12 November 2008
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.
11 November 2008
On 2 May 1915, during the Battle of Ypres, Major John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor, began penning the now-famous poem In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Lest we forget.
10 November 2008
This desire, however, has led to some very...inteeeeeeeeeeeresting google searches.
- Survey dogs + questions: I'd be glad to answer your questions, provided they're about service dogs, not survey ones. That's a new one.
- Bottles + medieval: Thank Not Drunken Tom for that one.
- Cool sounding medieval words: I'm glad to have been of service, even though I'm not quite sure which 'cool sounding' words I've employed that were deemed google-worthy. If you really want some cool-sounding words, take up Latin, Old English, and Middle English. Or something.
- Famous cripples in history: Stand up and take a bow, Emma de Beston! And the rest of you, too!
- Medieval opinion on the disabled: Let's hope the searcher wasn't looking for modern opinions that are positively medieval. *rim shot*
- Mean domina: I believe you forgot four letters at the end: -trix.
- Crippled dog death: Oh dear....
- What is imbeciles: May I suggest moseying on over to the OED's website?
- Gird thy lions: Oh, what an awesome phrase that is!
- Cripples: Right to the point - I like that!
- Tusculan disputations middle ages: Last time I checked, Cicero wrote the TD in his middle age, yeah.
- Politically incorrect terms for disability: You're welcome!
- Begging for money + disabled people: I guess that's what I get for writing that post on disability and begging.
- Summa dog: Yes, that was the name of Aquinas' dog - Summa.
- Silence imbeciles: We're all imbeciles in one way or another, so doesn't that mean the entire world should suddenly go mute?....
- Cripple disabilities: A cripple with disabilities? If that works for you....
- History of dogs britain medieval: Chase is pretty offended that you've implied she's a very old (grand) dame. She can still chase her ball, thank you very much!
- Horse imports + zombies
Yes. You read that correctly. Apparently my blog discusses horse imports and zombies.
Therefore I offer the following letter:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I regret to inform you that this blog does not discuss horse imports and/or zombies either separately or in tandem...or in any grotesque physical combination of the two, although I suspect there may very well be some marginal images of horse zombies in a medieval manuscript somewhere.
If you do have evidence of horse zombies in the medieval period, please feel free to forward such evidence to this blog. I would be quite interested in seeing what horse zombies are and what powers were accorded to them, as I've long suspected that medieval bestiaries were incomplete.
09 November 2008
Anyone know if Aquinas ever discussed what to do if someone takes all your stuff after you've given up the ghost? (Thanks, Ali!)
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?
08 November 2008
I had originally intended for this blog to act as a forum in which I could discuss ideas concerning disability in terms of the medieval period and the modern period, especially in terms of how modern thought about disability has been employed in attempts to understand medieval conceptualisations of disability. And there would be some
This blog will still remain an academic one at heart, but I think I will be allowing my 'co-bloggers' more opportunities to post - even I find that they have good things to say...assuming they can stop bickering among themselves long enough to write something. I will still discuss issues regarding disability and how disability and the disabled themselves were viewed in the medieval period, of course!
Check back for some new posts in the next week or so!