History | The Medieval Misfit
J400 | 6355 | Elliott


Above section open to majors only
Above section open to undergraduates only

Medieval society valued conformity. It respected hierarchy,
believing that earthly realities reflected higher celestial truths.
In theory, everyone was believed to have a proper place – one
ordained by God for a distinct purpose. Therefore from this
perspective, the medievals tended to find misfits – individuals who
defied society’s norms either consciously or unconsciously –
disturbing and even ungodly. Still, there were significant
exceptions. Holy people, for example, tended to transcend
traditional boundaries and were much admired for it. Demoniacs
(people possessed by the devil) were considered involuntary victims
and hence were frequently pitied. And despite the intense fear and
loathing of poverty or, worse still, leprosy, both conditions
offered society the valuable opportunity to bestow charity. This
course examines medieval society’s ambivalence to the “misfit” – how
it both created, shunned, and accommodated “the deviant.” By
examining diverse categories such as disease, sanctity, heresy, or
sexual depravity, we will assess the various ways in which the
margins of society were responsible for shaping the center.  Active
participation required; a series of short papers; and a longer
source study (ca. 8 pp.)