Clark on Laes, 'Disability in Antiquity'

Christian Laes, ed,
Patricia Clark

Christian Laes, ed,. Disability in Antiquity. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016. xvi + 490 pp. $240.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-81485-1.

Reviewed by Patricia Clark (University of Victoria) Published on H-Disability (June, 2019) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

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This book is a contribution to the series Rewriting Antiquity, which aims to create a broad and inclusive picture of the ancient world by addressing, across time and cultures, themes such as sex, women, childhood, and disability. The latter is the most challenging area for ancient historians, who struggle in the first instance to find any connection between contemporary usage, “disability,” and the myriad terms applied to various physical and mental conditions in antiquity. This challenge is coupled with painstaking, needle-in-a-haystack sifting of primary sources for that rare, elusive material with which to work. The field of disability studies has been for some time now a thriving aspect of social history, but the pertinent question has been asked, “How is it possible to write a history of disability in antiquity?” (my italics).[1] This volume is a compelling answer to that question.

The article titles indicate the wide scope, both temporal and geographical, of this exploration into the world of people with discernable “differences.” Two excellent introductory essays (Christian Laes and April Pudsy) locate the collection in a brief history of the study of disabilities and the complex issues bound up with its emerging vocabulary. For the purposes of examining antiquity here, they provide a working definition of disability: it encompasses physical handicaps/mobility impairment; sensory impairment (visual, auditory); speech disorders; learning disorders or intellectual disabilities; mental conditions; and multiple impairments (which combine some of the previous categories).

Importantly, at the outset, key physical factors of ancient demography are outlined: environment and disease and their impacts on the human body (Pudsy, with a focus on the Mediterranean basin). One of the overarching purposes of this collection is an attempt to trace continuities in attitudes and behavior over time and among societies, and at the same time to detect changes and identify major cultural shifts that might possibly account for such change. The authors cite, as an example, the rise of monotheistic religions, and several articles in the section on late antiquity address disability in Byzantine, Christian (Syriac and Coptic), Jewish, and Islamic societies, even moving forward into the medieval world to look at canon law. The scope, aims, and methodologies of the individual studies vary widely from relatively broad sociocultural surveys to focused analyses of specific texts, genres, and—the crucial starting point for antiquity—vocabulary and definitions.

The bulk of the primary sources used in this collection lean heavily toward the definitional and the prescriptive: legal texts, medical writings, religious rules, and philosophical discussions. But there is also a wider spectrum present of literary, epigraphic, and artistic sources: Lynn Rose on the Attic orators, Robert Garland on Greek drama, Sarah Bond and T. H. M. Gellar-Goad on Roman satire, Alexandre Mitchell on terra cottas, Emma-Jayne Graham on sanctuary inscriptions, Lisa Trentin and Toon Van Houdt on visual arts and the “other.”   

Some of the broader forays appear to be first steps onto new ground, such as the examination of Hittite cuneiform documents (Richard H. Beal) and those from Mesopotamia and early Israel (Edgar Kellenberger), an analysis of early Persian evidence (Omar Coloru), and an explication of the problems involved in using ancient Indian texts (M. Miles). The strength of cultural surveys lies always in the degree to which evidence can be contextualized. Olivia Milburn’s chapter on the perception and treatment of disability in ancient China is notable in this respect: she points to the traditional link between filial piety and the undamaged body, the incessant warfare resulting in massive maiming and disfigurement, and the ubiquity of punishment by mutilation that created an intersection of crippling and criminality in the public mind.

For some, the collection will be at its best and most useful when the work is focused and analytical. For example, Chiara Thumiger brings out Galen’s unique perspective on mental disabilities as issues involving physiological, environmental, familial, and even fortuitous causative elements. Similarly useful are two examinations of legal texts and their societal implications: Peter Toohey’s clarification of the Roman Digest’s understanding of disability as “instrumental” (p. 309); and Matthew Dillon’s exploration of Athenian law and custom. Two scholars (Julia Watts Belser and Lennart Lehmhaus) address the question of changes in attitude and adaptation over time in their examination of the rabbinic texts from both a sociocultural perspective and a medical one. 

In general, two observations arise from this collection. First, the fundamental question of definitions and parameters. As Peter Toohey has observed, “Most recently the societal approaches to disability seem designed, in post-Enlightenment fashion, with an eye to provide for an individual’s entitlement to personal fulfilment regardless of their status. Perhaps disability is moving into new conceptual territory” (p. 309). As we examine ancient societies with modern eyes, we cannot avoid struggling with categories and identifications, and these remain slippery areas in this volume. The working definition given by the editor (see above) has been enlarged by some contributors, who prefer to move toward the definition of disability provided by the World Health Organization, “one which emphasizes impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions” (Thumiger, p. 267). Several contributions are clearly in this expanded vein: John W. Martens writes of the disabling force of sexuality in Syriac Christianity, and Hocine Benkheira addresses Islamic law’s approach to impotent men, sterile women, and eunuchs. Anna Rebecca Solevåg seems to subsume the illnesses and “hysteria” of women in the New Testament under the rubric of disability. Milburn notes that an extremely wide definition of disability can encompass individuals and groups—she mentions those with tattoos or pierced ears in ancient China—that suffer from what she terms “social crippling” (p. 107). Another example of this might be Matthew Alan Gaumer’s inclusion of the “temporary disability” of menstruation in his discussion of ritual purity in Islam (p. 414). Can we make a distinction between “disabilities” that are deemed to be such by a society, and those which are the result of some physical or mental impairment of function? The editor recognizes the difficulties an increasingly broad conception of “otherness” involves, especially in approaching disability in the ancient world, and clearly elucidates the various approaches taken by the contributors to this volume.

Secondly, despite strong evidence that many people with disabilities were active participants, to the extent possible, in the everyday life of their communities (Rose, p. 151), and despite the unequivocal evidence here that concepts of disability and responses to it are indeed culture-bound, there is also a strong countervailing impression evident in almost all these societies. At some level, whether by conscious, explicit prescription or unconscious assumption, powerful significance was ascribed to the concept of the “perfect,” “unblemished” body as constituting an important element in the healthy functioning of society as a whole. Such an assumption can be seen across cultures and over time in traditional attitudes, religious proscriptions, legal measures, medical assessments, and even into the twentieth century in the “body fascism” of Nazi Germany (Toon Van Houdt, p. 478).

This collection, richly diverse, holds much of use for the future work in the field. The bibliographies at the end of each chapter are extensive and current and care has been taken by the editor to locate the individual studies in the context of the history of disability studies as a whole. My only caveat is that the condition of the book when I received it does not give me great confidence in the quality of the binding.


[1]. Christian Laes, “How Does One Do the History of Disability in Antiquity? One Thousand Years of Case Studies,” Medicina nei Secoli 23, no. 3 (2011): 915-46.

Citation: Patricia Clark. Review of Laes, Christian, ed,, Disability in Antiquity. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. June, 2019. URL:

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