12 November 2008

The imagined medieval disability experience

Two friends of mine, who are also examining medieval disability history, keep reminding me that I have to teach them how to sign. Part of it is so we can communicate more easily amongst the three of us, true, but a large part (if not the larger part, I suspect) of it is because they're both genuinely interested in my experience as a deaf person, a disabled person. They see sign language as something that's part of who I am - it's not something extraordinary, yet it's certainly a part of my experience.

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.


Alison Purnell

You forget the ability to snark during lectures. That's a reason, too.

Greg Carrier



I'll confess, part of it is also that I'm a language geek. New ways of expressing language is cool!

Greg Carrier

I repeat: =P