Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Disabled beggar child
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This marginal illumination appears in the Luttrell Psalter, a manuscript created for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell in the 1330s. The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most renowned manuscripts in the world because of its many depictions of everyday medieval life. This illumination depicts a disabled beggar youth, his caregiver, and a man offering alms. The child's hands and feet are deformed as a result of birth defects or leprosy. The boy sits on a wheelbarrow, which is pushed by an adult, possibly his father. The boy and the man share the same curly, red hair, which may signal their father-son relationship. The almsgiver’s elegant pendant sleeves and the long tail of his hood signal his status as a rich man, and he reaches into his purse to produce a donation for the disabled youth. The illumination is intended to remind the reader of the virtue of almsgiving. The text immediately above is from Psalm 104, v. 16 "And he called a famine upon the earth." Michael Camille suggested that the combined effect of text and image conveyed the idea that charity begins at home.

    While medieval illuminations that depict children are relatively rare, the Luttrell Psalter offers us a robust depiction of the life of a young beggar. Here, the child still has care and support. If a family was poor, begging for alms was a matter of survival. The child would likely spend much of his day seeking alms, as begging provided a meager living. In one canonization testimony, a disabled child and her father begged in London for ten years before collecting enough money to complete their pilgrimage to St Thomas Cantilupe's shrine in Hereford. Furthermore, the wheelbarrow provides insight into the benefit of a disabled beggar child’s mobility. Using the wheelbarrow, the father and son can cover more ground begging, decreasing the likelihood that they might exhaust the generosity of their donors. If possible, beggars often chose mobility for this particular reason.

    During the medieval period, elites held a widespread suspicion that beggars were intentionally altering their appearance or faking illnesses in order to receive alms. Because of this, beggars with disabilities were occasionally subject to invasive examinations of their bodies. The Luttrell Psalter’s depiction of the deformed child is likely informed by this stereotype; a child may have been chosen for this illustration in order to strategically convey an honest, innocent, desperate need for alms. While almsgiving benefited beggars, they in turn offered their prayers for the salvation of their benefactors.

  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Alms and Almsgiving Beggars Charity Children Disabled Luttrell Psalter Psalters, Liturgical Books
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1330s
  • Related Work: Full page view with the child beggar scene in the margin.
    Digitized version of the Luttrell Psalter.
    Old woman carrying grain to a mill, Luttrell Psalter.
    Begging man carrying baby, Rutland Psalter, England, ca. 1260, British Library, Add MS 62925, fol. 47r.
    St Elizabeth clothing and feeding disabled beggars, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Netherlands, ca. 1440, New York, Morgan Library and Museum, MS M.917/945, pp. 320–321.
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Additional 42130, fol. 186v
  • Original Location: Lincolnshire
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Ink; Paints; Gold;
  • Donor: Layman; Sir Geoffrey Luttrell III (1276-1345), lord of the manor of Irnham in Lincolnshire
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 35/24.5/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Brodman, James. Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe. Catholic University of America Press, 2009;
    Brown, Michelle P. The World of the Luttrell Psalter. British Library, 2006;
    Camille, Michael. Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England. University of Chicago Press, 1998;
    Farmer, Sharon. "The Beggar's Body: Intersections of Gender and Social Status in High Medieval Paris." Monks & Nuns, Saints & Outcasts: Religion in Medieval Society. Essays in Honor of Lester K. Little. Edited by Sharon Farmer and Barbara H. Rosenwein. Cornell University Press, 2000. Pages 153-171;
    Kuuliala, Jenni. "Unlikely Heroes: A Study on Three Miracle Narratives if Disabled Beggar Children in Late Thirteenth-Century Hagiographic Sources." Agents and Objects: Children in Pre-Modern Europe. Edited by Katariina Mustakallio and Jussi Hanska. Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, 2015. Pages 147-167;
    McIntosh, Marjorie Keniston. Poor Relief in England, 1350-1600. Cambridge University Press, 2012;
    Metzler, Irina. Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment during the High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400. Routledge, 2006;
    Newton, Stella Mary. Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince: A Study of the Years 1340-1365. Boydell Press, 2012.