“If in Other Respects He Appears to Be Effectively Human”: Defining Monstrosity in Medieval English Law

  • Eliza Buhrer
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In 1265, William Pilche was exonerated for the 1265 killing of Augustine le Fevere on the grounds that he was “a natural fool” while his victim was a “terrible monster.” Legal treatises referred to monstrosity and disability in the same passages, considering both in response to broader questions about who had the ability to exercise the rights associated with legal adulthood. Jurists conferred similar restrictions upon monsters and people with disabilities, so it would be easy to imagine that they viewed the difference between these categories as one of degree rather than kind and used the term “monster” to denote people born with the most profound mental and physical impairments. However, a survey of English legal treatises, as well as the records of a very small number of contemporaneous court cases involving “monsters,” reveals that medieval law did not collapse the categories of disability and monstrosity. Instead, jurists carefully clarified the ways that monstrosity differed from disability. Monsters were “not born in the likeness of a man,” while impairment or deformity did not render someone a monster if they still appeared to be “effectively human.”

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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eliza Buhrer
    • 1
  1. 1.Colorado School of MinesGoldenUSA

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