According to the OED, the Common Germanic adjective deaf (dæf, deif, diaf, defe, etc.) means “lacking, or defective, in the sense of hearing.” Throughout the Middle Ages, the term was applied to those with hearing loss, whether partial or complete, temporary or permanent, or congenital or acquired (MED 1a.). Metaphorically, the term described inanimate objects (MED 1a.), deliberate spiritual ignorance resulting from an unwillingness to learn spiritual truths (MED 2b.), and general intellectual deficiency (MED 3b.) As a noun, the term referred to deaf persons (MED 1b.) or, figuratively, to dullards or fools (MED 3b.). The term is often combined with dumb and blind in both adjectival and nominative forms, particularly in biblical passages that recount Jesus’ ability to cure impairments.
In its basic sense, deaf described a person with hearing loss of any kind. While treatments for temporary or partial hearing loss appear in medical treatises, for the most part, the condition was thought to be incurable. Such treatments included cupping of the ear to withdraw earwax, administering hearing exercises, and using acoustic instruments to stimulate hearing (Metzler, “Perceptions” 89-90). Deafness is often linked with muteness in medieval writings, following the contentions of Aristotle and Pliny, who both claimed that those with hearing impairment were also unable to speak (History of Animals, IV, 9, 536b and Historia NaturalisX, 88).
Medieval reactions to deafness were diverse, as deaf persons, though sometimes rejected socially, were often able to labor, communicate, and even learn. As Aude Saint-Loup notes, an illiterate peasant class made “using gestures and learning from pictures […] a generally accepted principle” (317). In matters of law, however, deaf people were often treated as minors because they were unable to participate fully in oral legal transactions. There is also evidence of the pardoning of deaf people who committed crimes, as they were thought to be unable to defend themselves in judicial proceedings (Metzler, “Perceptions” 92-3).
Social interpretations of deafness in the Middle Ages were similar to those of blindness; because the ears, like the eyes, were necessary for comprehension, those with impaired hearing could be considered ignorant and even foolish. Moreover, deafness was employed as a metaphor in biblical and religious writings in order to illustrate the spiritual ignorance and disobedience of Christians and non-Christians who deliberately reject religious teaching (see, for example, Isaiah 29:18 and Hylton’s Scala Perfeccionis, ii.xxii). Augustine contended that congenital deafness resulted from the sin of the child’s parents (Contra Julianum, III, cap. 4).
The condition’s connection to miraculous cure further complicated the medieval social notions of deafness. The New Testament describes several instances in which Jesus cures deafness (Matthew 11:5, Mark 7:37, Luke 7:22). In the story of Malchus, Simon Peter punishes the servant for participating in the arrest of Jesus (John 18: 10-11). In the gospel of Luke, Jesus heals Malchus before the crowd (Luke 22: 50-1). Deafness also features in hagiographical accounts of miraculous healings as a vehicle for demonstrating a saint’s spiritual singularity (Metzler, Disability 129-35). Often, these episodes feature figures unable to speak or hear. Cure, as a result, is often demonstrated by the person’s sudden ability to speak, indicating the close connection between speech and hearing.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath perhaps best brings together the literal condition of deafness with its conflicting social interpretations. Alisoun of Bath’s partial deafness is mentioned both in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales as well as in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, making it the only impairment mentioned in a pilgrim’s portrait to feature later in the text. In her prologue, we find that Alisoun incurs her deafness during a fight with her fifth husband. As a result, some may read her literal deafness as a punishment that signals a metaphoric deafness: her inability to “properly” interpret biblical and spiritual truths (Storm). Complicating this reading is her ability to participate fully in her community; she works successfully, has an active love life, and is a seasoned pilgrim. Her deafness, consequently, does not disable her and may even enable her by serving as an impetus for her to frequent journeys to religious shrines (Pearman 60-71).
Evidence and Images
“Jesus Christ Cures the Man Who Was Deaf and Mute,” c. 15th century, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Austria.
Jesus puts fingers into a man’s ears as a crowd looks on.
“Christ: Miracle of healing Deaf and Dumb,” c. 1476, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.158
Christ, cross-nimbed, gestures toward youthful male, arms crossed at wrists, looking back toward group of four men, wearing hats.
Utrecht, “Christ: Miracle of healing Deaf and Dumb,” c. 1440, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.0087, fol. 304v
Christ, cross-nimbed, with left hand holding book, and with right hand to right ear of deaf and dumb man, kneeling on ground, with both hands extended.
Rouen, “Occupational: Doctoring,” Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M. 0165, Fol. 053v
Man, wearing belted tunic, seated on chair, with head turned to right, his chin supported by left hand of and his left ear probed by object held in right hand of man, wearing fur-lined, belted robe
“Christ: Betrayal and Arrest, and Christ: healing Ear of Malchus,” c. 1490, MS M.0487, fol.056v
Four armored soldiers, including two with halberds and one with spear, stand behind Judas, holding moneybag in right hand, embracing and kissing Christ, nimbed, with right hand healing ear of Malchus, bleeding from head, holding lantern and seated on ground before Him. Behind Christ stand Evangelist John, nimbed, and Apostle Peter, nimbed, tonsured, wearing ermine-lined mantle inscribed with stars, sheathing sword. In background is picket fence.
Leviticus 19: 14
Psalms 37: 14
Psalms 57: 5
Ecclesiastes 12: 4
Isaiah 35: 5
Isaiah 42: 18-19
Isaiah 43: 8
Matthew 11: 5
Matthew 26: 51
Mark 14: 37
Luke 22: 50
John 18: 10-11
Metzler, Irina. Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking About Physical Impairment During the High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400 (London: Routledge, 2006).
—. “Perceptions of Deafness in the Central Middle Ages,” Homo debilis Behinderte – Kranke – Versehrte in der Gesellschaft des Mittelalters. Ed. Cordula Nolte, Korb (Germany: Didymos-Verlag, 2009) 79-98.
Pearman, Tory Vandeventer. “Physical Education: Excessive Wives and Bodily Punishment in the Book of the Knight and the ‘Wife of Bath’s Prologue’,” Women and Disability in Medieval Literature (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010) 43-71.
de Saint-Loupe, Aude. “Images of the Deaf in Medieval Western Europe,” Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Languages. Ed. Renate Fischer and Harlan Lane (Hamburg, Signum, 1993) 379-402.
Storm, Melvin. “Alisoun’s Ear.” Modern Language Quarterly 2.3 (1981): 219-26.
Amy Benton, Chelsee Griffin, Jennifer Hillard, Meghan Kinnett, Alexander Randall, Andy Richard, and Kyle Short, all of Miami University Hamilton
Tory V. Pearman, Miami University Hamilton