Old English: wit, Old Frisian: gewit, Old Saxon: wit, Old High German: wizzi, Old Norse: vit, Gothic: unwiti

The Middle English Dictionary provides seven definitions for wit, and the Oxford English Dictionary provides eighteen definitions for the noun. Broadly, the Middle English definitions can be understood as follows:

1) consciousness in a modern sense, spirit, which can be man’s or deity’s; will power of enacting one’s mind.

2) processes of the mind, including reason, understanding and judgement; it is with this definition that terms relating to cognitive and mental disability arise, such as god wit, in ful wit, in right wittes; and correspondingly, oute of wit, wittes end.

3) keenness of the mind, including intelligence, wisdom and skillfulness.

4) sensory cortexes, bodily wits, five wittes; emotional cortexes, wittes of herte.

5) wisdom of action, good choices, strong decision making.

6) opinion or advice; interpretation.

7) in surnames.


The Disability narrative of this word lies in definitions two and four.

In the early 13th century, wit is used as a spectrum: one has wit, one’s wit is good, or conversely has less wit or no wit. By the turn of the 14 century, the Proverbs of Hendyng uses the phrase, “thi wit is coming home,” and Arthur and Merlin reads, “her wit was oway go,” establishing not only the temporality of having one’s wit, but also as something that is firmly established in corporeality. The home one’s wit returns to is the body, and when it goes away, it leaves the body. Wit referring to Madness, such as the phrase out of witt, is in widespread use throughout the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, frequently alluding to depth of emotion, such as love out of witt. Aleksandra Pfau studies Madness in Medieval France from the Disability context, and demonstrates that madmen and madwomen were defined as incapable of understanding the law― and therefore, in some sense, not bound by it. The legal establishment of Northern France differentiated between those born mad, who could never enter into contracts, and those who went mad, or periodically go mad. These latter were more complicated, legally.

What’s interesting about definition four, while one could be out of one’s wits in terms of Madness, when the term refers to the five wits, there is no corresponding lack of wit for blindness or deafness. By this I mean, there are five wits, but a blind person is not described as having four wits. Blindness and deafness are something separate and distinct from not possessing all five senses, not simply a lack of wit or lack of one or two wits. This very much ties to the Religious Model of Medieval Disability developed by Edward Wheatley. Blindness is not merely the inability to see, but a divine purpose: a gift, punishment or trial.

Further Reading

Middle English Dictionary. “Wit.” http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=byte&byte=245305275&egdisplay=open&egs=245340146&egs=245378306

Oxford English Dictionary. “Wit.” Clarendon Press: Oxford. (1980)

Pfau, Aleksandra. “Protecting or Restraining? Madness as a Disability in Late Medieval France.” Disability in the Middle Ages: Reconsiderations and Reverberations. Ed. Joshua Eyler. Ashgate Publising Ltd. (2010)

Wheatley, Edward. Medieval Constructions of Blindness in France and England. In The Disability Studies Reader, Third Edition. Ed. Lennard Davis. Routledge: New York and London. (2010)

Paul-Newell Reaves, The George Washington University