Muteness (Dumbness)


According to the OED, the word mute is an adjective meaning “Of a person: lacking the power of speech; unable to speak owing to a congenital or pathological condition ; dumb.” Etymologically, the origin of the word stems from the Classical Latin “mūtus” which is an adjective describing the physical condition of not being able to speak: “dumb, inarticulate, silent, speechless, not accompanied by speech, plosive, and as noun in the sense person who is unable to speak (compare also mūta (neuter plural) dumb creatures, mūta (feminine singular) mute consonant, after ancient Greek ἄϕωνα, neuter plural); it is probably an imitative formation. In the Medieval Anglo-Norman/French and/or Catalonian understanding of the word, the adjective “mute” is as follows: “Anglo-Norman muet, moet, muwet, etc., and Middle French, French muet (adjective) dumb, mute, silent (early 13th cent. in Old French), refraining from speech (early 13th cent.), (of a letter) not pronounced, silent (1647; compare sense A. 4b), (of wine) stopped in the process of fermentation (1761), (noun) a person who is unable to speak (late 12th cent.), servant of a Turkish sultan (1585) < Anglo-Norman mu , muu , mut and Old French mu , mut dumb, mute (11th cent.; < classical Latin mūtus : see below) + -et -et suffix1. In β forms remodeled after classical Latin mūtus; compare Middle French, French mut (early 16th cent.), and also Occitan mut (c1050), Spanish mudo (1250), Italian muto (a1294), Catalan mut (c1300).”

Similarly, the adjective “dumb” according to the OED means destitute of the faculty of speech. Etymologically, the word differs in that historically it is more associated with the Germanic language of the Saxons: “A Common Germanic adj.: Old English dumb = Old Saxon dumb (Middle Dutch domp, dom, Dutch dom, Low German dum), Old High German tumb, tump (Middle High German tump, tum, early modern German thumb, modern German dumm), Old Norse dumbr (Swedish dumb), Gothic dumbs. In Gothic, Old Norse, and Old English only in sense ‘mute, speechless’; in Old High German it shared this sense with those of ‘stupid’ and ‘deaf’ ; in the other languages and periods, generally in sense ‘stupid’, though early modern German had also that of ‘deaf’: see Grimm. These diverse applications suggest as the original sense some such notion as ‘stupid’, ‘not understanding’, which might pass naturally either into ‘deaf’ or ‘dumb’”


Muteness, according to the medieval understanding of the disability, was the result of either a physical impairment or a mental/psychological impairment. Muteness as a physical impairment was conceptualized as the loss of “voice” whereas the mental/psychological impairment was conceptualized as the loss of “speech.” The physical impairment that resulted in loss of the “voice” was often due to a damaged, or impeded tongue. The tongue could become physically impaired by humoral/fluid imbalances, damage to the “dura mater” (a Latin term that literally translates as “tough mother”) which would cause the tongue to change color and lose mobility, nerve blockage that caused the tongue to become lax or fully paralyzed, ulcers, tongue cramping, or the tongue being too tightly bound to the bottom of the mouth (literally being “tongue tied).[i]

The physical impairment of the “voice” was not perceived to be the same as the loss of “speech.” Speech was conceived as a “psychic function,” the ability to communicate comprehensive thoughts with or without speech.[ii] This form of muteness is more closely related to contemporary notions of mental disability. A mute person without any cognitive impairment could still feasibly “speak” or communicate through signs or writing. Impairment of the “voice” was usually perceived to be a result of damage to the “pia mater” or some sort of abnormal development while in the womb.[iii]

This dualism or division of the vocal disability is closely related to the medieval conceptualization of sound itself. Sound or “vox” was divided into two categories: vox discretaand vox confusaVox discreta denoted sounds that conveyed and articulated rational meaning. Vox discreta was specifically used to describe human language – both speech and writing – as opposed to animal sounds. Vox confusa signified undifferentiated or non-rational sounds. These sounds could not be directly translated into human language or writing, such as animal noises, laughter, or grunting.[iv]

Medieval physicians had two options in treating muteness and other speech-related impediments: surgery or miracles. The most common surgical procedure for treating muteness, and other speech impediments such as stuttering, involved cutting the tongue string to increase the tongue’s mobility. This medieval practice appears to have been derived from the Greek philosopher Celsus who advises to cut the tongue strings in speech related impairments:

“Again the tongue of some persons is tied down from birth to the part underlying it, and on the account they cannot even speak. In such cases the extremity of the tongue is to be seized with forceps, and the membrane under it incised, great care being taken lest the blood vessels close by are injured or bleeding […] Many, when the wound has healed, have spoken. I have however, known a case where, though the tongue has been undercut so that it could be protruded well beyond the teeth, nevertheless the power of speech has not followed.[v]

Evidence and Images

“Surgeons cut under the tongue for podagra” (top left). Image courtesy of The Mackinney Collectino of Medieval Medical Illustrations.

“Medieval Oral Surgery” Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages (Washington University in St. Louis):

“Jesus Christ cures a deaf and mute man” Image courtesy of the PNLA Quarterly.

“Jesus Curing a Deaf-Mute” Image courtesy of ARTStor from

Textual Examples

1. The Legend of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer

Muteness in “The Legend of Philomela”

King Pandion’s daughter, Procne (Progne) marries Terues, lord of Thrace and kin to the cruel god Mars. Five years into the marriage, Procne yearns to see her sister, Philomela (Philomene) who still resides with their father in Greece. She begs her husband to allow her to go see her sister or to have her brought to Thrace, and Tereus agrees to bring Philomela from Greece to Thrace.

Upon Philomela’s arrival at the castle, Tereus rapes her. She cries out for help, and out of fear that she will be heard, Tereus cuts out her tongue with his sword and locks her away in the castle’s prison.

Philomela loses her power of speech, and while she can read well, she does not know how to write with a pen. She does however, know how to weave letters, so she composes her story in a tapestry and has it sent to her sister the queen.

“She coude eek rede and wel ynow endyte,
But with a penne coude she nat wryte.
But letters can she weve to and fro,
So that, by that the yer was al ago,
She hadde ywoven in stamym large

al the thing that Tereus hath wrought,
She waf it wel, and wrot the storye above,
How she was served for hire systers love (2356-65).

The story ends with Procne finding her “dombe sister sittyng” alone and “wepynge in the castel” prison (2377-8).

This is an interesting example of the difference between “voice” and “speech.” Philomela loses her voice, but she can still communicate with her sister through the tapestry.

Muteness as Empowerment:

“Swan song” is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement. The phrase refers to an ancient belief that the Mute Swan(Cygnus olor), who is completely silent during its lifetime until the moment just before death, when it sings one last beautiful song. This belief emerges in Ancient Greece in the 3rd century BC, and was often recalled in Western poetry and art.
In reality, Mute Swans are not actually mute during life – they hiss – and they do not sing as they die. This folktale has been contested ever since antiquity: in 77 AD, Pliny the Elder provides the first surviving refutation in Natural History (book 10, chapter xxxii: olorum morte narratur flebilis cantus, falso, ut arbitror, aliquot experimentis), stating, “observation shows that the story that the dying swan sings is false.” Peterson notes that Cygnus olor is “not mute but lacks bugling call, merely honking, grunting, and hissing on occasion.”
Nevertheless, the folktale has remained so appealing that over the centuries it has become immortal in artistic works. Chaucer in his Minor Poems wrote of “The Ialous swan, ayens his deth that singeth.” In Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice, Portia exclaims “Let music sound while he doth make his choice; Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, Fading in music.”
The well-known Orlando Gibbons madrigal “The Silver Swan” states the legend thus:

“The silver Swan, who living had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
“More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

Images of muteness in animals prevailed in the Middle Ages. Karl Steel observes in “Woofing and Weeping” how animals are marginalized through anthropocentrism and how animals embody medieval anxieties of the human being.

Chaucer regarded the mute swan as a tamed animal. He wrote in 1386 “… a fat swan loved he best of any roost.” In another source we see : “The mute swan, or that which we call Tame, is found in a wild state in some parts of Russia.” Thus, muteness in animals depicts domestication. Muteness is not limited to physical impairment alone, it speaks for a suppression which is immortalized in a “death song” or an ability acquired before dying-a final possibility of empowerment.Similarly, muteness in women can be regarded as a form of subjugation. Muteness was perceived as virtuous chastity for women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer describes Creysida as such: “Her father took her in his arms, and twenty times he kissed her sweetly/ “Welcome, my dear daughter,” he said/ She said she too was glad that she might be with him/ and stood forth mute, mild, and meek.”

Medieval monks too practiced vows of muteness as part of their religious ritual. Muteness also serves as spiritual empowerment. Practicing silence has been viewed as empowering the soul/spirit ; thereby suppressing speech or enforced disability is seen as a prosthesis to attain salvation. Silvestre examines the sign language that the monks used in the medieval ages. He underscores how silence was considered indispensable for divine contemplation – both as “ an instrumentum bonorum operum (4: 51-54) and a means of achieving humilitatis gradum” (8: 56-58) (3). Consequently, monks were exhorted to minimize the use of words: “perfectis discipulis … rara loquendi concedatur licentia” (6: 3) [‘perfect disciples … seldom will be given licence to [talk’].
Teresa de Cartagena can be viewed as another religious figure who took the vow of silence to enter the spiritual world. She believed that noise/speech distracted her from the quest for God. She argues: “When hearing fails, what good is speech? One is left and completely isolated” (25)


[i] Metzler, 76.
[ii] Metzler, 76.
[iii] Metzler, 76, 78.
[iv] Leach, 26-28.
[v] Metzler, 97-98.

Further Reading

Brock, Brian, and John Swinton. Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2012.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Legend of Good Women. Whitefish: Kessinger, 2010

Cockayne, Emily. “Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England.” The Historical Journal 46.3 (2003): 493-510. JSTOR.

Eyler, Joshua. Disability in the Middle Ages: Rehabilitations, Reconsiderations, Reverberations.
Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.

Hubert, Jane. Madness, Disability, and Social Exclusion: The Archaeology and Anthropology of “difference” London: Routledge, 2000.

Leach, Elizabeth E. Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 2007. Print.

Metzler, Irina. Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment in the High Middle Ages C. 1100 – C.1400. Bristol: Routledge., 2006. Print.

Richardson, Kristina L. Difference and Disability in the Medieval Islamic World: Blighted
Bodies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2012.

Turner, Wendy J., and Tory Vandeventer Pearman. The Treatment of Disabled Persons in Medieval Europe: Examining Disability in the Historical, Legal, Literary, Medical, and Religious Discourses of the Middle Ages. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2010.

Courtney Bohr, Dan George, and Sukshma Vedere, The George Washington University