This article examines various retellings of a single story to explore how conceptions of disability changed throughout the English Reformation. The tale of a false miracle feigned and revealed in the village of St. Alban's during the reign of Henry VI was recounted by a number of authors: Thomas More, Richard Grafton, John Foxe, and, finally, William Shakespeare. More's version imagines a disability that is shaped by an understanding of mutual exchange between disabled and able-bodied persons. The Reformation eliminated that exchange, and its loss is reflected in the other accounts of the false miracle of St. Alban's where disability is imagined as increasingly dangerous, deceptive, and emasculating. I argue that Shakespeare, in particular, expands negative post-Reformation ideas about disability in 2 Henry VI, while simultaneously demonstrating the inability to contain disability in a period that anxiously struggled to define and regulate it.
CARDINAL: Duke Humphrey has done a miracle today.
SUFFOLK: True, made the lame to leap and fly away.
In the midst of Shakespeare's sprawling account of the life of Henry VI, a small, seemingly insignificant episode of religious and financial fraud occurs. A man interrupts the king and his retinue, claiming that, while worshiping at the local shrine of St. Alban, he has been miraculously healed of the blindness that has affected him since birth. But after the Duke of Gloucester questions him, it becomes clear that both the miracle and his illness have been feigned, staged for attention and money. The man and his wife are punished, and the king's progress — and the rest of the drama — resumes. A mere 100 lines, this episode is only one incident of several included in act 2, scene 1 of 2 Henry VI, and what little critical attention has been paid to it has either loosely connected the episode to the broad thematic foci of the drama, debated which sources Shakespeare used for its creation, or argued over the origins and accuracy of the deceiving man's name.1 What none of these studies have examined, however, is the performance of disability at the center of the St. Alban's episode. Nor have scholars taken up how this incident (riding, as it does, on the cusp between the medieval and early modern eras) reflects shifting beliefs and fears about the non-normative body. Examining the evolution of this incident throughout the English Reformation demonstrates how the turbulent religious climate of this period transformed early modern understandings of disability. Although initially valued for its role in an important social/spiritual exchange between disabled and able-bodied people, in the years following the Reformation, escalating anxieties about the need to define disability transformed understandings of the non-normative body. Defined by its dependence on public assistance and without recourse to establishing mutuality, disability after the Reformation was characterized by decreased agency and increased emasculation. Reading disability in the St. Alban's incident further reveals how this seemingly incongruous episode engages and restages some of 2 Henry VI's central themes, specifically how disability serves as a pointedly emasculating signal of personal and political weakness in Shakespeare's re-writing of history.2
By 1590-91, when Shakespeare takes up the story of the false miracle of St. Alban's in 2 Henry VI, the much-retold tale is at least 60 years old, but possibly 100 years old or more. Thomas More first formally recorded the episode in 1529 in his A Dialogue Concerning Heresies; More claims to have heard the story from his father, Sir John More. More's account takes place during the early part of Henry VI's reign, while he was still under the protectorate of his uncle, Humphery, Duke of Gloucester. Therefore, we can assume that it occurred sometime between the 1420s and the mid-1440s — if it ever actually occurred at all, since the incident would have happened some years before John More, its apparent source, was even born. However, the historical accuracy of the St. Alban's story (which seems dubious at best) is not my focus. Rather, I am interested in the cultural viability of the tale: its remarkable endurance and versatility. What made it compelling enough to keep in circulation, in print as well as performance, for the better part of a century? Once published by Thomas More in 1529, the St. Alban's story is recycled multiple times before Shakespeare takes it up in 2 Henry VI. Richard Grafton, explicitly working off More's account, included it in his extensive history of Britain, A Chronicle at Large, published in 1562. John Foxe recounted the story of the false miracle for the first time in the 1570 edition of his Actes and Monuments (and it appeared again in the 1576 and 1583 editions, as well). While the story of the St. Alban's incident remains surprisingly unchanged through its various permutations, examining the subtle shifts and recontextualizations that take place in the versions by More, Grafton, Foxe, and, eventually, Shakespeare demonstrates how disability evolved throughout the English Reformation.
To bring "the trouthe of suche falshed to lyght"
Thomas More's A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, the document in which the false miracle of St. Alban's first appears, is a complex — if surprisingly lively — refutation of the burgeoning Reformation in England. Specifically, A Dialogue confronts the accusations of superstition (offering prayers to saints, venerating images, etc.) that people like Luther and Tyndale leveled at the Church. More uses the story of this false miracle to affirm, paradoxically, the presence of true miracles. As More states in his prologue to the chapter about the St. Alban's incident, his intention in including the story is to demonstrate how "ye goodness of god bryngeth shortely the trouthe of suche falshed to lyght" (85). As More explains it, because this fraudulent miracle was exposed, miracles that go unchallenged must be believed, for, if they were false, God would reveal them to be false as he did at St. Alban's. Coming at the end of the medieval era, More's simultaneous belief in miraculous healing and awareness of fraudulent disability demonstrates the conflicting notions of disability — as both spiritual and deceptive — prevalent throughout the Middle Ages and suggests the further conflict the emerging Reformation would impose on understandings of the non-standard body.
Disability in the Middle Ages was characterized by its important role in a system of spiritual exchange in which the non-standard body served as a conduit for God; this exchange granted people with non-normative bodies a level of subjectivity and spiritual agency that their early modern counterparts did not experience. In part due to the example of Francis of Assisi and the rise of the Franciscans in the thirteenth century, disabled people regularly engaged in a mutually beneficial exchange with the normative population. Able-bodied Christians gave them alms (sometimes small, individual sums of money; sometimes shelter, medical treatment, or large endowments continuing in annuity) and, in return, experienced an encounter with the divine facilitated by the disabled person. Through the Franciscan influence, persons with disabilities were elevated as they had never been before to the most honored position in the system of spiritual fraternity, ostensibly because the suffering and poverty that accompanied their physical condition was seen as spiritually ennobling (Stiker 81-82). Because of their disabilities, they were frequently figured as a primary conduit for Christ in the medieval world. Sometimes disabled persons were promoted even beyond the role of divine instrument and were transformed into Christ himself (as in the famous story of St. Francis being repulsed by a leper who miraculously morphs into Jesus when Francis overcomes his revulsion and embraces him). Over time, this trend evolved into a more clearly defined system of reciprocal trade, particularly after the doctrinal changes instituted in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1213-15 increased anxieties about salvation. The transaction of charity between disabled and able-bodied people became one of the primary ways through which the rich could secure their salvation. In this capacity, people with physical impairments — commonly and ironically called "the limbs of God" — provided a necessary service to society. By acting as needy recipients of charity, they facilitated the salvation of others (Mollat 264). They also secured salvation in more direct ways as well, since alms often were given to them on the condition that they would offer prayers on the givers' behalf (S. Farmer 61). This type of charity was not a one-sided act but a mutual exchange — salvation for alms, alms for salvation — with disability as the crux on which this commerce balanced.
Although the rise of mendicant orders like the Franciscans initially elevated the spiritual role of disability, their influence began to negatively affect notions of disability as their doctrines and members spread throughout Europe. More's discussion of potentially fraudulent disability demonstrates an awareness of this changing perspective, figuring disability as an impetus for fear rather than an opportunity for spiritual edification. Persons with disabilities operated in systems of financial/spiritual exchange very similar to those utilized by the mendicants who also bartered prayers for alms. There was a significant difference, however, that increasingly divided them: unlike the mendicants, their poverty was not voluntary. Mendicants begged for alms because they wanted to be poor. Persons with disabilities, it was believed, begged for alms because they wanted to be rich. Therefore, the involuntary poor became suspect, since, by the action of begging, they signaled dissatisfaction with their station in life, a condition regarded as sinful and rebellious (S. Farmer 49). As the fourteenth century ushered in a new era of epidemics, social upheaval, and vagrancy, disabled persons — and, in particular, pilgrims with disabilities — were regarded with increasing distrust and even fear. Receiving physical healing was one of the primary purposes for undertaking a pilgrimage and 90% of miracles recorded at shrines involved the alleviation of usually prolonged physical ailments, suggesting that a large number of medieval pilgrims were necessarily disabled (Finucane "Use and Abuse" 5). As noted before, however, pilgrimage by a disabled person was regarded as dangerous and quite possibly sinful, since, like begging, it suggested that the disabled individual failed to be content with her divinely appointed condition.
The fear of disabled pilgrims rehearsed in every version of the St. Alban's story wasn't limited to that single incident. Suspicion of pilgrims professing physical impairments was rampant. By definition, pilgrims were wanderers and viewed as potentially dangerous by a culture that associated mobility with financial and spiritual threat. Fears circulated that rogues would pass themselves off as pilgrims to unsuspecting locals to take advantage of their Christian responsibility to show hospitality to those in need.3 Sometimes this threat of criminality was linked not only to pilgrimages but also to the miracles that initially inspired them. Popular shrines benefited enormously from the revenue of pilgrimages and the temptation to falsify a miracle in order to induce such devotion was the cause of a good deal of anxiety. This anxiety inspired the increasingly careful verification process applied to miracles throughout the late Middle Ages. Robert C. Finucane recounts, for example, the story of a thirteenth-century thief who tried to convince a Franciscan friar to join just such a racket, claiming that he had 24 people throughout England willing to help him fake a miracle whenever he wished (Miracles 70).
These conflicting medieval interpretations of disability — its privileged role in spiritual exchange and its potential for deception and corruption — are both present in More's account of the St. Alban's incident.4 By characterizing Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester as an instrument of divine intervention, More uses the story of this false miracle to defend the validity of Church-authorized miracles. More accomplishes this goal by initially crafting the feigning pilgrim as a reliable source. The man (who is not identified by name) is redundantly described as one who was "borne blynde and neuer saw in his lyfe" (86), stressing the duration and previous incurability is his ailment rather than its artificiality. His wife, who has traveled to St. Alban's with him, also helps affirm the legitimacy of his physical condition. Although women were not necessarily regarded as trustworthy witnesses in medieval England, her presence nevertheless grants her husband some validity, since men, particularly lone men, were the primary focus of medieval fears about feigned disability and feigned miracles. More also recounts that the couple had been "walkynge about the towne beggyng" for five or six days before the arrival of the king and the subsequent miracle (86). Many pilgrims are recorded as waiting at shrines or in shrines' towns for a miracle to happen, and this waiting was seen as a purifying period often necessary for a miracle to occur (Finucane Miracles 49). In addition, the couple claims the village of Berwick as their home, suggesting that, although they may be itinerant at the moment, this condition is not permanent and, therefore, should not be considered suspicious. More's characterization of the feigning man stresses his credibility — his potential for participation in disability's traditional spiritual exchange — even as that credibility provides stark contrast for the shock of his deception.
Further, in emphasizing the trustworthiness of the man and his miracle, More makes clear that the real hero of this episode is not the admirably devout Duke of Gloucester, but rather the God that works through him. When the news of the miracle quickly reaches Gloucester — More recounts that, in spite of the presence of the king and his retinue, "nothynge was talked of in all ye towne but this myracle" — the Duke immediately sends for the man. More states: "So happened it than that duke Humfry of gloucester a great wyse man and very well lerned hauynge greate Ioy to se suche a myracle called ye pore man vnto hym" (86). More is careful here to affirm that Gloucester summons the man out of pious devotion and not suspicion. When Gloucester greets the man, he again reaffirms his piety by praising God for this deed, and in this same greeting, exhorts the man not to accept any credit for the miracle but to give all the glory to God. Though this exhortation will prove ironic, since all the credit for this "miracle" does belong to the beggar, it also supports Gloucester's virtuous intentions to simply experience and praise God for the miracle, not to root out any possible misdeeds. Not only does More expressly figure Gloucester as pious rather than suspicious, he explicitly gives him no reason to be suspicious. In addition to making the beggar as credible a source as a beggar could be, in More's account, he does nothing when he is called before Gloucester to raise suspicions for, indeed, the beggar does nothing at all. Here Gloucester is the only actor, and the source of the discovery rests entirely upon the Duke and not in the potentially revealing actions of the beggar or his wife. While this heavy emphasis on Gloucester's piety could certainly be a reflection of the saintly reputation that he developed after his death, in this context, it seems to have more to do with affirming the intervention of God. The Duke discovers the truth because God reveals it to him, not because of his own personal merits or any slip-ups in the beggar's performance.
The most famous element of this episode is the rhetorical trick that exposes the fraudulence of the beggar's claims. The Duke asks the man to name various colors that he points to, and, by answering him accurately, the man inadvertently reveals a larger knowledge of the visual world than could have been obtained in the brief period between the miracle and the interrogation. The questions Gloucester asks the beggar, however, only confirm what the Duke already knows since Gloucester discovers the man's deception earlier in the episode. Before he interrogates the man, the Duke "loked well vpon his eyen" and asks the man if it is true that he has never been able to see in his life. When both the man and his wife respond affirmatively, Duke Humphrey "loked aduysedly vpon his eyen agayn / & sayd I byleue you very well / for me thynketh that ye can not se well yet" (86). It is only after this exchange that the Duke proceeds with the interrogation, but it is clear that the truth was apparent to him even before the questioning began.5 A miracle does occur in More's tale, although it is not the beggar's cured blindness. Rather, the miracle is Gloucester's discovery of the deception before there is any obvious suggestion of trickery to disclose it to him; only divine intervention could have revealed the false miracle when, in every respect, it conformed to the medieval conventions that would have produced credibility.
In this way, we can see how, even without the presence of genuine physical impairment, More maintains the spiritual exchange that was the hallmark of disability in the medieval era while simultaneously affirming disability's association with criminality. The wealthy offered alms to disabled people in exchange for prayers to guarantee their salvation; Gloucester offers the "disabled" man special time and attention, and, in exchange, the man gives Gloucester his false testimony. This testimony then allows the miracle to occur and facilitates the strong affirmation of the Duke's piety and spiritual worthiness. That More can sustain such an exchange even in the absence of literal physical disability demonstrates the strong connections between physical impairment and spiritual commerce. Yet the lack of genuine impairment also confirms the contradiction of medieval disability, since it suggests that even the most potentially positive interaction with disabled people carries with it the threat of deception. This half of the medieval conception of disability — its capacity for danger — is further incubated by the Reformation and, eventually, brought fully to life in Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI.
"To reform that which was amiss"
Although 30 turbulent years separate the publication of More's A Dialogue Concerning Heresies and Richard Grafton's A Chronicle at Large, these two accounts of the St. Alban's miracle are virtually identical. Grafton openly acknowledges More as his source and hardly alters from the original version. Yet while Grafton's contribution to the evolution of the St. Alban's story it small, it is, nevertheless, significant. His retelling of the false miracle varies notably from More's in the purposes for which Grafton employs the story. Grafton's reframing of the incident reveals that what Gloucester acquires in his exchange with the beggar is not an affirmation of his piety or place in heaven but rather an affirmation of his wisdom and place in English history. Unlike More, who recounts the false miracle to enforce religious doctrine, Grafton tells the story to valorize Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, within his larger project of recording the history of England, Scotland, and Wales. He situates the tale at the end of his account of the Duke's life, tacking it on after he details Gloucester's arrest for treason and his assumed assassination. He introduces the episode by stating,
This Humffrey Duke of Gloucester, descending of the blood royal, was not onely noble and valiant in all his actes and doings, but sage, pollitique and notably well learned in the Ciuile lawe. And among other his worthy praises, this following [the story of the false miracle] is not to be forgotten, which most liuely and plainely declareth him to be both prudent and wise. (Grafton 630)
Grafton retains all of the details of More's account: the beggar's blindness from birth, his wife, his hometown. He too concludes with the interrogation of the formerly blind man by the Duke and also explicitly demonstrates that the Duke realizes the fraudulence of the man's claims even before he begins the interrogation.
John Foxe exponentially expands Grafton's recontextualizing of the St. Alban's story by including the tale in his incendiary Actes and Monuments. Foxe's version of the false miracle of St. Alban's bears a striking similarity to More's in its description and details. However, the deep theological divide that placed them on opposite sides of the Reformation controversies means that Foxe uses the St. Alban's incident to argue exactly the opposite point as More does. Instead of affirming the reality of miracles, Foxe argues that this false miracle is indicative of the deception characteristic of "popery." By pointedly reworking More's story of Catholic devotion into a vehicle for Protestant propaganda, Foxe demonstrates and participates in the massive transformation that the English Reformation wrought on early modern disability. The break with Rome at the beginning of the sixteenth century shifted the responsibility for poor relief from religious to secular authorities, and with this shift came an increased emphasis on the necessity of separating the deserving poor from the undeserving poor. Disability was central to this distinction. The undeserving poor were categorized as those persons who were able but unwilling to work while the deserving poor were defined as those who were willing but unable to work.
In addition to dramatically reframing disability in this way, the English Reformation virtually eliminated the system of spiritual exchange that had influenced interpretations of disability throughout the Middle Ages. Prayers could no longer be purchased formally (their informal purchase was also prohibited) and, therefore, disabled persons had no services to offer in exchange for the aid given to them. Without this tradition of spiritual commerce to frame an important mutuality between able-bodied and disabled Christians, their relationship quickly became solely hierarchical. Persons with disabilities became objects to be acted upon rather than individuals to be interacted with; the goods and services that had been traded in exchange for prayers or affirmations of salvation now simply became charity.
Early modern gender politics further amplified the repercussions of the Reformation on disability. In a culture that defined masculinity, whether commercial, erotic, or political, primarily by activity and femininity primarily by passivity, any loss of agency was significant. The end of the mutual exchange between impaired and able-bodied persons marked disability as particularly effeminizing. In the early modern era, when "manliness" was granted to such a remarkably small swath of the male population, the impact of this loss was profound, since it eliminated an already limited opportunity for men with disabilities to exercise the masculine qualities (social contribution, virtue, reciprocal engagement with other men) implicit in the spiritual exchange.6
A massive wave of anxiety about disability crested at the beginning of the early modern era. The elimination of the spiritual benefits offered by disabled persons, a spike in vagrancy at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and the urgent need to police the boundaries between able and disabled instated by the English Reformation inspired increased fears about non-normative bodies. Chief among these anxieties was the fear of vagrants feigning disability in an effort to take advantage of gullible Christians' charity. The paranoia about these "counterfeiters" can be traced throughout popular pamphlets, known as rogue literature, that catalogued the tricks of the vagrant trade. These anxieties filter visibly throughout the genre. Beginning with the Liber Vagatorum, an anonymous polemic first published in 1509 and for which Martin Luther himself wrote an introduction in 1528, to Robert Copland's Hye way to Spyttell house in the 1530s, to Thomas Harman's rogue pamphlets in the 1560s, to Thomas Dekker's and Robert Greene's expansion of rogue literature into a popular genre in the 1590s, to Robert Burton's inclusion of such illegal practices in his famous Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, fears of counterfeiters proliferated. As Luther's presence in this literature attests, fear of deception by disabled persons was intimately linked to fears of religious deception, a connection capitalized upon by the emerging Protestant majority. The dissolution of the monasteries — among them the Abbey of St. Alban's — removed a primary location where disabled persons congregated, where charity was distributed to them, and where their testimonies were heard in the form of miracle narratives. The repudiation of such practices merged with Protestants' extreme suspicion of miracles, exemplified by their interpretation of the Eucharist as a symbolic and not literal act of divine communion. Some Reformed leaders went as far as to proclaim the complete cessation of miracles (Shaw 21-2). The early Protestants capitalized upon and expanded the fear of disabled persons, adding religious fervor to pre-existing paranoia.
Foxe's account of the St. Alban's story vividly illustrates this conflation of social and religious anxieties. Foxe states that his purpose in recounting the St. Alban's story is "to note not only the crafty working of false miracles in the clergy, but also that the prudent discretion of this high and mighty prince [Gloucester] may give us the better to understand what man he was" (49). Though Foxe retains many of the exact details included by More (even More's personal interjection regarding the whereabouts of St. Alban's remains), there is no recognition of a miracle but only the refutation of one. Foxe reads this incident of fraudulent disability as a particularly religious infraction. Although no Catholic clergy are mentioned in the account as motivating or manipulating the feigning man and his wife, Foxe nevertheless directs his ire specifically at priests who work false miracles. Foxe concludes, "By this may it be seen how Duke Humfrey had not only an head to dissever truth from hypocrisy; but study also and diligence was in him to reform that which was amiss" (50). Foxe's very intentional insertion of the word "reform" into this narrative demonstrates its transformation. As E. Pearlman points out, this commentary elucidates how Foxe viewed the "miracle" as an example of popish superstition and the Duke as a type of pre-Reformation Protestant hero worthy of his place in the book of martyrs (314). In addition, this reframing of the story alters the interpretation of the deceiving man; just as the Duke is transformed into a pseudo-Protestant, the beggar enacts both the superstitions and spiritual manipulations stereotypically associated with Catholics in Reformation England. Yet it is not the deceptive beggar but the Catholic clergy that receives Foxe's condemnation. Even so, characterizing the deceiving man as a pawn in this larger game further reinforces disability's negative associations. Rather than a man trying to provide for himself using whatever means necessary, in Foxe's account, the feigning man is simply a puppet controlled by devious Catholic priests. Foxe's version of the St. Alban's story makes clear that the loss of subjectivity and the increased emasculation of disabled persons fueled by the English Reformation were potent enough to remain powerfully in play even when the disability in question was false.
"A miracle! A miracle!"
Although the text of the St. Alban's story had remained largely unchanged throughout the previous century, by the time Shakespeare engages it in 1590-91, its context had altered drastically. Shakespeare's inclusion of the episode in 2 Henry VI certainly reflects the purposes of its previous incarnations: like More, Shakespeare uses the story to affirm the virtuous — almost saintly — character of Gloucester; like Grafton, he adds this possibly apocryphal tale to his project of history-making; like Foxe, he emphasizes the anti-Catholic undercurrents of the incident and uses them to highlight the anti-Catholic themes that run through his larger drama. Unlike his predecessors, however, Shakespeare exercises extensive dramatic liberty with the St. Alban's story. His significant changes demonstrate dramatic purpose for the inclusion of the episode by linking the flawed male characters of 2 Henry VI through a particularly emasculating construction of disability. Shakespeare's changes further demonstrate the anxious desire to police the boundaries of post-Reformation disability and yet illustrate the near impossibility of securing sharp distinctions between the categories of able and disabled in early modern England.
The most obvious change that Shakespeare makes to the St. Alban's episode is that he adds another feigned disability, lameness, to the beggar's repertoire. The man, variously called Sander, Simon, and Simpcox, enters with the Mayor of St. Alban's carried in a chair between two of the rejoicing townsmen. Although his blindness has been cured, his inability to walk has not. Shakespeare's addition initially seems superfluous, and its primary purpose appears to be to facilitate the concluding joke where the "lame" man jumps over a stool to avoid being whipped and the spectators run after him, shouting, "A miracle! A miracle!" — the very words they had used just moments before to introduce him to the king. However, this concluding trick may signal more than simply a moment of comic relief. Forcing counterfeiters to reveal their true identity through violence was a standard trope of early modern rogue literature, one that often dove-tailed with the dual suspicions of disability and miracles. Thomas Harman's widely circulated A Caveat for Common Cursitors, first published in 1566, details the author's strikingly similar encounter with a "dummerer." Refusing to speak and feigning inability to hear, the dummerer doubles up his tongue inside his mouth and only through intimate investigation do authorities prove that the organ is still intact. When the counterfeiter still maintains his performance of dumbness, Harman has him tortured until he gives up his ruse. Harman concludes the narrative by stating, "So he that was both deaf and dumb could in short time both hear and speak" (92), a coldly humorous commentary that was clearly meant to elicit laughs from his audience. That audience finds a voice in Shakespeare's Queen Margaret when, upon seeing Simpcox shamed and beaten, she says, "It made me laugh to see the villain run" (2.1.147). Thus, by including this incident, Shakespeare not only reemphasizes the anti-Catholic sentiment running throughout the Henry VI plays, but he appears to be capitalizing directly on the popularity of rogue literature by transforming this episode into a recognizable scene from one of the widely circulated pamphlets.
Shakespeare is also the first author to include the beggar's wife as a major player in the St. Alban's episode. All of the previous variations of the story mention the beggar's wife just twice: the accounts affirm that the man traveled with a wife, and they all record that she supported her husband's testimony regarding his previous blindness. Her husband performs all other actions and dialogue. In 2 Henry VI, however, Simpcox's Wife's first line immediately follows her husband's first line, and she remains persistently vocal throughout the incident. Nevertheless, while her role is notably expanded, her characterization is in no way favorable. The Wife comes off as nosy, unhelpful, uncomfortably blunt (or oblivious) about sex, and thoroughly domineering of her husband. In perfect keeping with early modern notions of disability, the Wife's actions within the scene highlight her husband's emasculation. She undercuts his testimony with her own interjections and elicits clear implication that his unnatural submission to her unruly desire for both food and sex is the cause of his disability. Interrogation by the Duke takes a bawdy turn when Simpcox admits that it was his wife's desire for "damsons" or plums (early modern slang for testicles) that impelled him to "climb" (early modern slang for intercourse) in order to reach them for her (99-100). In attempting to retrieve the plums, he fell from the tree and was crippled. The wordplay on damsons/testicles and his subsequent crippling hint at the possibility of literal emasculation; physical castration is clearly implied in this interaction. In addition, within the context of highly unstable early modern masculinity, even jesting at the possibility of physical emasculation was enough to ensure social emasculation.7 The Wife's role in this scene illustrates that the same could be said in regards to jesting about or feigning disability and affirms the stereotype of emasculation that Shakespeare's audience would have projected onto Simpcox regardless of the authenticity of his disability.
Gloucester's actions after the discovery of the deception reinforce this emasculation. He twice calls Simpcox a "knave," with the epithet retaining its medieval meaning, "boy" (OED), even as its early modern meaning asserts his criminal state (121, 148). In addition, Shakespeare considerably increases the punishment the Duke metes out. In all of the previous accounts of the false miracle, the story concludes with the deceiving man in stocks. In 2 Henry VI, however, Simpcox is whipped and run off, a shameful punishment that he responds to shamefully. Even the Wife's reaction to this — arguably the most sympathetic moment in the scene — speaks to Simpcox's emasculation. After their ruse has been discovered and her husband has fled the scene pursued by a mob, the Wife accounts for their deception by telling the Duke, "Alas, sir, we did it for pure need" (149). Even though her line rings with pathos (and truth, particularly in a play that focuses so often on the harrowing conditions of poverty), the fact that it is the Wife who speaks — and not her husband — is telling. In addition, her confession of their need, while possibly legitimate, again affirms Simpcox's troubled masculinity since that need displays his failure to provide adequately for his family as well as his lack of personal and financial autonomy.
In addition to illustrating the limited agency and increased emasculation assigned to early modern disability, the conspicuous addition of Simpcox's Wife signals Shakespeare's recontextualization of this scene to suit his own dramatic purposes. Unlike the other accounts of the St. Alban's episode, here it is the Wife that triggers the Duke's revelation, and that alteration significantly reshapes the character of the Duke of Gloucester. From her opening line where she thrusts herself into the dialogue between Simpcox and the Duke, the Wife attracts Gloucester's suspicion. She testifies that Simpcox has been blind from birth, yet, when the Duke discovers that she is his wife, he questions her ability to serve as a reliable witness to the entire expanse of his life. He says, "Hadst thou been his mother, thou couldst have better told" (78). When Simpcox recounts the angelic voice that called him to the shrine at St. Alban's, his Wife again asserts her place in the action, claiming (with unintentional humor) that she too has often heard such a voice. Although the rest of the questioning largely adheres to the previous versions of the tale, Shakespeare's greater role for the Wife is striking since her interjections raise suspicion of the couple and their testimony for both Gloucester and the audience. In this way, the Wife's bumbling efforts to insert herself into the action — and her husband's ineffectual efforts to maintain his credibility in spite of her — reveal how Shakespeare's alteration of the story reflects the limited subjectivity of post-Reformation disability. The Wife's suspicious interjections alert Gloucester to the couple's deception, making it clear that it is neither divine intervention (as in More's account) nor his impressive virtue (as in Grafton and Foxe's) that permit the Duke to uncover the ruse, but instead his own savvy. This is not a spiritual exchange but an exercise in discernment and a demonstration of the power of one individual over others.8
Even more explicitly, it is Gloucester's discernment and power and not that of King Henry. Gloucester's sensitive attention and shrewd observation stand in direct contrast to the King's obliviousness and naïveté. Unlike the previous authors who took up the false miracle of St. Alban's to glorify the person of the Duke of Gloucester (for various purposes), Shakespeare takes up this incident to disparage the person of Henry VI. Pointedly, he is the first author to introduce the King into the St. Alban's story, as Henry is absent from all earlier accounts. Shakespeare gives the joyful greeting and exclamations of praise attributed to Gloucester in the previous versions of the false miracle to the King instead, thereby allowing Gloucester's skepticism to make the King's pious devotion seem foolish. By providing plausible evidence for that skepticism in the form Simpcox's Wife, Shakespeare emphasizes the strongly Protestant interpretation of the episode and makes the piety admired in Gloucester earlier in the sixteenth century seem imprudent in the King. It is a tragic imprudence, not only for religious reasons, but because of the way Simpcox's Wife's dangerous appetites mirror those of Henry's political nemesis, Joan la Pucelle, and Henry's own wife, Margaret of Anjou. The Queen's ambition eventually leads her husband into ruin in the same way that the ambitions of Simpcox's Wife lead directly the discovery of her husband's ruse. The connections between disability and emasculation are reinforced throughout the drama, particularly in relation to the King. Henry's troubled masculinity is concurrent with his weak physical and political strength. The king's failing powers are described as blindness, lameness, and madness as the tetraology employs the language of corporeal impairment to charge Henry metaphorically with weakness. It is certainly no coincidence that after his betrayal by the King, Gloucester says, "Ah, thus King Henry throws away his crutch / Before his legs be firm to bear his body" (3.1.189-90). The early modern construction of disability as an emasculated identity lacking essential qualities of autonomy facilitates Shakespeare's scathing critique of the King.
Indeed, Shakespeare's critique in this reconstitution of the St. Alban's story extends even to the "good Duke Humphrey" himself. Gloucester, like the King, is married to a woman whose appetite for power and desire for upward mobility entangle her husband and lead to his death. Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, launches herself into a rivalry with Queen Margaret for prominence at court. Her desire to see the Queen disgraced leads her to take up witchcraft, but, when her sorcery is discovered, she is arrested and banished. Although Gloucester — much like Simpcox — tries to distance himself from his wife's actions, her downfall leads directly to his. Immediately after the Duchess's banishment, the Duke is relieved of his position as Lord Protector, and that demotion is quickly followed by his arrest, imprisonment, and assassination. Although he is held up as the paragon of wisdom and discernment in the St. Alban's episode, the inclusion of the scene highlights the irony of the Duke's confidence in his powers of perception and control. Even the hyper-aware Gloucester lacks the self-awareness to see the shared vulnerabilities of the deceitful beggar and the weakened king in himself. Later in act 2, after his wife's actions have secured his downfall, Queen Margaret pointedly describes Gloucester's loss of political office as "a limb lopped off," demonstrating the surprisingly short distance between the Duke and the disabled man (2.3.42).
In this way, we can see how the evolving definitions of disability shift the entire focus of the story of the St. Alban's "miracle." Older versions of the tale, emerging from medieval Christianity, construct disability as a divinely powerful, though potentially dangerous, physical condition, and one that facilitated a spiritual exchange between Gloucester and the beggar. The English Reformation eliminated that spiritual exchange, and, with it, a considerable loss of agency for disabled persons. This loss of agency is figured in the St. Alban's story, as it was elsewhere, as a loss of masculinity. The transformation of the two central characters in the episode mirrors this evolution: the "disabled" man moves from a dangerous but useful criminal to a product of Catholic corruption to an ineffectual, effeminate buffoon. The Duke, as his adversary and the antithesis of his deceptive disability, begins as a saint of a distinctly medieval stripe, becomes an English national hero and a pseudo-Protestant martyr, and ends as a sharp-eyed observer who is still not quite keen enough to detect Simpcox's shortcomings in himself. This final transformation of the Duke of Gloucester suggests that, while disability did emerge as a strictly defined and thoroughly policed category in the early modern era, perhaps it was not as contained an identity as was hoped. The fact that Gloucester himself was too blind to see weakness, deception, and emasculation as it grew up around him seems to motivate the enduring popularity of the St. Alban's story as it reveals the great fear permeating both medieval and early modern conceptions of disability: the fear that disability was as mutable and malleable as the beggar's performance suggests.
- Berry, Ralph. Shakespearean Structures. Totowa: Barnes & Noble, 1981. Print.
- Breitenberg, Mark. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
- Farmer, David Hugh. "St. Alban." Oxford Dictionary of Saints. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. 10-11. Print.
- Farmer, Sharon. Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002. Print.
- Finucane, Ronald C. Miracles and Pilgrims: Popular Beliefs in Medieval England. Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. Print.
- ---. "The Use and Abuse of Medieval Miracles." History 60 (1975): 1-10. Print.
- Foxe, John. Foxe's Book of Martyrs. ed. G. A. Williamson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965. Print.
- Grafton, Richard. Chronicle; or History of England. London, 1809. Print.
- Harman, Thomas. A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds, 1566. The Elizabethan Underworld. ed. A. V. Judges. 2nd ed. New York: Octagon, 1965. 61-118. Print.
- Knowles, Ronald. "Introduction." Henry VI, Part II. ed. Ronald Knowles. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1999. 1-141. Print.
- McMillin, Scott. "Casting for Pembroke's Men: the Henry VI Quartos and The Taming of a Shrew." Shakespeare Quarterly 23 (1972): 141-59. Print.
- Mollat, Michael. The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History. trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986. Print.
- More, Thomas. A Dialogue Concerning Heresies. The Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More. vol. 6. ed. Thomas M. C. Lawler, German Marc'hadour, and Richard C. Marius. 15 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963. Print.
- Pearlman, E. "The Duke and the Beggar in Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI." Criticism 41.3 (Summer 1999): 309-21. Print.
- Shakespeare, William. King Henry VI, Part II. ed. Ronald Knowles. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1999. Print.
- Shaw, Jane. "Protestantism and Miracles." Miracles in Enlightenment England. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006: 21-50. Print.
- Smith, Bruce R. Shakespeare and Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
- Stiker, Henri-Jacques. A History of Disability. trans. William Sayers. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997. Print.
Ronald Knowles sees the false miracle incident as reflecting the play's fixation on credulity; Ralph Berry reads the episode as affirming the structure of the trial that not only organizes this particular moment but all of 2 Henry VI. For more information on Shakespeare's source(s) for this episode, see E. Pearlman. Finally, see Scott McMillin for more on the question of whether the man's name is Simon/Simpcox/Sander.
Return to Text
"Disability," of course, is an anachronistic term; instead, words like "monster," "wonder," or "prodigy," were used to characterize non-standard bodies during the medieval and early modern periods. I intentionally use the word disability to identify my allegiance with the project of disability studies and to separate my work from recent scholarship that has focused more generally on monstrosity. However, when describing what we would now term somatic disability or other limitations of mobility, I use the words "lame" or "cripple" in order to retain the specific cultural connotations that affected the perception and performance of those disabilities in medieval and early modern England.
Return to Text
Hieronymus Bosch's famous sketches of beggars, some of the finest and most detailed artistic representations of persons with disabilities from the late-fifteenth century, depict several figures wearing "pilgrim badges," amulets worn as evidence of having visited a particular shrine; most of the badge-wearing figures are visibly impaired or injured in some way. Yet even with this visual identification, pilgrims — particularly disabled pilgrims — were regarded with suspicion and even fear. By the time the Liber Vagotorum (The Book of Vagabonds and Beggars) was first published in 1509, pilgrim badges had developed a strong association with deception and fraud. The text details specific fake pilgrims and their identifying badges in a chapter dedicated to "Christians and Swindlers," recounting how false pilgrims, often described by the disabilities they possessed or feigned, would sell or trade pilgrim badges to one another.
Return to Text
Beyond simple historical accuracy, setting the episode at the shrine of St. Alban's thematically introduces many of the common medieval attributes of disability. St. Alban, according to his Acts as they are recorded by Bede, was a third-century Roman citizen living in Britain who sheltered a priest, was converted by him, and then traded clothes with the priest in order to allows the clergyman to escape. For this, Alban was beheaded. His shrine appears to have been in use almost continuously, and the town of St. Alban's grew up around it, due in large part to its popularity as a pilgrimage site. St. Alban's Abbey, which accompanied the shrine, was the most wealthy monastery in England. This is in spite of the fact that rival abbeys claimed the relics of St. Alban. Ely claimed a set of relics based on a possible translation in the 11th century, while another set was claimed (somewhat less plausibly) by Cologne (D. Farmer 10-11). St. Alban was, in this way, a saint who practiced theatricality and deception while living and whose body, after death, roved troublingly about the countryside. Combined with the shrine's renowned popularity and wealth, it is possible that More signals his central themes simply by setting the story in this particular village.
Return to Text
Miracles in the Middle Ages appear to have been experienced primarily visually. Popular shrines often advertised with the promise Miracula magna videbis, "You will see great miracles" (Finucane Miracles 49). Archives from medieval ecclesiastical courts tasked with the authentication of miracles put heavy emphasis on visual verification.
Return to Text
S. Farmer details the ways in which medieval male beggars, particularly those with physical impairments, were perceived as not masculine (accused of wearing makeup, compared to old women and prostitutes, etc.) because their inability to engage in bodily labor eliminated "the most essential element of their masculinity" (60). This bias was only magnified by the effects of the English Reformation, which legally defined disability as the inability to participate in labor. Bruce R. Smith and Mark Breitenberg, among many others, have written about the early modern man's precarious claims to masculinity. Smith notes that, regardless of what might make it up, "masculine identity of whatever kind is something men give to each other," or, in the case of the Duke of Gloucester's response to the beggar, something men deny one another (60).
Return to Text
Consider the fate of Morose in Ben Jonson's Epiocene whose admission of impotence is his undoing. When he (possibly falsely) confesses to impotence, he is immediately shamed publicly and duped financially by his nephew, Dauphine.
Return to Text
This is not to suggest, however, that there were no instances of mutuality between able-bodied and disabled persons after the Reformation. Plenty of legal and church records demonstrate that many persons with disabilities were able to live and thrive in early modern England. Additionally, there were ways in which persons with disabilities wielded power over able-bodied persons. Although the Reformation transformed the charitable imperative, it was by no means eliminated. Protestant sermons and bequests make clear that the obligation to charity felt by able-bodied Christians — and enforced by disabled Christians — meant that their power dynamics were never simple. Even in Shakespeare, the relationships between able-bodied and disabled characters are complex: think Richard III, Caliban, Lavinia. However, in this instance, Shakespeare temporarily divests this relationship of its complexities only to reassert the complications when he draws direct connections between the beggar, the King, and the Duke.
Return to Text