Radical Objects

Radical Object: An Early Medieval Prosthetic Hand

When archaeologists excavate early medieval graves in Europe, they often find interred objects such as brooches, buckles and beads. From this care for the dead, we may cautiously infer care for the living before they died. Sometimes, however, the objects entrusted to the grave allow us to go further than mere inference. This blog is about an object that unambiguously demonstrates care for an individual during his lifetime.

Not only that, though, it is an object that demonstrates care for someone who had plausibly been the victim of judicial or state violence. Yet this man was not marginalised within his own community, but continued to receive essential, life-saving support within it. Can we read in this unimposing object a set of local community values – loyalty, friendship, love – that not only conflicted with, but overcame the formal value system expressed in the law and justice of the time?

Prosthetic hand from Cutry.
Image: © DRAC Grand Est/SRA

The object in question is a prosthetic hand, which was buried with a man in his forties or fifties in an early medieval cemetery in the village of Cutry in northern France (it is now kept in Metz). The prosthesis was a simple iron rod 22cm long, with a forked end. It was attached to the man’s right forearm in life as in death by two leather straps, each secured with a buckle, which seem to have been recycled or reused for this new purpose. This was hardly a sophisticated piece of equipment, but that does not mean it was ineffective.

Prostheses are objects that challenge how we think about material culture in graves, since they neither decorated nor clothed nor protected the body, but were rather an extension of the body. They have a long history reaching back as far as ancient Egypt.

Nevertheless, prostheses are relatively unusual finds in early medieval archaeological contexts. And the Cutry case is especially unusual, for two reasons. In the first place, most of the few prostheses that have been found in early medieval European contexts are feet, not hands. Perhaps injuries to feet were more common, or perhaps physical mobility was more imperative than grasping and touching.

Secondly, the man buried in this Cutry grave had lost not one but both hands: he had suffered a double amputation.

That circumstance might explain why some kind of manual prosthesis was considered indispensable, but it also makes quite clear the level of care this man would have needed, and received. Obviously he would not have been in a position to make his own prosthetic hand, but nor could he have looked after himself at all without a good deal of assistance. Someone, or more likely several people, presumably in the small community of a dozen or so families which the Cutry cemetery served, took the trouble to care for him as he recovered from his painful injuries. Not only that, but they equipped him with a rudimentary but functional tool that would have allowed him to carry out some tasks for himself such as eating, or opening doors or gates, though perhaps they could only manage to afford to give him a single prosthesis. Such display of solidarity was entirely in keeping with what we know of early medieval local societies which seem to have been generally quite inclusive.

Yet the Cutry case becomes still more intriguing when we ask why this nameless man had lost both his hands. They had been amputated cleanly and skillfully enough for him to make a recovery, as the scarring visible on his bones show.

Such an amputation might conceivably have been carried out for medical reasons. Sometimes – as today – amputations were carried out to prevent infection from taking hold after an accident, all the more common in an age without antibiotics. A recent study has revealed evidence for this procedure reaching back many thousands of years in the past.

But there is another possibility that should be considered. Early medieval law frequently called for certain crimes to be punished through mutilation, of noses, eyes and hands. So while a double amputation could reflect the outcome of a particularly unlucky mishap that somehow affected both hands, the nameless man buried in grave 1046 might also have suffered a judicial punishment for an act such as theft, a crime that was severely punished since it was perceived as a threat to the wider social order.

If so, then the prosthesis with which the Cutry man was equipped, and with which he was buried, would show not only care for someone with a physical impairment, but care for a victim of judicial violence. Early medieval rural communities were not as coherent as has sometimes been supposed, yet here we might be able to see one rallying around one of its members irrespective of his formal and bloody condemnation by elites based outside that community: indeed perhaps as an act of tacit resistance against it.

What is more, when the individual eventually died, he was buried in the communal graveyard, with no obvious marks of alienation or distinction. Whatever he had done, whatever he had suffered, this man was considered and treated as a member of the community in death as he had been in life.

The Cutry prosthesis is only a simple corroded iron rod. But this plain little object can be read as suggesting that although the violence of the ‘state’, if that is a useful term for the power structures of the time, might spectacularly maim an individual’s body, it did not have the capacity to compel local communities to internalise its normative authority, for they could instead choose the radical act of caring for the condemned.

Thanks to Hélène Anton and Valérie Delattre for their assistance.

Further reading:

Luc Buchet, Yves Darton and René Legoux, ‘Une prothèse du Haut Moyen-Âge découverte à Cutry (Meurthe-et-Moselle)’, in Décrypter la différence: lecture archéologique et historique de la place des personnes handicapées dans les communautés passées, ed. Valérie Delattre and Ryadh Sallem (2009), 129-130

Valérie Delattre and Ryadh Sallem, eds., Décrypter la différence: lecture archéologique et historique de la place des personnes handicapées dans les communautés passées (2009), available online

Lisi Oliver, The body legal in barbarian law (2011)

Irina Metzler, ‘Disability in the Middle Ages: Impairment at the Intersection of Historical Inquiry and Disability Studies’, History Compass 9 (2011), 45-60

René Legoux, ed., La nécropole mérovingienne de Cutry (Meurthe-et-Moselle) (2005)

Bernhard Zeller et al., Neighbours and Strangers. Local Societies in early medieval Europe (2020)

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