16 June 2011
07 January 2009
01 January 2009
A few days ago I was watching a documentary on the seven wonders of the world. It remarked, quite correctly, upon the fact that the list of the seven wonders of the world was not fully fixed until the medieval period, and that the most famous images of the wonders were produced by Maarten van Heemskerck in the sixteenth century.
What would medievalists consider to be the seven wonders of the medieval world? I'm not the best person to ask, I fear, as my list would most likely consist exclusively of cathedrals - heh.
1 Yes, I know Wikipedia has an article on the seven wonders of the medieval world, but in this instance I'm ignoring Wikipedia. Amusingly enough, the Golden Gate Bridge is right up against the heading for the section on the medieval wonders.
31 December 2008
As most readers of this blog know, I have cochlear implants. Thanks to an auditory cable, I can plug my implants directly into gadgets such as laptops and iPods to listen to music and other auditory inputs directly without having to deal with background noise such as a noisy room.
I pretty much love my iPod. Now only if I could get the music from WALL*E downloaded on to it eventually, I'd be a happy camper. (Note to self: remember to do that in May before Kalamazoo.)
People often ask me what music sounds like to me. That's not really the right word to describe how I experience music. Yes, I do hear it thanks to some pretty damn good technology in my cochlear implant, but more than hearing music, I see it.
The idea of seeing music intrigues me because of the prevalence of stained glass windows in medieval churches and cathedrals. What would it have been like, as a hearing person or a deaf one or a blind one, to see and/or hear music in the medieval period? What would the effect of hearing a Te Deum being chanted or sung have been in the medieval period? Would it have been something spectacular, something with which the laity could more easily communicate with than the rote Latin of the Mass?
The visual impact of churches and cathedrals is well-known: the aural impact of these places would have encouraged churchgoers to feel as if they were in a liminal Jerusalem: very nearly there, but not just yet. Would the sight of carved faces, angels, and demons, along with the stained glass resident in the windows, have acted as a visual accompaniment for the music, or would it have been the other way around? Would churchgoers have 'watched' the music race across the windows, straight as the coloured beams of light that fell upon the nave and columns, lighting up the church and bringing life, however fleetingly, to the carved and painted figures upon the columns, capitals, and walls?
Stained glass and figures within churches are often referred to as the poor man's Bible; why can't music have been the same, albeit in a more tangible sense? One can easily look upon or feel the carvings and monuments in a church. Such a process is by nature ephemeral: memento mori. Music in and of itself is certainly ephemeral as well - perhaps even more so, but music is something that can easily speak to everyone, regardless of whether or not they understand the coding implicit within images and monuments within a church. Even though a Latin chant still wouldn't be understandable for the laity linguistically speaking, the experience of hearing the music would still be quite understandable.
Would it have been the same way for those who were hard of hearing or deaf? Would they have looked at the walls and carvings and windows and traced the stories along them, from beginning to end, and perhaps back again? Would they have watched the sun play through the windows, or imagined them awash with light if the sky was overcast or if it was night? For that matter, would they have perceived candles as their form of music: watching the candles slowly being lit on All Hallows Eve or at Easter? Watched them slowly melt at the wick, or watched the 'procession' of flames move up and down the nave or ambulatory?
I'd like to think that if I had lived in the medieval period, I'd have seen candles as my form of music: candles would be something that I could see and watch moving. I could watch them 'start' when they were lighted, 'play' notes as they waxed and waned and flickered and changed colour and gradually melted the beeswax, and 'flourished' when they guttered out or were blown out. Watching them play 'in concert' across the altar or as they were carried or otherwise moved up and down the nave and ambulatory would have been something: watching this or that candle angrily sputter its 'notes' in protest as someone walked by or moved it this way or that, or watching the clergy move in tune with the steadily burning flames as they went through the motions of the Mass. Watching the thinly tapered candles race down the wick as the stout, thick candles lazily meandered down the wick, slowly giving the candles an ephemeral nimbus before descending further to seemingly light the candles from within, seeing a solitary candle left burning upon the altar after Mass.
Fiat lux. Memento mori.
1 "Rote" in the sense that one would have been used to the Latin employed in the rites associated with the Mass after a period of time. Also, the laity would largely have been 'deaf' in that they would have been unable to comprehend the Latin of the Mass. For a similar thought, we turn to Cicero, who noted: "Our countrymen as a rule do not know Greek nor the Greeks Latin; therefore we in their tongue and they in ours are deaf, and all of us are assuredly deaf in those languages, countless in number, which we do not understand." Tusculan Disputations, trans. J. E. King (London: William Heinemann, 1927), 541.
2 For more information on how to 'read' a church, see Richard Taylor, How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals (London: Rider and Co., 2003) and Margaret Visser, The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church (Toronto: HarperFlamingo, 2000).
3 Let there be light. Remember that you are mortal.
30 December 2008
And we come to the end of Disabled Histories with a discussion of memory in terms of the deaf community, although this micro-discussion could certainly be expanded to include other disabilities and other historical epochs.
The genesis for this series was a comment in Catherine Kudlick's essay on disability history regarding the creation myth of deaf culture and history with the Abbé de l'Epée. Historical memory in terms of deafness thus begins with Epée: no earlier nor later. In his study of the importance of memory in constructing the French past, Pierre Nora wrote that "[m]emory is always a phenomenon of the present, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past."
The deaf community has always struggled to create a tangible history of its own, to find a way to link its present to its past and its memories. The recent attempt to create Laurent, a deaf community in South Dakota, signifies this. Communication in the town would have been limited to American Sign Language (ASL), but the community's memories and history are signified in the name Laurent, which evokes Laurent Clerc, a deaf Frenchman who was educated in Paris and moved to the United States in 1817 to establish the first American school for the deaf. The town would thus have strongly associated itself with Kudlick's "creation myth."
How do deaf communities, when everything befor Epée is essentially prehistory, construct their own history? What do they choose to include in their history, their memories? The difficulty with the above-mentioned "myth" is not necessarily that it is a "myth," but, rather, that it needed to be invented in the absence of a lengthier narrative based on history and memory. How and why do they signify a certain point - in this case, Epée - as the beginning of their history, their creation?
Part of this is the fact that deaf people began describing the deaf experience in documents that have since become historical source materials for current scholars working with deaf history, with the result that deaf history, as defined by "the deaf experience," is considered to begin with Epée. Another part of this is because it seemed a natural point to fix the beginning of deaf history. This issue is moot in a way, given the fact that History has fixed its dating system according to the life of Jesus, with the identifiers of BC (BCE) and AD (CE) marking time, even though there are other calendrical systems and means of marking time.
The fixing of deaf history as beginning with Epée indicates that memory is important in analysing and understanding deaf history: the ability to describe and explain the deaf experience, and the attendant feelings, experiences, and memories, is of equal value to, if not more important than, dates and places. This is perhaps the crux of the whole issue in terms of disability and disabled history: disability history is easy enough to research and write, as it's based on facts and figures, but the experience itself cannot easily be gleaned, and that is precisely what constitutes a disabled history - the history of the disabled experience, of what it is like to be disabled or to interact with those who are disabled or considered to be such.
This reliance upon - need for - memory in order to capture what is certainly a very common experience the world over throughout history demonstrates how transient and transitory disability history really is. The absence of references to disability is not necessarily a condemnation of disabled people and their experiences throughout history; it could just as easily be an acceptance of those people and their experiences through the understanding that disability and the disabled experience are both one and the same or as distinct as one wishes them to be. A fleeting reference to deafness in Quintilian or two more substantial, but still brief, references in Augustine could quite easily - and sensibly, I think - be read as proof that deafness - and disability in general - was a commonplace sight and experience that it did not warrant much mention in historical source material precisely because it was not an extraordinary thing and thus (more) worthy of mention.
This opens up the possibility that disability history is not necessarily disabled because there aren't many references or source materials available; disability history could just as easily be disabled because we, as scholars, are disabling it by attempting to build it up into something extraordinary enough to be worthy of study as a sub-field of history and thus separating it from the human - and historical - experience. I'm not by any means attempting to argue that disability history is unworthy of historical study in any form. My point is that as scholars, we consider references to disability to be extraordinary when they are to be found in the most mundane of places, just as most history is. History is the great equaliser in a sense: all facts, however mundane or extraordinary they may be, are waiting to be found and interpreted - that some have been discovered before others does not mean that those that are to come eventually will not be as useful as those that have come and those that have since long gone.
1 Catherine J. Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other’,” American Historical Review 108 (June 2003), 763-793.
2 Kudlick, 783.
3 Pierre Nora, ed. Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past. Vol. 1, Conflicts and Divisions, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 3.
4 New York Times. "As Town for Deaf Takes Shape, Debate on Isolation Re-emerges." 21 March 2005. (It appears that since then, the plan has fallen through.)
5 Wikipedia's article on ASL is not the best, but it's a decent-enough place to start.
6 A brief autobiography written by Clerc is included in Deaf World: A historical reader and primary sourcebook, ed. Lois Bragg (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 1-9. Also see Harlan Lane’s When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (New York: Random House, 1984), which Lane wrote from the perspective of Clerc.
7 It could be argued that deaf history should more properly begin with Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Spanish Benedictine monk who taught two deaf aristocratic boys how to read and write in the seventeenth century, not with Epée.
8 In Book 11, chapter 3.66 of his Institutio Oratoria (Institutes of Oratory), the Roman orator Quintilian notes that hand movements and nods can express meaning in oratory, and that such gestures are to the deaf instead of speech (in mutis pro sermone sunt).
9 St. Augustine, The Greatness of the Soul and The Teacher, trans. Joseph M. Colleran (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1964). The first reference is in De quantitate animae (49-50) and the second in De Magistro (136).
29 December 2008
A late Christmas gift for you readers - the revival of Disabled Histories.
In the first post, I discussed the issue of prehistory v history in terms of disability history; I concluded with the question of why parallel histories are necessary if the 'main' history has already been done.
I brought up the issue of parallel histories because this type of history is quite popular in medieval studies at present, even if it's not always explicitly acknowledged: it's not exclusively the province of disability history.
When one thinks of parallel histories, one thinks of at least two streams of history running parallel to each other, but therein lies our first difficulty. What exactly is this other parallel history? The easy answer would be to say that it is History, which, for most historians, conjures up images of eighteenth and nineteenth century historical studies and the Rankean ideal of writing history as it was along with the Whiggish interpretation of History.
If this is the exemplar that one employs in order to write a parallel history, then one has to ask what the point of parallel histories is, for historians are increasingly becoming further removed from this History (of Great Men) in that there are increasingly more sub-fields open to historical study. Are parallel histories important because of sub-fields as a reaction to History, or as a reaction to 'old' or 'outdated' History in favour of a more 'proper' and 'nuanced' History which takes into account the full human experience? If it's the former, then historians are being reactionary (or postmodernist or deconstructionist if one wants to use the current jargon) and challenging History; if it's the latter, then historians are attempting to work with what has come before, recognising that History is full of lacunae, both overlooked and unrealised, and, perhaps even more so, acknowledging that there is no such thing as History. History with a capital H implies that it is whole and complete, that it is unified and is (or can be) based on theories, philosophies, and narratives. There is no need for alternate histories as a result: a complete and universal history is, as the name implies, wholly complete. (This idea of a unified, universal history is by no means a new one.)
What does all of this have to do with disability history, then? Disability history is just that - it seeks to examine the historical experience of disabled people; it does not intend to usurp h/History, but to supplement it and fill in a lacuna or two. The reality is that disability history - along with any other sub-field of history - is a parallell interpretation of history for its focus, if not the fact that it is a particular historian's focus. What I mean to say is that when one really considers History, one has to realise, and understand, that History has always been composed of parallel and conflicting histories; there are as many parallels and conflicts as there are historians, because each one of us has our own focus, interpretation, and priorities when it comes to analysing historical source material and contributing towards the development of h/History as a field of study.
Within the field of disability history, there are parallels (and conflicts) as well. As mentioned in my first post, deaf history is, at present, the most-developed sub-field of disability history, does this mean that deaf history should be considered the 'best' or most 'proper' form of disability history? Or perhaps just the luckiest in terms of the amount of historical material that deaf people and those who have worked with them throughout history (mostly the last two hundred years or so, that is) that has survived to the present day and become available for historical study? Is not the study of blindness or mental illness or any other disability as relevant as deafness?
Perhaps more importantly, parallel histories are relevant - and necessary - for the paradigm shifts that they encourage. A linear history implies that past events are less important or less better or less developed than current ones, which have 'naturally' improved upon those past events. Parallel histories, on the other hand, suggest that one can break up a linear view of History into a side-by-side view, not only in terms of examining and analysing events that occurred in different locations within a certain time period, but also in terms of comparing the past to the present. Perhaps the adage that history has lessons to teach us all does have some truth to it. Instead of perceiving medieval concepts of disability as being 'medieval' or worse-off than modern, 'proper' views, modernity can compare its views to those of the medieval period on the same footing instead of automatically assuming that the modern interpretation is superior to the medieval one.
This leads us towards the third point regarding disabled histories: a discrete, and potentially finite, history. I have used the term 'medieval disability history' to refer to medieval conceptualisations of disability and how these conceptualisations are understood in terms of the medieval period. The term itself implies that there are classical views towards disability, as well as Renaissance and modern views. I don't deny this; there are certainly classical and Renaissance views, as well as modern ones, regarding disability and its place in the society of the day.
The term itself, however, does imply that disability history has a longer pedigree than perhaps it really does. In the first place, can we really say that the concept of disability history existed before the late twentieth century, that there was a genuine idea that disability could, and did, exist as a recognised sub-field of history? Would medieval writers recognise and comprehend 'disability history' if we were to teleport ourselves back to the thirteenth century and bestow this idea upon them as much as secular historians would recognise and fully understand medieval conceptions of history?  In other words, would the concept of 'disability history' be understandable to medieval people, either in our 'modern' terms or in their 'medieval' terms? Would 'disability history', as a concept, even translate at all?
On the other hand, history relies upon source materials to fuel its engine. How far back could we go in terms of understanding disability history? There are certainly references to disability from classical antiquity, but this type of disability history would be a history of disability, not of the disabled experience: it is not until the modern period that one really begins to find an abundance of source materials written by and for disabled people.
In terms of a history of the disabled experience,  then, which is certainly one of the nuances couched within the term 'disability history', there appears to be a more discrete and finite period of history than for History in general. Referring back to the idea of prehistory v history in the first post, if we go by source materials alone, history proper for deaf people can be said to have begun in the late eighteenth century with the Abbé de l'Epée; everything before then is prehistory. The result is that deaf history has a longer prehistory than history; it is playing catch-up to History.
This is the crux of the issue: do we consider 'disability history' to be a history of disability, in which the human, lived, personal experience is secondary to the disability, in which case we have a wider swath of history with which to work with, or do we consider the phrase itself to refer to the human, lived, personal experience more so than the disability itself? In that case, we have limited our historical scope to the modern period as a result simply because of the abundance of source materials with which to work with and from. Which view of disability - the disability itself or the lived experience as a result of the disability - is more valuable to historians?
1 The Wikipedia entry on Ranke constitutes a fairly good preliminary introduction.
2 For an introduction, see Herbert Butterfield's classic study of Whig history, The Whig Interpretation of History.
3 This is not to say that this type of history is defunct or useless.
4 Anyone who's gone shopping at a bookstore for Christmas gifts has inevitably seen the sudden proliferation of books and atlases that purport to offer a complete or short and concise or updated history of the entire world, such as this, this, this, and this.
5 Catherine J. Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other’,” American Historical Review 108 (June 2003), 763-793.
6 See The Deaf History Reader, ed. John Vickrey Van Cleve (Washington: Gallaudet University Press, 2007) and Deaf World: A historical reader and primary sourcebook, ed. Lois Bragg (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
7 For instance, see
8 For a good introduction, see Marjorie O'Rourke Boyle, "Deaf Signs, Renaissance Texts," in Perspectives on early modern intellectual history: essays in honor of Nancy S. Struever, eds. Joseph Mariano and Melinda W. Schlitt (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2001).
9 To name but one example, see The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge, 2006).
10 A literary answer to this question can be found in Michael Flynn's Eifelheim, which sees aliens crash in the Black Forest just before the Black Death hits Germany; the aliens are forced to seek aid from the villagers of Eifelheim, and a main 'thesis' of the book, if you will, is the translation of our modern perceptions of the world (through the aliens) to the villagers' medieval worldview and vice-versa.
11 See Herbert C. Covey, Social Perceptions of People with Disabilities in History (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1998); Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, Cultural Locations of Disability (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006); Jan Branson and Don Miller, Damned for their difference: The cultural construction of deaf people as 'disabled', a sociological history (Washington: Gallaudet University Press, 2002); and Paul K. Longmore, Why I burned my book and other essays on disability (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003), to name but a few sources.
12 This is quite apparent in books that cover the whole of Deaf history, which largely skim over the centuries before Epée, such as Clifton Carbin, Deaf heritage in Canada: a distinctive, diverse, and enduring culture (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1996); Paddy Ladd, Understanding deaf culture: in search of deafhood (Buffalo: Multilingual Matters, 2003); and A beginner's introduction to deaf history, ed. Raymond Lee (Feltham: BDHS Publications, 2004). Two attempts to interpret deaf history before Epée can be seen in Lois Bragg's article, "Visual-Kinetic Communication in Europe before 1600: A Survey of Sign Lexicons and Finger Alphabets Prior to the Rise of Deaf Education," Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education (Winter 1997), 1-25 and Aude de Saint-Loup, "Images of the Deaf in Medieval Western Europe," in Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and Their Sign Languages, eds. Renate Fischer and Harlan Lane (Hamburg: Signum, 1993), 379-402.
22 December 2008
Thanks to EA Games, we can now tag along with Dante in Hell.
Being a modern interpretation (coughcough), there won't be any of the sissy "let's follow Virgil around!" business - it's all, "Demons. Kill," and other objectives that are just as violent and bloody, I'm sure.
I wonder if Jesus has been modernised for the Harrowing of Hell bit? I can just see it now: Jesus throwing suitably updated Holy Hand Grenades of Antioch* left and right while swearing (in a politically correct vein, of course) at His enemies and bearing down upon them like a banshee from..........a non-Dantean Hell on His way to victory, which, sadly, is not a part of this game. Apparently EA's decided that the Purgatorio and Paradiso don't make for good gaming material.
Any chance I could get an advance copy, EA? For review purposes, of course. Or research purposes. Either one works for me.
While I'm at it, anyone know if the Vatican will offer indulgences for spending virtual days in Hell?
More details on this game can be found at EA's webpage for the game here.
And, yes, I know Dante began writing the Comedy in 1308, not 1300, as the clip claims. (The story itself actually begins on Good Friday in 1300, though.)
If this game comes out before Kalamazoo next year, I daresay that the video game sessions will be very popular there.
*A reference to a highly amusing weapon in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
14 December 2008
12 November 2008
Their request has caused me to think upon its relation to the disabled experience: to what extent can one immerse themselves in the disabled experience, particularly the medieval disabled experience?
In terms of myself, I likely have the one disability that cannot easily be imagined in terms of the medieval period. If I had been born in the medieval period, I would not be able to communicate as I do now, that much is for certain. I simply cannot imagine what it must be like to be prelingually deaf in the medieval period. How would I communicate? How would I comprehend things? Would I be able to comprehend abstract concepts along with everyday, tangible concepts such as 'table', 'food', and so on? What language would I have?
As a brief aside, I did not put 'language' in quotation marks in the first instance because that would imply that whatever language I had would be measured against spoken language, whether that be English, French, or Latin. Whatever language I would have would certainly be a language to me, whether I understood it as a language or not.
I cannot imagine what the prelingual 'deaf experience' must have been in the medieval period. Even today, I cannot easily explain what it's like to be deaf in the twenty-first century: how, then, can I explain what it must have been like in the time of Aquinas?
I cannot help but think that this is how the medieval experience must have been as well. Being unable to discuss the experience of being prelingually deaf or irrevocably mad, for instance, would have required that people who attempted to understand these experiences would have had to imagine them, would have had to try to find a way to make the experience visible and tangible for themselves and others. This is to say that deafness and madness are invisible disabilities, not only because there is not necessarily an outward physical sign that these people are disabled. Also, in certain circumstances, the deaf and mad are incapable of conveying their thoughts and feelings about their experience, of describing them for others: their experiences are thus invisible as well. This does not mean that they aren't experiencing what we understand - or perceive - to be the deaf or mad experience: they are certainly experiencing their own experiences.
Our own experience, however, is ultimately an imaginary one, as the medieval experience was. The same is certainly true of my experience: I can only really imagine at what it must be like to be hearing: my cochlear implants give but the palest impression of what my friends experience in their lives in terms of their natural ability to hear.
We can certainly discuss the concept of disability, but we cannot discuss what it was like to be genuinely disabled unless we find some treasure trove of source material, which could still happen. In the end, though, we have the same issue today: how do we explain and describe what it must be like to be disabled in order to understand and categorise it? Perhaps instead of attempting to immerse ourselves into the medieval disabled experience, we need to try to immerse ourselves into the imagined medieval disabled experience.
11 November 2008
On 2 May 1915, during the Battle of Ypres, Major John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor, began penning the now-famous poem In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Lest we forget.
10 November 2008
This desire, however, has led to some very...inteeeeeeeeeeeresting google searches.
- Survey dogs + questions: I'd be glad to answer your questions, provided they're about service dogs, not survey ones. That's a new one.
- Bottles + medieval: Thank Not Drunken Tom for that one.
- Cool sounding medieval words: I'm glad to have been of service, even though I'm not quite sure which 'cool sounding' words I've employed that were deemed google-worthy. If you really want some cool-sounding words, take up Latin, Old English, and Middle English. Or something.
- Famous cripples in history: Stand up and take a bow, Emma de Beston! And the rest of you, too!
- Medieval opinion on the disabled: Let's hope the searcher wasn't looking for modern opinions that are positively medieval. *rim shot*
- Mean domina: I believe you forgot four letters at the end: -trix.
- Crippled dog death: Oh dear....
- What is imbeciles: May I suggest moseying on over to the OED's website?
- Gird thy lions: Oh, what an awesome phrase that is!
- Cripples: Right to the point - I like that!
- Tusculan disputations middle ages: Last time I checked, Cicero wrote the TD in his middle age, yeah.
- Politically incorrect terms for disability: You're welcome!
- Begging for money + disabled people: I guess that's what I get for writing that post on disability and begging.
- Summa dog: Yes, that was the name of Aquinas' dog - Summa.
- Silence imbeciles: We're all imbeciles in one way or another, so doesn't that mean the entire world should suddenly go mute?....
- Cripple disabilities: A cripple with disabilities? If that works for you....
- History of dogs britain medieval: Chase is pretty offended that you've implied she's a very old (grand) dame. She can still chase her ball, thank you very much!
- Horse imports + zombies
Yes. You read that correctly. Apparently my blog discusses horse imports and zombies.
Therefore I offer the following letter:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I regret to inform you that this blog does not discuss horse imports and/or zombies either separately or in tandem...or in any grotesque physical combination of the two, although I suspect there may very well be some marginal images of horse zombies in a medieval manuscript somewhere.
If you do have evidence of horse zombies in the medieval period, please feel free to forward such evidence to this blog. I would be quite interested in seeing what horse zombies are and what powers were accorded to them, as I've long suspected that medieval bestiaries were incomplete.
09 November 2008
Anyone know if Aquinas ever discussed what to do if someone takes all your stuff after you've given up the ghost? (Thanks, Ali!)
This is why scholars working on medieval disability need to know Latin. I look forward to our "brave blogger"'s next post!
Now to the meat of this post.
What exactly do I have to bring to medieval disability studies, really? As anyone who's read my blurb above at the top of the blog well knows, I'm disabled myself.
This is obviously a good thing for me. I can bring my personal experiences, my personal 'disabled experience/experience of disablity' to the table and use my experiences as a springboard for my research. (Read: Throw out ideas until Chase wags her tail, indicating that said idea is the best one she's heard so far. Either that or she's trying to get me to take her out for a walk....)
Of course, an objection to the above paragraph would be that because I am disabled, I must have an agenda of sorts. I'm disabled, so of course I'm all for finding disabled people in the records; giving them the time of day, allowing their neglected voices to finally be heard; and, of course, whacking History upon her head and giving her a hard time for not considering the disabled - after all, they were certainly around way before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: God did not descend to the earth in 1701 and intone, "Fiat invalidi!"* The disabled certainly existed before the eighteenth century.
I answer quite simply: yes, I do have an agenda. All historians do. We all like to think that we're neutral, or at least trained to the point that we can detach ourselves from modernity to the point that we can immerse ourselves in whatever historical epoch we're studying, such as medieval Western Europe. The past is truly a foreign country; things were done differently then, to paraphrase the famous quote. It really doesn't matter whether I'm disabled or not. An able-bodied historian would face the same difficulty in trying to overcome his or her assumptions and prejudices (yes, even historians have assumptions and prejudices - we may not always be aware of them), as well as the struggle to view the period under study on its own terms rather than on modernity's terms.
A second objection to all of this would be that, being disabled, I cannot be expected to competently assess the historical disabled experience precisely because I am disabled; I should leave this to 'normal' historians. I reply that this is akin to saying that women can't be historians, and last time I checked, no one says this anymore (I certainly hope not!), so why is it acceptable to say this in regards to historians who are themselves disabled and interested in the disabled experience? (Note to self: stop reading so much Aquinas - you're starting to sound like him, at least as far as this post is concerned.**)
A third objection would be: why medieval history, of all things? Why not the eighteenth century? the nineteenth? the twentieth? the modern period? What's wrong with the medieval period? It's pretty dang awesome if you ask me. After all, we have William "Casket Exploder" the Conqueror*** and Pope "Better Dead than Alive" Formosus,**** just to name two people. And of course, we have natural philosophy, universities, the Carolingian Renaissance and...well, you get the point. It's pretty awesome. But I disgress.
Why medieval history? The problem with looking at the modern period is that historians of disability have become used to being able to access a wealth of records, not only about the disabled themselves (especially institutional records), but also records produced by the disabled themselves that allow historians to come a bit closer to understanding 'the disabled experience'. While it has made the disabled and their experiences more visible, it has, I think, also served to make them seem extraordinary, and not necessarily in a good way. This ... setting aside, if you will, of the disabled as a group worth studying in history has caused historians to rely upon explicit references to and sources concerning the disabled themselves. What this has done is it has caused the majority of disabled people who were fortunate enough to be recorded in documents throughout history to be disregarded precisely because they aren't extraordinary in that not much ink was spent in recording their presence. Let's face it. Who would we rather read about, a disabled person about whom we know an obscene amount, or a disabled person who only merits a fleeting mention as "the old deaf-mute" in a mouldering document somewhere?
How many of you knew that Quintilian discussed deaf-mutes in his Institutio Oratoria, commenting that gestures, just as those employed by deaf-mutes, appeared to be the common language of men? Or that he commented that orators could potentially learn how to handle their hands properly by studying deaf-mutes? Quintilian does not spill much ink on these two comments - they are fleeting, more than anything else. This does not mean that Quintilian disregarded deaf people (or disabled people in general) or disliked them or thought them not worthy of his precious ink. Rather, is it possible that he merely glanced at deaf-mutes precisely because they were ordinary people and not extraordinary? Surely Quintilian must have seen deaf people (as well as the blind, mentally ill, paralysed, crippled, and so on) in his lifetime: writers tend to spend much ink writing about extraordinary things rather than ordinary things, I find. This is why I find the medieval period so fascinating: when one realises that the disabled are in the records, not as extraordinary or intensely 'abnormal' people, but as perfectly ordinary, 'common' people, so many more doors open up than did before. (And it makes my job even more difficult, but it's worth it in the end.)
I often find myself reflecting upon where the field of medieval disability studies will be in a few years, and decades, from now. Will it be like women's studies, gender history, queer theory, in that it will have become (part of the) mainstream in academia, a topic worth exploring not necessarily simply because one is intrigued by it, but because it is acknowledged and encouraged? I certainly hope so.
Oh, yes. Before I forget, I promise that Disabled Histories will be completed by the end of next week. Shocking, I know.
*I know it's in the Bible and all of that, Brent. =P (For everyone else, a really lame, yet highly amusing, private joke between Brent and myself. I couldn't resist.)
**Medievalists will get this reference. For everyone else, since we're 1-1/2 months away from Christmas, take a look at the long-lost entry from Aquinas' Summa Theologica on Santa Claus. (Hint: Look at how Aquinas structures his discussion.)
***Courtesy of Orderic Vitalis, who writes of William's funeral Mass at the cathedral of Caen:
"William was eulogized before the assembled bishops and abbots of Normandy, and a request made that, if ever he had done wrong, he was to be forgiven. Incredibly, someone loudly proclaimed that the church had been built on land forcibly acquired from his father when William was duke. "Therefore I lay claim to this land, and openly demand it, forbidding in God's name that the body of this robber be covered by earth that is mine or buried in my inheritance." The man was compensated sixty shillings for the place of burial.
Then something even more macabre happened. The monk of Caen writes that William was "great in body and strong, tall in stature but not ungainly." When it came time to bury the heavy body, it was discovered that the stone sarcophagus had been made too short. There was an attempt to force the corpse and, says Orderic, "the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd." Even the frankincense and spices of the censers was not enough to mask the smell, and the rites were hurriedly concluded."****God bless Wikipedia. Also, is it just me, or wouldn't that painting by Jean-Paul Laurens look awesome in a medievalist's office?
08 November 2008
I had originally intended for this blog to act as a forum in which I could discuss ideas concerning disability in terms of the medieval period and the modern period, especially in terms of how modern thought about disability has been employed in attempts to understand medieval conceptualisations of disability. And there would be some
This blog will still remain an academic one at heart, but I think I will be allowing my 'co-bloggers' more opportunities to post - even I find that they have good things to say...assuming they can stop bickering among themselves long enough to write something. I will still discuss issues regarding disability and how disability and the disabled themselves were viewed in the medieval period, of course!
Check back for some new posts in the next week or so!