In Middle English, the adjective feeble (feble, febele, fieble, fyble, etc.), which derives from Old French (feble, fieble, foible)generally applies to persons, animals, or things that lack physical strength (OED 1 and 2, MED 1). In its many applications, feeble always indicates a poorer quality of standard of that which it modifies. It can describe a lack of intellect (MED 4) or a lack of moral or spiritual strength (MED 3). Feeble is also used to characterize a weakness of power (MED 2), will, or reliability (MED 5a) and can connote general ineffectiveness and inadequacy (MED 7). As a noun, feeble denotes a weak or infirm person, and as a verb, feeble can mean to become weak or infirm or to make something or someone grow weak or infirm.
When used to describe physical ability, feeble indicates weakness or infirmity, and it can be applied to limbs or organs. Causes for feebleness include “age, youth, femininity, sickness, hunger, fatigue, or the like” (MED 1a). In Middle English, feeble is used interchangeably with synonyms like weak, infirm, and even lame. As a result, feebleness, because it weakens and impairs a body’s “normal” ability to function, can be considered physically disabling.
In addition to describing a weakened body, feeble also indicates cognitive impairment, such as a lack of intellect or understanding or even a loss of memory. The compound feble-witted, moreover, describes one who is “deficient in mental power” (MED 4b), and is thus associated with mental impairment. Like physical feebleness, mental or cognitive feebleness could be debilitating. As Rebecca McNamara has found, infirmity or feebleness of mind or body led some medieval people to take their own lives.
In a spiritual sense, feeble can suggest weak moral strength or religious faith (MED 3a). One who is feeble in faith might be unable to resist temptation and therefore become more susceptible to engage in sinful behaviors. Spiritual and bodily feebleness intersect in religious writings that assert that a woman’s “weak” body makes her prone to sin. For instance, Hali Meidenhad, a treatise praising the virtues of virginity and written for a female audience, admonishes the feebleness of flesh, “nomeliche of wummon” (20, line 196). Similarly, Ancrene Wisse, a guide written for anchoresses, cautions women to guard against their “feble, tendre flesch,” so as to avoid sin (Part Two, lines 728-9). In its most extreme use, feeble can indicate “base, evil, [or] wicked” thoughts, behaviors, or reputation (MED 3b).
Biblical uses of the term support all of the above definitions, as they apply feeble to weakened power or will, but also those with physical weakness or infirmity. Indeed, various versions of the Bible examined for this project (Latin Vulgate, Wycliffite, Geneva, and King James) use feeble, weak, infirm, sick, and lame interchangeably, and, often, the feeble appear in lists that include the crippled, blind, deaf, lame, sick, or poor. Notably, the Wycliffite turns to feeble in the widest variety of definitions, using it in place of idle, crippled, base, and discouraged, and even describes blindness as a feebleness of the eyes (Isaiah 38:14) and deafness as feeble hearing (Hebrews 5:11). Lastly, biblical descriptions of Jews as feeble brings together notions of physical and spiritual impairment (Ezra 4:2, Nehemiah 4:2, Psalms 9:4) similar to those found in medieval depictions of “blind” Jews.
Evidence and Images
Note: Feeble is used interchangeably with many similar terms, including, weak, infirm, sick, and lame, etc. across the Latin Vulgate, Wycliffite, Geneva, and King James bibles.
Genesis 30:42, 42:9, 42:12
Deuteronomy 15:21, 25:18
Judges 16:7, 16:11-13
I Samuel 2:5, 18:23
2 Samuel 4:1, 4:4, 9:3, 13:4,
2 Chronicles 28:15, 34:10
Ezra 4:2, 4:10
Job 4:4, 18:12, 26:2
Psalms 9:4, 30:11, 38:8, 105:37, 108:24
Proverbs 18:14, 30:25-26
Isaiah 16:14, 24:4, 35:3, 38:14
Jeremiah 6:24, 47:3, 49:24, 50:43
Ezekiel 7:17, 21:7
Zechariah 2:11, 12:8
Matthew 15:30, 18:8
Luke 14:14, 14:21
1 Corinthians 1:28, 11:30, 12:22
2 Corinthians 10:10, 13:3
1 Thessalonians 5:14
Hebrews 5:11, 12:12
McNamara Rebecca F. “The Sorrow of Soreness: Infirmity and Suicide in Medieval England.” Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 2014; 31 (2): 11-34.