The Devil, Disability, and Fatness: How Divorced Are We From ‘Medieval Thinking?’

The Middle Ages are often used as a reference point for thoughts and ideas that people want to describe as outdated and ridiculous; no one believes that anymore, it’s a relic of the dark ages. Despite the ardent desires of modern humans to separate themselves from this period in history, though, it’s left a profound legacy on Western art and culture, and will continue to resonate for many hundreds of years to come, I expect. What astounds me is that people act like we’ve moved forward from the attitudes about bodies and identities that dominated in this period, where difference was considered a symbol of evil.

People with visible birthmarks, supernumerary digits, dark skin, and other physical differences were sometimes accused of witchcraft or collusion with the devil. Their bodies were viewed as punishments, either for their sins or the sins of their parents. This thinking still holds true today, and people are often not very subtle about it. Disabled children, for instance, are sometimes considered retribution for their parents; I’ve seen liberals comment, for example, that Trig Palin was some sort of deserved penance for Sarah Palin and her family. The idea that human beings are punishments because of their bodies? Not gone from modern society, no matter how much people might want to dismiss it as ‘medieval thinking.’

And this is also readily apparent with fat bodies and the coding of fatness. Fat bodies are a standin for all that is horrific; gluttony, greed, obscene wealth, laziness. This shorthand contains coding derived from very, very old cultural and artistic traditions. How far are we from the Middle Ages when the media scapegoats certain bodies and uses them as an indictment of society as a whole? When fat bodies and identities are described as just punishment for the sins of society, and for the sins of their owners?

Fat hatred in headlines is nothing new, but a close examination of the way many headlines are framed reveals thinking that would certainly have been familiar to people living in the Middle Ages. The United States in particular is often fingered in international headlines as the fattest nation in the world, complete with images of headless fat people in the sidebar to underscore the horror. I am reminded of the grotesque woodcuts used to depict disability, showing people writing in torment for their sins or in communion with the devil; look into the face of evil and repent, readers.

Views about fatness have shifted from the Middle Ages, where a broader spectrum of bodies was considered attractive and people lived, and developed, in very different ways. Some of the bodies we identify as fat now probably wouldn’t seem so to medieval observers, but the language we use about fatness, and the way we depict fat bodies socially, wouldn’t seem very far divorced from that oh-so-antiquated medieval thinking; it would be natural to view some people as evil because of their bodies.

How far are we, truly, from medieval thinking about bodies? Framing people with disabilities as objects of pity and horror is not that uncommon in the media, and it certainly wasn’t uncommon then. While attitudes about witchcraft have shifted significantly in the West, making it unlikely that most members of society would believe visual differences mark people as witches, the idea of disability as a punishment endures, as does the fear of differing bodies. Excuses aplenty are made for that fear, but it has its origins in medieval thinking and the lashing out at anyone who does not look like you.

Exploring the origins of social attitudes is important, because sometimes we need to get at the root of something to understand why it happens, and how to eradicate it; as any gardener knows, if you cut down a weed it will grow again, but if you dig it out and remove the root system, it cannot thrive. It may scatter seeds in a desperate attempt at perpetuating itself, but the weed itself will not return. To address some of the thinking about bodies that appear different, that are marked as visibly distinct and Other, it is necessary to dig at the root of where those feelings come from and how they have persisted for so long. This is not innate: It is cultural.

Many people believe that we live in a secular, civilised society, that we have moved far from the beliefs and ideas of the Middle Ages and thus that we have nothing to learn from them. This is not, strictly speaking, true; the United States is saturated with Judeo-Christian iconography, beliefs, and ideology. While people may not be consciously aware of it, may actively reject religion, they are very much shaped by it because they are steeped in it. Dangerously, it is a silent steeping, giving you nothing firm to grasp at when you are attempting to rejigger the way people think and behave.

And as for civilisation, that’s a much-debated concept to begin with, but if people are going to define it by how different we are from the Middle Ages, how different are we? Really? The external trappings of society have shifted radically, of course; medicine has improved significantly, technology has leapt forward by leaps and bounds. Externally, we are not a society that medieval people would recognise, if dropped in the middle of our town squares. But what about what lies beneath? Many of our core social attitudes are not at all remarkable for the medieval era, and until we acknowledge that, it is going to be difficult to break free of them. The fact that much of the iconography we use would be readable to people living hundreds of years ago is telling; it says something about the persistence of thoughts and ideas and beliefs through vast spans of history.