09 November 2008

Disability history + historians who are disabled = ?...

First things first.

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?


Alison Purnell

For future reference, here's a visual to go with the William "Casket Exploder" story: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/Default.aspx?id=4096586&p1=0