22 May 2008

Further ruminations on medieval service dogs

Apparently Chase does not like working outside in the rain. She's been, well, pissy all day with me. Sorry, dear, but I can't control the weather.

Chase's, ... unprofessional demeanour today got me thinking about another facet of having her in my life.

I chose to get her. She was not forced on me. In effect, I chose to 'visualise' my deafness.

What exactly happened in the medieval period when a situation like mine today occurred? Of course, it'd be impractical to use my actual situation in, say, 1350, as I'd be deaf, mute, and dumb (in terms of medieval terminology).

Were there personal reasons for visualising an otherwise invisible disability in the medieval period? Would someone wanted to have visualised his or her disability for safety reasons? For instance, if someone was hard of hearing, would he or she want that fact to be known within the community so that if an emergency happened, he or she could feel (relatively?) secure in the knowledge that others knew what to do?

To continue the issue of safety - not to say that there aren't other issues that could be considered in light of this discussion - where does the issue of choice come in? That is to say, were disabled people in the medieval period granted the choice of deciding whether or not to disclose or visualise their disability? Did family and friends take that choice into their own hands if they felt that disclosure would benefit the disabled person in terms of ensuring his or her safety?

Perhaps most important, did disclosure act as the disabling force itself? Did the act of disclosure make it irrevocably final? This is it - I am now disabled. / This is it. Our family member/relative/friend is disabled.

If a disability was not explicitly visible, did that mean that disclosing it removed it from some intellectual and/or theoretical plane and transformed it into an actual disability, both in terms of how the disabled person perceived his or her disability and also in how others perceived him or her, particularly in terms of an identity? Objects that evoke ideas of disability have a power and ability to be transformed into the disability itself in modern society. When we think of the blind, we think of white sticks and guide dogs; the deaf evoke images of hearing dogs, cochlear implants, hearing aids, sign language, interpreters, and the like; physically disabled people appear physically infirm in that they're wheelchair-bound or have crutches or walkers or other supports that say, "I'm physically disabled!"

Is there a distinction to be made between needing and choosing to have (or use) visual objects/signifiers? Does needing a particular object merely confirm that one indeed has a disability? Does choosing to employ such an object confirm to the disabled person that he or she is disabled, perhaps even more so than someone who actually needs the object in question? Is it possible to separate objects from disabilities, or are objects so much a part of the disability (or disabilities) they are associated with that it is impossible to separate them from the larger question of disability and identity?

Case in point: When I attended Kalamazoo earlier this month, I did not bring Chase with me. (My first trip with Chase involving a plane will not be a transborder and/or international flight.)

I did not have Chase when I attended Kalamazoo in 2007, but when I went this year, I caught myself having dissociative moments, if you will: a few times, I realised that I was talking to an invisible Chase while attempting to reach for an invisible harness on her invisible back. I had to remind myself that, no, she was not with me in Kalamazoo; she was back home in Canada probably pestering my parents to play fetch with her or feed or otherwise give her some attention. (Apparently she spent most of her time checking, double-checking, and triple-checking that, no, I was not hiding in my room from her.)

Even though I did not have Chase with me, I was still deaf. The only difference was that my deafness was once again invisible until someone engaged me in conversation (or I ran into someone I knew from previous conferences who knew that I was deaf, of course). I wonder what would happen if I brought Chase to Kalamazoo next year: would people I know see her as merely another tool to help me (not that you're an actual physical tool, dear. Here's a treat - now shut up.) navigate the world as a deaf person and scholar, or would they assume that I had developed some other disability or condition since this year's Kalamazoo that necessitated Chase's appearance?

With or without Chase, I identify myself as a deaf graduate student and aspiring scholar. The more interesting question for me is that of my external identity - how do others perceive me? Am I perceived as being more 'normal' if I don't have Chase with me? Would I be seen as being disabled (or even more disabled) if Chase is with me? Does Chase appear to make me more of a person in that I'm secure enough in my deafness and my personal identity in that I am willing to advertise it to the world, or does it make me into some 'other' in that I've been 'required' to adopt Chase as a signifier of my otherwise invisible disability?

To come back to the medieval period, as any medievalist well knows, this period was loaded with symbolism and iconography. (Every period is, but the medieval period is quite remarkable for its reliance upon imagery in various mediums.) Medieval society certainly wrestled with the issue of visually representing invisible disabilities, or at least finding metaphors to describe them.* To me, this implies that medieval society was perfectly capable of understanding that disabilities could be both visible and invisible.

As such, what role did this overall idea of invisibility, visibility, and signification play in terms of defining both the idea of disability and specific disabilities themselves in medieval Europe?

The past is truly a foreign country in some respects. I just hope there are signposts where I'm going, and if not, that I remember to put some up so others can follow (and correct them if needed).

*David A. Sprunger, "Depicting the Insane: A Thirteenth-Century Case Study," in Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations, eds. Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002), p. 223-241.


Josh Eyler

These are amazingly important questions that you have asked here, Greg. Now, I know your feelings about using disability theory to understand medieval disability, and I share many of your concerns, but might the issues you are raising here be good starting points for constructing a model for understanding medieval disability that uses modern theory as a jumping off point? Obviously, contemporary models such as the social model or the cultural model* (which I like better because it's more inclusive) fall short in terms of acknowledging the lived conditions of medieval people, but isn't there some aspect of medieval disability that is socially constructed? The question of invisible/visible disability in medieval society seems to hinge on the person's perception of how others saw her or him, which would make "medieval disability" itself at least partly a construction. When and if a medieval person chose to make a disability visible would seem to relate to the perceived socio-cultural advantages or disadvantages of disclosing in this way. In order to find out what that individual thought, though, I think we have to understand how the society "constructed" their ideas about disability. This posting of yours has really given me a lot to think about, and I look forward to our debate about theory continuing for some time to come!

*See David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, _Cultural Locations of Disability_ (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005).

Insurditate vero

Got your comments now, Josh!

I've left my comments on your similar post over at ITM, so perhaps we can continue the discussion there? Please do keep pushing me on this: I really think the blog posts on our personal blogs, at ITM, and on the Society blog could be a huge help in promoting more dialogue outside of Kzoo, Leeds, and the like during the year.

I agree that these are important questions. In fact, Alison and I are seriously considering an article on this issue, because we think it's worth asking just what role (in)visibility played in defining disability in the medieval period.

I think to a degree, modern society feels that it's moved past the 'archaic' idea that disabilities had to be visible to this idea that we're capable of uncovering disabilities that past (read: 'worse-off') societies couldn't discern because of this 'restriction' on their definitions.

The reality, of course, is that we still rely on visual identifiers today. Did those identifiers assume more importance or different values in the medieval period, is what I'm interested in with this post. Thanks, Chase!

As for disability theory, this is perhaps where my disability plays against me. It's a bit hard to explain, but disabled people tend to have this idea that since we can form 'communities' today based on our disabilities, why couldn't this have been done 'back then', and of course we can use modern disability theory to prove it! The problem with such an argument is that it presupposes that disabled people identified themselves as being disabled and saw that as a way to create an identity. It's true that we've 'created' disabled 'communities' by excluding them to the fringes of the 'Other' or by lumping them in with the poor, thereby granting them a degree of cohesiveness that they may or may not actually have had. It's my training that's kicking in here, I think, and it's telling me that I can't subscribe to that theory because if I do, aren't I being anachronistic?

Does that make sense? This is why I think you have an advantage in a way, Josh, in that you don't necessarily have to consider the question of 'disabled identity' on the same level as I do.

In case you're interested, I have a very interesting article from the NY Times about the creation of Clerc, a community exclusively for the deaf (and those who believe in sign language) in South Dakota, I think it is. There's a website as well about the development of this town (and 'community'), which I can find for you if you're interested. This is an extreme example of this idea of a disabled 'community' or 'identity'.

It is partly why I feel that I have to be very careful in terms of dealing with the 'group'/'community' mentality. It certainly exists today, but did it exist back then, and if so, in what form(s)? I certainly don't want to promote an idea that we can definitely 'community-ise' disabled people in the medieval period, unless of course such an idea is at least legitimately possible and/or obvious (e.g. the Quinze-Vingts in Paris, for instance).

I also look forward to our discussions/debates in the future!

Josh Eyler

That makes perfect sense, Greg, and although we haven't found the sources yet (or at least I'm not aware that we have), I bet you are absolutely right with your feeling that disabled people in the Middle Ages may have formed groups to self-create an identity. Just as in the modern day, though, is it possible to envision a situation where there are multiple identities being forged at the same time; that is, the group creates an identity for itself that plays against the identity constructed by society?

Of course, this would mean that the Middle Ages were just as "modern" as any modern society, and only we medievalists would dare to suggest that! :)

I'd love to get the address to that website you were talking about, too. Sounds fascinating!

Insurditate vero

Josh: Before I forget, here's the Wikipedia link. Seems the website itself has been shut down. I'll find the NY Times article and email it to you.


Mmhmm - I think the idea of identity has to be considered. Again, I'm not proposing something like Deaf culture or 'crip culture' existed in the medieval period, but I think that small, local groups may have formed. It's also possible that towns/families/communities integrated the disabled into their 'group', but of course this doesn't mean there wasn't self-creation. (Again, we need to look in the archives to see if this question is answerable - yet another project!)

I suspect that we won't really be able to answer that question, because it's reliant upon the possibiilty that the disabled left records, and this ain't exactly 18th, 19th, 20th century European/American history, sadly.

One can hope, though.

At the very least, I really think we need to at least consider the possibility that we can at least infer an identity that isn't reliant upon 'Othering' the disabled or lumping them in with some generic group like the poor. If it's a 'disabled identity' created by mainstream society, so be it - still better than nothing. (Sarah's comment on my fuller post on this issue is quite good in pointing out the difficulty of studying silence in the records. Feel free to mosey on over and take a look at the post, if you haven't done so already.)

Indeed! Here's to the "modern" Middle Ages!