28 May 2008
The comments on my two pieces have been enjoyable to read (note to self: remember to respond to the latest comments tonight or tomorrow).
One of the themes the comments have touched on is the idea of exactly where modern theories and understandings of disability intersect with medieval theories and understandings, and what role they can play in expanding the field itself.
I've been having an interesting discussion with Josh Eyler in the comments section on one of my earlier posts, and have also picked it up with some others off-blog. The idea at the middle of the discussion is that of community.
Scholars have traditionally ascribed the disabled the status of a 'community' either by excluding them and moving them to the margins, thereby giving them not necessarily the status of, but at least the sense of, community by setting them firmly within the realm of the 'Other', or by lumping them in with the poor, thereby implying that the disabled can attain no better (community) status than that of the 'poor vagrant'.
The difficulty with these 'definitions' is the suggestion that there is a 'disabled community' in there somewhere. While I am not arguing that disabled people may have banded together because of their similar social status and/or life experiences, I am hesitant to suggest that there may have been a genuine sense that disability itself could act as a cohesive force that brought people who were disabled together into a group (or 'community') of like-minded people, both in terms of life experiences and in how they wished to be treated and perceived in their communities and in medieval society at large.
Jeffrey Cohen, in one of his insightful remarks, brought up the issue of the 'crip identity'. This identity is based on the understanding that people who are defined as being 'crippled' are actively taking a socially negative term and turning it into a positive one. This process goes back to something I have discussed in earlier posts: identity. This, to me, runs the risk of moving counter to the goals of the 'crip community': in encouraging 'normal' society to perceive 'crips' as being productive and full members of society who simply happen to be 'crippled', this reaffirms their identity as 'crips', potentially to the minimising and/or outright exclusion of others such as gender, race, cultural background, religion, and many others.
During the first year of my MA, I took a course on race and gender in modern American history (it fulfilled a departmental requirement that at least one of my courses not be related to my field of study). It turned out to be one of the best courses I took during my coursework, strangely enough. The professor challenged me to realise and attempt to begin to understand what precisely the role of disabling people does to their identity as a whole. Before I took this course, I had always defined myself as someone who was deaf. This definition emphasises the fact that I am a person instead of my deafness, but it still carries the connotation that I can only be defined by my deafness, both by myself and others.
As a scholar, am I guilty of understanding the disabled only as disabled people, instead of people who happen to be disabled? Granted, part of the difficulty is my source material: they define the disabled as the disabled - they're deaf-mutes, blind people, cripples, paralytics, idiots, lunatics, imbeciles, fools, deformed, and the like. Does this absolve me of a scholarly responsibility to at least consider why medieval people understood the disabled as being the disabled, not necessarily as people who happened to be disabled? For all I know, once I start examining this question, I might find that at least in some cases and/or situations, the disabled were perceived as being people first, disabled second?
Ultimately, this comes back to the issue of community, and that of pride as well. Scholars have written about how community was extremely important in the medieval period, perhaps even more so than today, and I have to wonder if this discussion was applicable to the disabled as well. Were they allowed to participate in community activities, and did they do so as the disabled (which may or may not suggest that there was an underlying current of pity and/or Christian charity), or as people who merely happened to be disabled? Were they disabled, or dis-abled? And, of course, what happened if a disabled person spent most of his or her life within the local area? Would people have come to see him or her simply as another fixture in the local scenery, just as Tom Brewer or John Ploughman and their families had been in the area for years and years and were as much a part of the community as anyone else? Was John or Jane Disabled seen as a negative force within the community, someone who could be used as a scapegoat, or as a source of pride in that the community was inclusive and properly Christian?
You may have noticed that I did not take the last part of that question further to ask whether or not John or Jane Disabled may have been proud of their disability in that it set them apart from their community and made them unique. This is a feature of the 'crip community' ideology, and I cannot see how we can find source material that would allow us to examine this question in terms of the medieval period. It could be done indirectly, I am sure, but it would not be very convincing, I don't think. (Feel free to disagree with me on this point, of course.)
I realise that many of my posts have followed this framework - i.e. discussing something about the medieval period, examining my experiences, and coming back to the medieval period. This may seem strange to some, but I think it is actually quite a good method for me, at least, to try to understand modern understandings of disability while reminding me that I need to apply these same questions, concerns, and issues to my (medieval) sources: the only reason we currently think that medieval people did not discuss disability very much is because we have not looked at the sources. What if they did, and how did their understandings affect their ideas, and how can they be used to examine modern understandings, instead of (just) the other way around?
This field is so new that there are certainly many more questions than answers, and I'm not exactly helping on the answer side of the ledger at the moment, I realise that. Even though I cannot provide concrete answers at the moment, this is one of the reasons why I set up this blog: to raise questions and hopefully engage interested readers in a discussion of how these questions may affect studying the disabled in medieval Europe (if at all). I fully realise that medieval people may very well have had different priorities and conceptions of disability than I do today.
I suppose this means I'm using modern theories of disability as a springboard into the medieval period, aren't I? Again, I'm not opposed to the idea in principle (as those of you who have read my ITM post and follow-up comments will know): I merely wish to be careful about how I go about it. This field is so new that I think it's quite important to ask questions like these before and while engaging with our sources: these questions will, hopefully, lead us to try to understand a bit better, at least, just how medieval people dealt with the disabled.
The problem, of course, is convincing myself that it's all right to actually write an article or chapter based on all of these questions; after all, how else will I uncover more exciting - and vexing - questions that I haven't yet considered?
Speaking of that, I should probably respond to the CFP that was sent out today. I think something based on my SEMA paper for this October (sorry! You want to know what it's about, you'll have to attend! =) ) would be quite good for the collection.
26 May 2008
The documentary shows what life is like at the Grand Chartreuse, the head house of the Carthusian order in France, long considered one of Catholicism's most austere orders.
Over a period of just under three hours, one is treated to a series of moving images. The most startling thing about this film is the importance and role of silence; there are only twelve points during the entire film where words are spoken, and briefly.
I have yet to fully formulate my thoughts on this film, but I wish to reflect upon a particular image early on in the film. The camera is positioned so we are looking through a door into a monk's cell; the end of a table and a chair are visible just beyond the doorframe.
A blind monk shuffles quietly from left to right, coming into our view as he passes the doorframe on his journey to the table, where he reaches for the chair, feeling it to figure out his spatial relationship to it before sitting down quietly.
The image shifts abruptly to a close-up of the monk: we can see the creases in his face and wisps of his white hair, along with one of his eyes.
Very little has been said in the film up to this point, save for background noises and Latin chants. I found myself wondering what it must be like to live in a place where silence is willingly self-imposed, even if it would be to one's benefit, as in the case of the blind monk.
Now, I am not presuming to say that the monk in question dislikes his situation: one has to remember the evocative idea of having to lose a sense in order to gain something better - philosophers have long waxed upon the idea that one has greater clarity of vision when one is physically blind (two of the most famous classical examples are Tiresias and Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, as well as Odysseus' respect for Tiresias in the Odyssey).
Is it possible that disabilities were welcomed in the medieval period? Did disabilities, in some contexts, acquire a positive sense, particularly in that they may have encouraged a special communion with God? Furthermore, if this is the case, did those disabilities 'Other-ise' people? In the case of the monk discussed above, the most visible thing about him, aside from the white stick, is his white habit: even though he is blind, he is still considered a full member of the community. He is not necessarily an 'Other' except in that his blindness simply indicates that he cannot see.
Also, the inclusion of those two images in the film are a reflection upon the choices of the filmmaker. This monk is shown by himself, getting from place to place under his own power without any assistance. Is this meant to be an implicit commentary on both the equality implicit within the community and the asceticism of the monastery? Is this monk seen as equal in that he is still capable of carrying out various tasks on his own while potentially needing help with some others (which would, to borrow the phrase from an excellent paper on disability at Kalamazoo, make him dis-abled, not disabled)? At the same time, is this meant to reflect upon the asceticism of the order, in that the experience of living at the monastery is ultimately a test of self-discipline, a challenge to rise above the petty issues that our bodies may throw at us in order to work towards a greater good?
I've made a couple of changes which I hope will allow anyone to leave comments if they so wish. If the problem persists, please let me know at [greg . carrier @ gmail . com] and I'll see what I can do.
It is the first of a series of three posts. This post discusses medieval disability studies in general and its current status within medieval studies. The second post will briefly discuss Margery Kempe, while the third will discuss legal examples of the disabled, at the request of Karl Steel, one of the co-authors of ITM.
Karl has also written a thoughtful essay on disability studies at ITM in advance of my post. You may read it here.
Please feel free to leave comments at ITM, or if you would rather discuss them privately, you may contact me at [greg . carrier @ gmail . com]. If you would like to compose a post in reply to my comments at ITM and have it posted here or on the Society's blog, that can be done as well.
25 May 2008
The Society will also be mentioned, so please do stop by both ITM and the Society's blog (see the next post below) in the next few days!
Chase's blogspot status: Chase is sad that Greg's spending so much time working on his ITM post and the Society blog. She's currently trying to convince Greg to stop said work for a while by lying on her bed, using stuffed baby Chase as a pillow, and giving Greg the sad puppy-dog eyes of DOOM. Doesn't seem to be working today, though. Wait, it is! Woohoo! Off to play fetch now!
The Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages (SSDMA) was thus formed under the capable leadership of Joshua Eyler.
If you would like further information on the Society, or would like to inquire as to membership, please feel free to amble over to the Society's brand-new blog, where yours truly is one of the "gubernatores".
Hope to see a few of you there!
23 May 2008
Chase's blogspot status: Chase is happily off for a walk before coming home to a spot of 'fetch' before retiring for the night, therefore she's too busy to change her status; she's requested that Greg put this up for her, seeing as he's too busy working on his post for ITM to take her out for a walk. Maybe he'll be done by the time she gets back to play fetch with her?...
From here on out, I'll see if I can't remember to put a Facebook-esque comment regarding Chase's current status at the end of my posts.
Therefore, without further ado, I give you:
Chase's blogspot status: Chase hopes Greg wont wake her up from her, erm, 'work', because she's very happy
22 May 2008
Remember when I mentioned drunken Aquinas?
My comment on the scholarly value of a drunken Aquinas came about as a result of the roundtable discussion on medieval disability in a
My MA thesis looks at mental illness in Plantagenet
One of the leading historians of the insanity defence, Daniel Robinson, blames the Church for its negative impact on how modern scholars – and modern people in general – perceive the insanity defence and its application in the medieval period. He writes that medieval Christianity’s obsession with sin saw a “voluntarist theory of criminal liability” adopted by the courts, which assumed “mental disturbance … to be of the sinner’s own making.”As a result, a jury, according to Robinson, could not possibly declare a person “not guilty by reason of insanity” because the “not guilty” are still guilty.2 His argument relies upon the fact that it does jive with some ecclesiastical sources, such as Aquinas’ Summa. (For the pertinent passage, scroll down to the paragraph beginning with "Accordingly therefore we must make a distinction:...".)
Now, scholars are breaking out of the ‘disability as sin’ model, but this is not to say that medieval thinkers never equated disability with sin; some certainly did.3 My interest with this particular analogy from Aquinas is perhaps unanswerable, but I think it’s an important question worth asking.
How exactly did Aquinas come to the conclusion that the state of drunkenness was akin to being insane? Put bluntly, did he wake up one morning, decide that he was going to get absolutely smashed, see what happened, and stop by the nearest church for confession afterwards if necessary to confess his sins?
This is one of the reasons why I’m so fascinated by this field, medieval disability history. We don’t necessarily have numerically comparable sources if we were to compare this field with that of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American disability history, nor can we (fairly) easily discern what the disabled actually thought about their experiences and the times they lived in, because not many disabled people produced sources directly.4
Our sources are inherently of the top-down variety as a result: anyone who’s worked with medieval English legal records – as I do – can tell you they never ever end, which is both a blessing (so much source material!) and a curse (they never end, which means you’re never done, either). There aren’t many bottom-up records in the sense of truly being ‘bottom-up’: even parish records, for instance, are still produced by someone who’s literate and who works within a particular theoretical and ideological framework. We do get glimpses of what life must have been like for the disabled and those who cared for them and interacted with them on a regular, day-to-day basis, but it’s still not the same as reading the moving essay by Ferdinand Berthier, a deaf Frenchman, in honour of the abbé Sicard at the National Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Paris in the early nineteenth century.5 Such a source is virtually impossible for the medieval period: I certainly wouldn’t be able to “read ’n ’rite” if I had been born in 1350. (Might have been carried off by la moria grande, but that’s another post.6)
To come back to Aquinas (hope you weren’t hitting the screech, Tom – that’s for Eaquae Legit and me), medieval disability scholars don’t have the luxury of an (over)abundance of sources that allow us to see how knowledge about various disabilities was acquired by those who weren’t disabled. As far as I can tell, we have to take Aquinas’ comparison of drunkenness with insanity on its own merits without really being able to understand just how Aquinas arrived at his conclusion that the two could be equated.
It would be a fair point to say that any reasonable person who’s tied on one too many (okay, maybe a few) could reasonably make this link between drunkenness and insanity. Yes, you could, now that I’ve told you that Aquinas did it.
How many of us have actually equated the two without being told that Aquinas did? That is the crux of the issue for me: how is it possible to equate two seemingly similar ‘experiences’?7 What exactly brought Aquinas to such a conclusion? Did he meet someone who was mentally ill who, to Aquinas, appeared to act as if he or she was drunk? Did he determine that someone who’s completely drunk is out of his or her wits, just as a mentally ill person is, ergo being drunk must be the closest ‘normal’, sane people can get in terms of experiencing the state of being insane?
Come on. You all know that it’d be funny if we suddenly discovered in some previously undiscovered or unread manuscript that medieval physicians and jurists were required to get sloshed at some point during their training in order to simulate the sense of being insane. A lot more fun than stuffing one’s ears with cotton to simulate being hard of hearing or deaf. Yes, you know it!
"Class, today we'll be simulating what it probably feels like to be insane. Please be sure to fill up your mugs or steins most liberally with some oak-aged Domesday ale or metheglin, kindly provied by the Medieval Brewers Guild of Kalamazoo fame. When we're all sufficiently sober, probably some time next week, we'll meet and compare notes."
Come to think of it, that could be a good paper proposal for the Pseudo-Society at
Reading the Beer-soaked Summa Theologica: Proof that Aquinas Wrote it While Drunk
Or something like that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I should go have a shot or two of screech before Tom gets to the point of offering it to the angels in an attempt to prove to me that (a) angels exist and (b) that he really is the Angelic Doctor, even though he already knows I’m a practising Catholic.
Although it’d be pretty cool to see an angel up close, I have to admit.
1 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q77, A7. Cited in Penelope B.R. Doob, Nebuchadnezzar's Children: Conventions of Madness in Middle English Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 34-35.
2 Daniel N. Robinson, Wild Beasts and Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 57.
3 Another example of the ‘disability as sin’ model, well-known to scholars who work with the mentally ill, is The Mirror of Justices, attributed to Andrew Horne. The Mirror notes that only those who were born “fools” were exempt from the taint of sin. The Mirror of Justices, ed. W.J. Whitaker (London: B. Quaritch, 1893), I.16.139. F.W. Maitland writes that this is not a trustworthy source of English law, however: as an “interesting but dangerous” source, it was “written by one profoundly dissatisfied with the administration of the law by the king’s judges.” The Mirror draws on sources beyond legal practice, namely mythology, the Bible, and theology and fails to make any practical distinction between royal and ecclesiastical law, as other legal collections (as Bracton, Britton, and Fleta do). The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, ed. H.A.L. Fisher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911), II.
4 This is why I don’t include Margery Kempe and her (auto)biography as a truly genuine source: she did not produce it herself, and her (auto)biography was constructed within a particular framework, namely that of (female) mystic literature. I’ll discuss my position in a later post, coming next week.
5 The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education, ed.
6 The only reason I know the Italian for ‘the great plague’ is because I recently read Ken Follett’s excellent novels detailing medieval life in a fictional medieval town, Kingsbridge, that's attempting to build a cathedral and transform itself into a proper cathedral town during the Anarchy (The Pillars of the Earth) and its attempt to repair the cathedral and survive the Hundred Years War and the Black Death (World Without End). I’m still working on taking up French. Italian might be down the road somewhere. Really down the road, that is.
7 One cannot be drunk forever, hence the act of being drunk is a very brief experience in and of itself, whereas being insane, either temporarily or permanently, is, to me, more of a state than an experience. Please feel free to disagree – leave a post here, or if you would rather discuss this with me privately, you may contact me at [greg . carrier @ gmail . com]. (Please remember to omit the spaces in between the periods and ‘at’ sign.)
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.
21 May 2008
The most obvious change is that I've had to learn to slow down. Chase can't walk as quickly as I can (especially if I'm running), so anything beyond a brief moderately quick jog is out of the question.* I used to run like mad to catch the train down to campus if I saw it nearing the station: now, I have to remember to take my time, walk to the platform and if I miss the train that's coming in, well, that's all right: there's another train coming in 5-10 minutes anyways.
The second change I've had to make is in terms of remembering to verbalise my actions for Chase. I have to tell her if I want to turn left, right, go forward, turn around, go to the curb, cross the street, and a few others. (Also helps if I know 'ordinary' commands like sit, stay, heel, down, and the like.) I can no longer just do things on a lark in that I need to remember, "Okay, I need to figure out what I want to do, then tell Chase so we don't get mixed up." That's not to say that I can't be spontaneous: I merely need to be ... thoughtfully spontaneous.
The biggest change, one that I knew I would have to deal with, is the 'visualising' of my deafness. Deafness is inherently an invisible disability in that I could walk down the street without Chase and you wouldn't know I was deaf just from looking at me, unless you took the time to note that I'm wearing cochlear implants.
At the moment, Eaquae Legit and I are trying to compose an abstract to submit to the Journal of Fifteenth Century Studies, which is preparing an issue on late-medieval texts on physical impairment. The fellows who made up the CFP included an image from Hieronymus Bosch's Procession of the Cripples. Two of the people in the woodcut that's been reproduced in the CFP are shown holding on to each other. The 'leader' is holding on to a leash that is tied to a dog, who appears to be more interested in two infirm people than in actually leading his charges.
Now, I'm not suggesting that the dog is a service dog in any capacity. What I'm suggesting is the possibility that the dog may serve to actualise his charges' disabilities. If they're blind (they're not blindfolded, nor do they have any outwardly visible indicator that they're blind) or have some other 'invisible' disability that becomes 'visible' with the presence of the dog, what does that mean for them?
Is the presence of the dog a positive thing? Does the dog serve to inform others that his charges are disabled, and that they need help, or are worthy of Christian charity? Or is the dog meant as an indicator that others should stay away from his charges precisely because they are disabled? Are those people disabled only because their disability is 'physical' in the sense that it's physically visible? (Note that all the other disabled people in the procession are physically disabled - their infirmities are visible, either in the bodies or the assistive devices they have with them.)
This raises an important question: What exactly was a 'physical' disability? Was it a literal definition, or was it based upon the ability to see a disabled person, whether or not his or her disability was actually physical or invisible (and therefore 'visible' through some tangible indicator such as a 'service dog' or crutches or a guide, for instance).
In my case, how exactly would I have been defined as being deaf? Would it have been the fact that I'm unable to hear, which is an 'invisible' disability, until one realised that I was not responding to sounds? Would it be my inability to speak, which would only be discerned when one tried to engage me in conversation? Would it be both together? Or would my physical actions mark me as deaf in that I would not know the proper social graces, so to speak?
Yet another one of those 'big' questions that's going to take a lifetime to sort out.
*Especially seeing as she helps me with my balance: if we're running, she can't provide a stable foundation for me if I should suddenly lose my balance and need her to steady me.
Ever since I started it up, I've been getting posts from quite a few scholars, both in terms of medieval disability studies and modern disability studies.
Turns out there are quite a few blogs dealing with (modern) disability studies out there in the blogosphere.
The blog at Temple U. is a pretty good portal; definitely a very good place to start. The best thing? One of the contributors is also the moderator for the H-Dis listserv (type in H-Disability in the search field and it'll come up; if you're interested, join the listserv!) and a member of the Disability History Association.
Just goes to show you you never know who you'll meet in this (virtual) world, does it?
20 May 2008
- (Ab)normal Societies: Disability as a Socio-cultural Concept in Medieval Society (which was a tad important, seeing as I presented my paper at this session...)
- The Scientific Grounding of Medieval Medicine (excellent papers, especially the one on university-trained physicians and empirical medical knowledge)
- Embodied Identities: Disability and Gender in Medieval Literature (I know I said I'm not into disability as a literary study or construct, but that doesn't mean it's irrelevant. Plus the paper on disabling gazes in late medieval [French] lyric was extremely provocative and thoughtful.)
- Disability in the Middle Ages: A Roundtable Discussion (by far the best session disability-wise at this year's Kzoo!)
There are other people like me who like the medieval period for its own sake! I'm not crazy!
Okay. And I needed a little (coughcough) bit of time for the book exhibits. It wasn't entirely pointless, as I did pick up some books, along with two books to review (Silence and Sign Language being one of them). Happy now?
Speaking of not being crazy, I have a small project on the go at the moment. It should be ready for some time next week: I shall be sure to inform you all when it's up. It has something to do with medieval disability studies, don't worry! I just hope that it'll at least help validate what I'm currently doing and what I plan to do in terms of my PhD. If I'm really lucky, it'll also result in a pretty decent PhD thesis proposal/program of study that I can use in my application to York, as well as in my scholarship applications (gotta love those pesky two-page Program of Study summaries!).
Right. I should probably get back to Silence and Sign Language, seeing as I want to finish reading it by Friday afternoon so I can start writing the review next week. That's assuming that I survive my future brother-in-law's stag party, which has apparently been scheduled to commence at 2 pm Saturday afternoon, ending some time after 2 am Sunday morning, minimum.
If I leave a post discussing flying purple elephants or something of the like Sunday morning-ish, you now know why. You've been warned.
PS. Never schedule flights through O'Hare that give you only a 1 hour and ten minute layover in between flights. Murphy's Law states that flights will be at least 30 minutes late, which means you'll only have 30 minutes to run from gate F22 to gate C4 by the time your flight from Kalamazoo finally makes it from the runway to F22, running like mad through O'Hare, making it to the gate as the plane's being pushed back from the gate, and being thankful that the pilots feel generous enough to come back all of ten feet to pick you up, otherwise you'd have to wait 10-1/2 hours for the next flight back home and pray that you can get in on standby. Not a good idea. Oh, and did I mention that you won't have time to pick up food in Chicago to take on board the plane, seeing as the flight back home takes five hours and all United serves on transborder flights are some peanuts, cookies, and beverages? Again, not a good idea. Especially if you missed breakfast, seeing as you had to leave WMU at 4 am. Definitely not a good idea.
So, a proper post-Kalamazoo writeup.
Some advice. Never fly to the US on the same day that Air Canada's chartered a plane to take about 50 sick children and their caretakers to Disneyland for the day. Got to the airport at 4.45 am, didn't get through security until 6.05 am. Good thing I got to the airport that early, cos my flight to Chicago left at 6.40 am.
I love and hate O'Hare. Love it cos it actually has decent food options, unlike 98% of airports. Hate it cos United always lands at gate B-something and I inevitably have to hike over to gate D-, E- or F-something, two terminals over. Stupid United for not putting 'international'** flights from Canada with its domestic US flights gate- and terminal-wise.
The flight to Kalamazoo is always a short little hop. The flight was delayed this year, so instead of a 60-minute flight it was about 20 minutes. I don't think we even got to cruising altitude at all, which is fine by me.
I always find Kalamazoo amusing because it's basically in the middle of nowhere, right smack in between Chicago and Detroit. Put it this way: Kalamazoo airport only has five gates. Yep, that kind of town.
I always stay at the dorms at WMU - it's much easier, seeing as 95% of the conference takes place at WMU and not offsite. (That reminds me - must remember to actually get tickets for the concert next year before they run out. And, yes, I do listen to music, preferably classical music or medieval Latin hymns. God bless cochlear implants!)
I forgot to take pictures this year (stupid me), so descriptions will have to suffice. Let's just say that the dorm rooms aren't exactly five-star accommodations; to call them Spartan would be to truly traduce the Greeks. But no one really cares, cos we only use our rooms for sleeping, and barely sleeping, at that. A normal day at Congress runs from 7 am to, oh...1, 2, 3, 4, 5 am, depending on what's going on that particular evening, pretty much.
This was my third time at 'the Zoo' and my second paper. I presented a paper on defining the mentally ill in Plantagenet England in the first round of sessions. (Thank God for that, because I'm paranoid about revising conference papers until 5 minutes before it's time to give them. If I had been required to present on Sunday morning, say, this would not have been as enjoyable a conference thanks to my irrational paranoia.) My paper was quite well-received, and I had some good questions. Two questions in particular I remember:
- Did the Crown increase its seeking-out of the mentally ill in order to acquire their lands to turn into cash before and during wars? (Answer: Not necessarily - it did happen, yes, but it wasn't necessarily an active seeking-out of the mentally ill. As the wonderful Wendy pointed out later on, there was also a rise at the beginning of each reign, which I suspect was linked more to the desire to maintain the Crown's privileges vis-a-vis the mentally ill from reign to reign.)
- Can we correlate terms like furiosi, imbecillens, and the like to modern medical distinctions for mental illness like autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and the like? (NO. My answer was more ... formal than this, but that's all you need to know, really.)
THANK GOD! I FINALLY HAVE A COLLEAGUE!
Sorry about that. If you ever find yourself working in a relatively new field where most people who work in it are already established scholars who have kind of 'fallen' into the field because of some academic or personal interest, you'll understand. And if you ever find a graduate student who works in your field not because they merely 'fell' into it, but because they LIKE it, you'll really understand. =)
Kzoo was also awesome cos there were a bunch of sessions on medieval disability, and a group of medieval disability scholars, including myself, got together one evening and started up the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages.
At the wonderful roundtable on medieval disability, quite a few audience members had some difficulty understanding why the field was relevant. Many people kept trying to tie it back to literary studies (hellooooooo again, Margery...) instead of treating it as a subject on its own, completely independent of literary studies. This is why we need to toss disability theory out of the window and deal with what people actually wrote and thought about disability in the medieval period, instead of blithely applying modern theories to the medieval period.
Of course, the congress wasn't just about going to papers, although that was quite useful, though. =)
The best part of Kzoo, as always, is the socialising come 5 pm. Head on over to one of several receptions, grab a can of Heineken or get some liquor - pick your poison! - and start talking. The second night, Ali and I ran into each other at the York reception and ended up talking from about 9 pm to 4 am about anything and everything to do with medieval disability studies. Good times. I was dead a few hours later, but it was still good times!
Plus the ale and mead tasting was excellent in waking us all up. I'm pretty sure there are some photos of the Leaning Tower of Pisa/Mead/Ale floating around here somewhere, thanks to Ali, Brent, and Melissa.
Kalamazoo was quite a good time this year: got a few books on subjects that relate to medieval disability studies, such as on the senses in medieval Europe, a collection of miracula stories from the shrine of St Foy, and a few others. I'm good.
I should probably wrap up this post so I can get back to my conversation with Eaquae. Blame her for the abbreviated post. =P I'll pick it up again tomorrow, probably!
*Many thanks to Eaquae's jetlagged and sleep-deprived brain for this one! =)
**Canada has pre-border clearance status, which means you can clear US Customs in Canada before going through security. Technically, this means that the flight is not an international one per se: it's considered a domestic flight for all intents and purposes. This, however, does not seem to apply to gate choices at O'Hare, sadly.
18 May 2008
PS. If you haven't read Cohen's The Postcolonial Middle Ages or his Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles, RUN. Don't walk.
That reminds me. I need to remember to pick up my own copies of both works at SEMA's* conference in October, assuming copies will be available, which I hope they will be, seeing as J.J. Cohen is a keynote speaker this year. (It seems the university library's starting to get annoyed with the fact that I've been, um, 'borrowing' those two particular books for quite a long time.)
Things to do for SEMA (in this particular order...hopefully!)
- Hope that my paper proposal on defining disability gets accepted.
- Book my tickets and hotel.
- Go hear J. J. Cohen's keynote speech. (And give my paper somewhere around this time.)
- Get copies of his books.
Hey, I'm deaf. I like sign language, especially if it dates from the medieval period!
*The South[E]astern Medieval Association.
16 May 2008
Dear God. If he's 'dumb', what does that make everyone else who doesn't know what Algol and 8 Cephei are, much less understand and/or appreciate how Goodricke's work laid 'the foundation of [the] modern measurement of the Universe'?
And he got into the Royal Society at 21, too! I'd say that qualifies him as pretty smart.
And this, folks, is why I love medieval disability studies so much. I could base my entire academic career just on attempting to discern the various definitions of disability and their precise meanings.
God, I love my job.
Photo taken near the Treasurer's House to the north of York Minster (York, England)
15 May 2008
The most important thing newbies to this area must know the various responses that they will get when they mention that they work in medieval disability studies. This list is by no means authoritative, but it does convey the importance of making a good show and representing medieval disability. Plus since there are so few of us, we all know each other, which means you're pretty much guaranteed a paper slot at Kzoo if you want it. Woot!
- 'Oh, medieval disability studies! That's disability studies applied to the medieval period, isn't it?'
- 'Oh, so you look at disability in literature!' [That's not to say that some people aren't, mind, but not everyone is.]
- 'Oh, yes! You look at disability and sin, don't you?'
- 'But there aren't any sources dealing with the disabled in the medieval period, so how can you work on nothing?'
- 'Ah, so you're a biblical scholar!'
- 'Have you read Irina Metzler's Disability in Medieval Europe?'
- 'Have you heard of Irina Metzler? I know that/I heard that she's wrapped up that entire field, so you're a bit too late. Could I interest you in working in [person's area of expertise], though?'
- 'Have you looked at Margery Kempe?'
- 'How the hell can you write a PhD on that tiny/useless/[insert adjective of choice here] subject?'
- 'Disability studies? What's that?'
- 'There's such a thing?'
- 'Oh, someone already did that 50 years ago.' [Thanks to Eaquae Legit for this one!]
As you may have deduced, I am a medievalist. That is to say that I like dead people who have been dead for at least six centuries, preferably no more than nine. (They're just like a fine wine - you have to let them age, but not too much!)
One of the best things my sup has done up to this point in my academic career is introduce me to the wonder that is Kalamazoo. What is Kalamazoo, you may ask? Imagine if the editor had told Virginia that not only is Santa Claus real, but that he comes twice a year. THAT is Kalamazoo to us medivalists. Four glorious days of all things medieval, including mead and ale made from authentic medieval recipes! Yes, ladies and germs, if you can imagine it, chances are it's to be found somewhere at 'the Zoo', provided that it's related to the medieval period.
The best thing, aside from all the free booze* is the ability to say things that people actually understand, such as initiating a discussion on the scholarly value of a drunken Aquinas**. There is also the opportunity to meet equally awesome people, merely cos they actually understand what you say and work in the same period as you do.
I should, however, note that medieval disability studies is a very new field. This is both wonderful and maddening. Wonderful because you can do whatever the heck you want cos no one can tell you you're wrong cos there's no 'proper' or 'correct' historiography to begin with. This, however, is also what makes the field maddening. That, and the fact that it's damn near impossible to find anyone who doesn't think you're working on 'representations of disability in medieval literature'*** or 'the intersection of disability and sin in medieval religion'****, less find anyone who actually understands what you're talking about.
This is why people like Eaquae Legit are absolutely full of WIN.
I absolutely cannot wait for Kzoo 2009! Plus, when Kzoo 2009 rolls around, I'll be a few months away from working with Eaquae Legit on medieval disability at the same school in the same country in the same time zone!!!!!!
I think it's safe to say Christmas has already come twice this year for this medievalist and his dog.
*Absolutely essential in that it facilitates academic networking. If you don't have a can of Heineken or cup of gin and tonic in your hand, no one will speak to you between the hours of 5 pm and 2 am every night. It's a fact.
**To be discussed in a future post...maybe. Props if you understand the reference, which you kinda should if you work in the area of medieval insanity (hint, hint).
***Damned Margery Kempe and her 'madness'!
****Damned Foucault and his 'masterful analysis' (coughcoughcough) of madness in medieval Europe in his History of Madness.
- Just who is Chase?
- What prompted this blog in the first place?
Chase is my service dog. This is to say that there is a big, fuzzy ball of 2.5-year-old golden fur currently splayed out on the doggie bed next to my bed. (Apparently 9.44 pm is a good bedtime as any.) She's a cross between a golden retriever and a lab.
Her job, in theory, comprises the following duties:
- act as a hearing dog (alert me to sounds, my name being called, etc.),
- assist with balance (my balance ain't the greatest, let's leave it at that),
- work as a guide dog at night (my night vision is somewhere, and that 'somewhere' is not in my eyes where it should be, it seems), and
- pick up items that I drop and don't realise that I have dropped (read: she's a real live party trick, especially when it comes to picking up a Canadian dime and giving it to me).
- demand that we always walk/stand/sit on the left side no matter where we are (you're gonna love England so much when we make it over there, dear - the Brits drive on the left side of the road, after all!),
- attempt to avoid having the work harness placed on her before we head out to 'work',
- lie down on the bus when I explicitly tell her that she has to remain in the 'up-sit' position,
- be a kid magnet* ('Can I pleasepleaseplease pet your dog, mister?'),
- ask me for treats for doing a good job every 5 minutes, and, last but not least,
- promptly drop off to sleep when I put her under my desk in my campus office when I'm working on my thesis.
Yep. That's the secret to life, folks. Playing fetch with your dog. Plus I seem to get my most brilliant ideas thesis-/academic-/article-wise while watching my dog run after the ball like a crazy, but extremely happy, fool. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that my academic work currently focuses on idiots, fools, and the like?.... Right. I'll quit while I'm ahead.
Act II coming next, folks!
*She hasn't seemed to upgrade to being a chick magnet yet. We're working on that.
They are definitely my bestest best friend (after you, of course, Chase. Yes, you may have a doggie treat since you were good during lunch. And, yes, I agree. Reading about the disabled in legal cases is a very good reason to have a nap in a library. Now may I get back to my post, please? Thank you.).
Where was I? Oh, yes. Those notebooks are full of WIN precisely because I never have to scramble for paper or an oversized notebook in my bag whenever I come up with a brill idea for my thesis or any other piece of academic writing. Just whip the notebook out of my pocket, scribble down my idea, put it back in my pocket, and off we go!
And, no, I am not providing examples here. My gestating ideas are mine, which means that
- they are not fully formulated, so I am not going to go and look like an idiot on here (at least when possible),
- I get first dibs on putting them into academic-speak and therefore getting credit for them, unless of course someone beats me to it first, which is NOT allowed, and
- they're MINEMINEMINEMINE. Unless you ask nicely, of course.
Oh God, not another one of those blogs. For one thing, there already are a few of those out there, and some of them are damn good. (Thanks, Eaquae Legit!)
But wait! You don't see too many blogs from graduate students who are deaf, do you? What about deaf graduate students who have service dogs who think that the definition of the Middle Ages is "ooh, time to go play fetch!" or "NAP TIME!"?
At the very least, I can promise you an interesting experience, you have to admit that.
Yep, that's my hook. Take it or leave it.
And speaking of leaving it, I should probably leave this post well-enough alone and get back to drawing up that table of 300+ legal cases involving disabled people in Plantagenet England....