11 July 2008

Disabled histories: Part I

[NOTE: Again, another very long post, nearly 2300 words. This is the first of a series of posts on disability history, so be ready for at least two, possibly three, more long posts in the next few days. To reiterate my point in my last post, any suggestions for adding post summaries to the blog would be greatly appreciated!]

While reading two posts on an interpretation of Chaucer's The Franklin's Tale and weeping animals in Ava's version of the Fifteen Signs of the Last Judgment over at ITM, I was reminded of my original PhD project.

In the first instance, I had planned on focusing on deaf history in 18th and 19th century Europe and North America. I had been - and continue to be - particularly fascinated by a comment Catherine J. Kudlick wrote in her essay "Disability History: Why We Need Another Other": she wrote that the creation of a school for the deaf by the abbé Charles-Michel de l'Epée represented a "creation myth" for the deaf community.

This suggestion of the existence of a creation myth caught me, well, quite unawares. I had never thought of it in this fashion, but when I began to consider it, I realised that it had some very serious and interesting implications for deaf history and disability history in general. After my switch over to medieval history, I've realised that these two little words are still having an effect on my work in medieval history.

Four particular points come to mind fairly quickly when we think of the idea of a creation myth in terms of disability history in general:
  • prehistory v history
  • parallel histories
  • a discrete (and potentially finite?) history
  • the issue of memory
I will be using deaf history as my exemplar throughout this post, simply because it is the most-developed subgenre of disability history. (This is not to say that blind history or 'crip' history, etc. haven't been done, but deaf history has been done for a bit longer and has garnered most of the focus because of issues of language, sign language, communication, cultural identity, and so on.)

Before I continue to the meat of the post, I would like to note that this will be a series of three or four posts. This first post will deal with the first point of prehistory v history.

When I first read the creation myth comment, I suddenly conjured up an image of Epée coming along and solemnly intoning Fiat silentium!* Granted, 'silence' itself can be understood in several ways, as one of the novel things Epée did was assume that deaf-mutes were teachable, that they could indeed learn to communicate through French by reading and writing it. To this end, he determined that since he learned Latin via French, why couldn't the deaf learn to comprehend French via sign language?** The rest, to use a bad pun, was history.

Now, the establishment of a creation myth centered around Epée says something about deaf history itself. The obvious point is that deaf people today consider their identity and cultural group (in terms of the Deaf community) as having a beginning, as having begun with Epée. The general consideration is that Epée recognised them for what they could do, not for what they couldn't do, and it just snowballed from there.

However, this perspective reduces history to two distinct periods: Before Epée (BE) and After Epée (AE). The period BE, which covers everything before c. 1760, is thus reduced to "prehistory". The term "prehistory" can be understood in two different contexts here: one, it may refer to the fact that deaf people did not appear very frequently in the records or were incapable of leaving behind historical artefacts and/or reminders that they did exist BE, and it may also refer to the fact that deaf people consider (pre)history BE to be irrelevant to their identity. This second point is quite important because, as I mentioned earlier, deaf people have constructed their identity and culture around Epée and his followers, who helped educate the deaf and initiate ideas of deaf identity and thus of deaf history.

Back to the first point about prehistory: in a related point, the determination of where we place the 'beginning' of our history (is there such a thing as a 'beginning' to history in general?) also shows our values and priorities. In terms of deaf history, there was one predecessor to Epée: Pedro Ponce de Leon. Pedro was a Benedictine monk - when he was introduced to two aristocratic brothers who were deaf-mutes, he realised that it was potentially possible to adapt the monastic signs that he employed to create a rudimentary manual language that could be used in communication with the two brothers. Pedro taught the brothers Spanish, Latin, and Greek and, interestingly enough, he also taught them to speak enough in order to be able to avail themselves of the sacrament of confession.***

Why wasn't Pedro considered the 'beginning' of deaf history, then? The answer is straightforward, I think. Pedro's work with the two brothers was a one-off occurrence, whereas Epée's methods were developed and designed for wide dissemination and were also accessible, as evidenced by the popularity of Epée's school for budding teachers of the deaf: many of the first teachers of the deaf across France and Europe (excepting Britain)**** were the disciples of Epée himself. Instead of considering the deaf as individual cases or within a meritocracy (which is implied by the fact that Pedro taught two aristocrats), Epée assumed that any deaf child or person had the ability and intelligence to learn languages. This ideology lent itself naturally, I think, to the idea that Epée should be considered the beginning of deaf history, or at least of 'proper' deaf history, as everything BE is prehistory.

Before we move on to the second of the three points above, let us consider the issue of prehistory more closely, as it's closely linked to the second point of parallel histories. The designation of deaf history before c. 1760 as being BE, or prehistory, clearly demarcates what is generally considered to be the 'modern' period as also belonging to deaf history. This suggests that the period BE is not only prehistory, but is 'ancient' or 'medieval' history, and that this prehistory is not important or worth examining because we already know what happened 'back then'. Deaf people were oppressed, were called nasty names like deaf-mutes, and weren't considered important enough to be included in historical records. There's a reason the medieval period is called the medieval period, people!

This is, obviously, an unfortunately simplistic (and pessimistic) view of deaf prehistory. One has to wonder if this indicates a feeling within the deaf community that the period BE is such a 'long' one that it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to develop an identity (or impose one?) that takes prehistory into account. The fact that the deaf identity may be said to begin in the 18th century must certainly have helped to create a clearly developed identity, one that can be linked to historical events, particularly as we have historical records and artefacts from deaf people in the 18th century onwards, which helps to make this particular historical period more tangible and meaningful to the deaf community. I can certainly understand why references to deaf-mutes being let off for murders because they're considered incapable of understanding right from wrong in medieval legal records don't have the same attraction as the writings of Ferdinand Berthier, the development of the Hartford School for the Deaf by Gallaudet and Clerc, and so on.

However, this does not mean that the medieval period is irrelevant. The fact that deaf-mutes are mentioned in legal records (and I'm certain they're mentioned elsewhere, of course!) doesn't mean that they're irrelevant to historians. One would think that these legal references would be seen in a positive light: they certainly demonstrate that medieval understandings of deafness (and disability in general) may very well have been quite sensible and practical in taking real-life considerations into account instead of painting the deaf (or disabled) with a single brush.

This understanding of medieval history as belonging to prehistory suggests that there's more than the creation myth at play here. With the period AE covering what is considered the 'modern' period, it raises questions of modernity v pre-modernity, and also suggests that there is a difficulty in understanding prehistory on its own terms, that deaf people and those who work in disability history assume that since models have been constructed that explain the disabled experience in the period AE/modern period, these models must thus be applicable to the prehistoric period as well. We have a paradox here. If modern models can be applied to the prehistoric period, then is the period BE (before Epée) really be 'prehistory'? At the same time, the clear marking of Epée as the beginning of deaf history strongly indicates that the period before Epée is marked off and cannot be understood according to the models, ideas, and theories developed by Epée and his disciples and those who have come after them up to the present day.

In dealing with this paradox presented to us by prehistory, does this mean that I, as a scholar working in medieval disability history, am actually working in 'disability history', or is this a misnomer, a glossing-over of this paradox? Of course, the phrase itself implies that there was an understanding that disability meant more than just a physical or mental impairment in the medieval period, that it could constitute metaphorical and epistemological ideas and concepts such as 'disablity history'. For them, the period they lived in constituted the 'modern' period, thus it was not 'prehistory', yet the demarcation established by the 'creation myth' discussed earlier relegates medieval people to a lower rung on the totem pole below modernity. Granted, this is not a novel concept, as our understanding of history presumes that it is linear to a degree, that events follow one another and that the further we go back into the past, the higher the probability of finding less historical evidence. This argument conveniently leaves out the issues of interpretation. For instance, I can't very well call deaf people 'deaf' - they were, more often than not, referred to as 'deaf-mutes' or 'deaf and dumb', to name two terms. This difference in terminology does not necessarily mean that the medieval understanding of deafness is 'inferior' to the modern one: it simply indicates that the medieval period had different priorities and that in order to glean out the references to deaf people (and disabled people in general), we must learn to accept the medieval understanding of disability for what it is instead of attempting to subsume it within a modern framework.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the only way to resolve the paradox, or at least set it aside for the moment, is to understand the medieval worldview on its own terms instead of attempting to link it to a modern one in order to 'better' facilitate interpretation.

Now the question is: Are we dealing with history or prehistory? On one level, I would argue that we are dealing with prehistory in terms of medieval disability history in the sense that this period has not been considered a fruitful or even relevant one for the purposes of disability history in general until quite recently. It has also been argued that this period is distinctly different from the modern period, given the different models, interpretations and understandings of disability in the medieval and modern periods, so any attempt to 'link' up the two periods or demonstrate that the medieval period has any relevance to the modern period in terms of disability is useless. This argument has been used largely because there is, again, very little actual work done in this period: the assumption is that since there's little work done already, it must be pointless, ergo why bother attempting to disprove the point?

And, of course, what's the point in developing a parallel history when the 'main' history has already been done? We know that the medieval period was a nasty time for the disabled - what more needs to be done in terms of the medieval period? This will form the basis for the next post in this series, which will be coming in the next few days, so be sure to check back!

*For you non-Latinists, 'Let there be silence!' It's a play on the famous command by God in Genesis in the Latin Vulgate: Fiat lux! or 'Let there be light!'

**To simplify matters, Epée did not invent sign language. That was invented independently of him by the deaf who formed a community in Paris. We know this sign language existed before Epée, as Pierre Desloges describes some of the signs in this system in his book, published in 1794. What Epée did was he created 'methodical signs'. In effect, these signs conveyed French on the hands: methodical signs were thus used as a teaching tool to teach the deaf in Epée's classes the alphabet, French grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Again, this is a very simplified explanation and is in no way meant to be authoritative.

***Inheritance laws, to be quite simplistic about it, generally presumed that the heir was capable of speech, as he or she had to be able to understand contracts and be capable of managing his or her estate(s), which required the ability to speak and comprehend speech; the ability to comprehend written vernaculars or Latin was not necessarily as relevant. Why this should be applicable to confession as well, I'm not certain, but I know that Eaquae Legit has found references to deafness in terms of confession in her research already.

****The Braidwoods developed their own system for educating the deaf. This is why British Sign Language (BSL) is quite different from French Sign Language (FSL) and its descendants, which includes American Sign Language (ASL). It appears that the Anglo-French rivalry extended to the education of the deaf as well.



I love the medieval history so i read more about it. There are more useful blogs but I read good one it is Crusades-Medieval