 4:24, 8:6, 9:2, 9:6, 18:7
Mark 2:3, 2:4, 2:5, 2:9, 2:10, 2:14
Luke 5: 24 5:18, 4:29, 5:1, 5:24
*Cited in Armstrong (11).
** Cited in Roberts (366).
2 Samuel 5:6, 5:8, 9:3, 9:13, 19:26
Acts 3:1, 3:2, 3:11, 14:1, 14:8
Bibliography and Further Reading
Armstrong, Keith. “The Old English Origin of the Word ‘Cripple’ (Revised).” Academia.edu, 2013, https://www.academia.edu/3631339/The_Old_English_Origin_of_the_Word_Cripple_Revised_-_Keith_Armstrong.
Lee, Christina. “Disability,” A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies, edited by Jacqueline Stodnick and Renée Trilling, Blackwell, 2012, pp. 23-37, esp. 32-3.
Metzler, Irina. Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment during the High Middle Ages, Routledge, 2006.
Roberts, Jane. “Some Thoughts on the Expression of ‘crippled’ in Old English,” Leeds Studies in English, 37 (2006): 365-78.
Nate Bissinger, Kendal Carpenter, Grace Chaney, Foster Edens, Hannah Gerlock, Emma Hartkemeyer, Mel McIntosh, Natalie Peacock, and Alisha Sluss, all of Miami University Hamilton
Tory V. Pearman, Miami University Hamilton