This research project concentrates on the significance of Christian lived religion in understanding and experiencing disability, analysing the ways religious rituals, views, and practices framed and shaped bodily and mental difference. By emphasising religion as a lived experience and taking a longue durée approach to disability history from the Late Middle Ages / Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution (c. 1450–1850), this project is the first-ever social history of disability to range across traditional periodisations to examine the significance of religious beliefs and practices to the emergence of disability as a social category of modernity. In doing so, the project also evaluates the ways in which the major cultural transformations of this period impacted the role and relative importance of religion as a framework shaping conceptions and experiences of disability.


This project sits at the intersection of disability studies, social and cultural history, and the social history of medicine. We view impairment as fluid and culturally contingent, the human body as an experiencing agent, and dis/ability as a construct formed in interaction with social and cultural scripts and attitudes. A primary concept we work with is ‘lived religion’, where religion is seen as encompassing religious beliefs, practices, and embodied performances that give meaning to people’s lives. Seen from this perspective, religion is not a top-down system of beliefs or theological dogmas but a complex set of beliefs, interactions, and rituals that shape and are created in everyday life.

Historically faith has played a major role in all aspects of human life and has provided the foundation to many of the cultural scripts shaping and constructing experiences of physical and mental difference. Since its inception, Christianity has also been intimately connected with notions about illness, impairment and healing, influencing understandings of dis/ability in the process. Suffering and salvation, charitable acts towards the infirm, and the possibility of miraculous healing, for instance, are all central to Christian teachings.

While the intersection of religion and disability has been quite extensively analysed in medieval studies, there is still a lot to do concerning later centuries. Work suggesting the continued relevance of religion to evolving discourses and experiences of disability in the early modern and modern period does exist, but such studies are rare, and the influence of precisely lived religion on perceptions and experiences of disability for later periods remains largely unexplored.


The research questions of the project are:

  • How did religious beliefs and practices influence perceptions and experiences of physical and mental difference during the period under study? And with what consequences?
  • How did other significant categories of difference, such as gender, age, or class, inflect religious beliefs about bodily and cognitive alterities? And with what consequences?
  • How did ‘disabled’ people negotiate, contest, embrace or embody religious beliefs in their lives?

The focus of the research under all these questions is on continuities and changes. The time period under study covers important societal, scientific, and religious developments such as the Renaissance, the Reformations, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. A crucial point of analysis in the project is to critically re-examine the impact of medicalisation and the scientific revolution underpinning the period under investigation.


The project is funded by the Research Council of Finland.