A History of Mental Handicap/Learning Difficulties from 1000AD to 2000AD-

This site is about the history of people who have been described over the years as fools and intellectually impaired, mentally retarded and developmentally delayed, mentally handicapped and learning disabled, They have faced oppression and prejudice in the past but now are beginning to be recognised as individuals who should be included , respected and valued who have equal civil rights and who are unique indivuduals who can offer a great deal and live rich fulfilled lives just like anyone else.I apologise to anyone who objects to my use of terminology that was used in the past but I need to use the old terms when I am describing the old times.

Introduction-From early times to 1200 AD

The subject of mental retardation has been neglected in ancient writings but there is enough evidence in historical records to show it existed.The causes were then as now congenital, chromosomal, interuterine damage, premature or protracted birth,or infections and accidents in infancy and childhood. Infant mortality was high and most children with Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy or other disability where there was a weakened resistance to infection would have succumbed early to pulmonary infections, heart defects and gastroenteritis

.However , some would have survived, like children who had a mental disability but no physical impairments . At a time when most people lived by agriculture, herding sheep and goats , or fishing, and reading and writing were unnecessary, moderate intellectual disability would not have been important.

People with disabilities, whether physical or mental disabilities were treated in different ways according to where they lived.The picture above shows a dwarf,or more correctly a person with achondroplasia.Such people were well respected in ancient Egypt and held high office as goldsmiths or as keepers of the royal wardrobe. This man was called Seneb. He was head of the royal textile works under King Pepi II and supervisor of the Pharaoh's wardrobe.He was also a priest in the funerary temples of Jedefre and Khufu, and chief of all the dwarfs. The depiction draws attention away from his disability and towards his high status. and the closeness of his wife and children. For instance his wife has her right arm affectiobnately round his shoulder drawing attention away from his short arms and showing that she loves him. The children stand in the place where his legs would be, had he been of average height , and his bearing , wig and clothing are those of a high official, and he was buried with honour in a mastaba tomb near to Cheops (Kufru's) pyramid in Giza

The Bible in Leviticus described how people with any disability were forbidden to become priests or enter the sanctuary"And the Lord said to Moses, none of your descendents throughout their generations who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long , or an injured foot, or an injured hand or a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man with itching disease...."

.However although people with disabilities might have been denied the priesthood, Jewish law stressed the duty to protect the defenceless-orphans, widows,aliens, cripples, the poor. Some parts of the Talmud advocated disability as a holy state and a means of getting to heaven and similar sentiments were expressed towards those who helped disabled people..At the heart of Jewish law was the idea that every human being newborn or adult ,deformed or healthy , slave or free was made in the image of God. Abortion and infanticide were condemned while pagan religions sanctioned , condoned and encouraged the killing of malformed or sick infants.

Plato stated that pregnant women over the age of forty years should have an abortion and Aristotle recommended both infanticide and abortion if there was a risk of a deformed child. He supported a law to ensure the compulsory exposure of all malformed babies.who were abandoned with their ankles pinned together.The birth of a retarded child was interpreted by the Greeks as a punishment inflicted on its parents by the gods.Rearing a sick or disabled child was economically burdensome and unprofitable.


In Sparta , racial homogenity was prized. Citizens had to be physically strong and mentally able.There was a legal requirement to abandon deformed and sickly infants.Babies were left to perish on a mountainside or thrown into a chasm.If the disability was not obvious at birth, but the child was later found to be an "idiot" the child would be abandoned.and left to fend for itself,

Meanwhile the Celts had a much more enlightened attitude. The social order was based on community ,democracy and individual rights. Each clan or tribe occupied its own territory, and this was divided into three sections. The clan leader and his family had one section, another was set aside for the use ofthe poor, sick and disabled and the largest section was common ground for the whole tribe.Members working their own plots paid taxes which were used for the upkeep of the community and to support the poor, the sick and the aged.The celts had hostels, orphanages and hospitals. The earliest known was in Armagh in Ireland in 300BC. Ancient celtic laws show there was a well developed medical service and that each individual tribe was responsible for caring for the sick, the wounded and those with mental handicaps.The Celts covered territory from Ireland to Hungary, from Sweden to Spain

Early Roman law gave power to the father to have absolute rights over his children.He could expose any female infant or a child of either sex who was deformed or disabled.Soranus a physician in the Ist and 2nd centuries AD wrote the earliest known treatise on gynaecology and in it he had a chapter entitled How to recognise the Newborn that is worth rearing.He gave a quite scientific and detailed analysis of the various medical examinations which should take place

The child should be perfect in all its parts, limbs and senses and have passages that are not obstructed including the ears, nose, throat, urethra and anus. Its natural movements should be neither slow not feeble . Its limbs should bend and stretch . Its size and shape should be appropriate and it should respond to external stimuli

.Plutarch wrote of Sparta that children were the property of the state not the father and that the father had to present the child shortly after birth to the elders of the tribe to make sure it was not ill-born or ill formed and if it were it should be exposed in a chasm called Paotheatum in the belief that the life which nature had not provided with health and strength was of no use either to itself or the state

Some mentally retarded people would have received asylum in sanctuaries as did other groups in the ancient world. However feeble minded and mentally disabled people had their political rights curtailed and would not have been granted Greek or Roman citizenship

As Christianity spread, a far more compassionate view was taken of people with disabilities of any kind. Charity towards people with disabilities and illnesses was preached and the Church set up orphanages for abandoned children in the 3rd and 4th centuries and the earliest hospital was founded by St Fabiola in Rome in 399 AD.St Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra showed particular compassion towards mentally retarded children and urged giving them tender care.

In the Islamic world from the seventh century, feebleminded people were treated with respect. There was a belief that their minds were in heaven while their body moved around amongst ordinary mortals.Not all people we would think of as mentally disabled were thought to have any disability, but rather to to be special individuals who were favoured by Heaven.

Little was known about the causes of mental handicap, and medicine was based on "humours" and a close link between the body, mind and soul. Europe was still in the Dark Ages of science and medicine but in the Islamic world Avicenna 980-1037) wrote a textbook the Canon of medicine in which he mentioned hydrocephalus, meningitis and other mental disorders. He recognised and defined various levels of intellectual functioning and knew that brain injury could affect memory and speech. There were mental hospitals in Cairo and Baghdad in the 11th and 12th centuries. Ibn Al-Baitar also wrote about mental disabilities during the first half of the thirteenth century

From the time of the end of the Roman empire in Europe until the late middle ages , life remained very rural By 1066 England had a population of less than one million. The majority lived in villages and hamlets surrounded by forests and marshes. Agriculture was the main occupation and the most powerful people were those who owned the most land. In a rural society literacy and intellectual ability were not important and every member of the family would have taken part in the daily grind of fetching water and fire-wood, ploughing the fields, or feeding the animals. Disabled people would have relied on relatives for their care but with poverty, malnutrition ,poor hygiene and a feudal system life would have been hard.However city life was beginning again and St Bartholomews hospital was founded in 1142 in London.In Prussia we have a record from the 12th century which said that mentallly afflicted people were put in prison.As the medieval period continued, the population gradually increased and life became more sophisticated as more people moved into towns and the generation of wealth meant that new phenomena such as urban beggars, some of them disabled became and issue and the importance of landed wealth led to the first law defining a distinction between mentally ill people and mentally disabled people.

Thanks to many sources including Robert Garland's "The Eye of the Beholder:Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World"

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Chapter Two .the mediaeval period 1200-1450|
Chapter Three Renaissance, Reformation and Beyond1450-1800|
Chapter Four Incarceration, Segregation and Eugenics 1800-1945|
Chapter Five Inclusion Civil Rights and a Better Life?1945-2000|
A biography of John Langdon Down

A very good history of disability site
Very useful site on "Idiocy" We Support the World Association of Persons with Disabilities
A little more about Dr Down and a better photo
A fascinating page of paintings from the Renaisance and later
The theories of Dr Down |
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