[A PhD candidate at the University of York, Alison Purnell blogs as Eaquae Legit at The Furnace of Doubt. We thank her for continuing our conversation on medieval and disability studies with this guest post]
I want to thank Greg for his post this week. His excellent introduction to the field of medieval disability studies paved the way for me to jump right into the meat of my topic.
In the medieval world especially, social and cultural understandings of difference and otherness worked in a primarily non-medical manner: it was an elite, educated minority who studied the natural sciences, leaving the vast majority of medieval people to conceptualise Otherness on their own terms. Yet, social and cultural norms and expectations were far different from those today. As Greg said, we need to revisit this topic of mental abnormality because past scholarship has assumed a straightforward definition of terms (likely confused by the medical-only definitions current into the late twentieth century) and has ignored the particular social, cultural, and philosophical underpinnings of canonical and clerical regulations.
Scholars of medieval disability have begun to explore similar questions to these Greg raised, but they have focused heavily on legal and literary aspects of disability. The religious dimensions of disability are still largely unexamined. At the International Congress on Medieval Studies this year, Aleksandra Pfau (Univ. of Michigan)1 raised the question of locating disability in the Middle Ages: is it possible to be disabled in some ways but not in others? Is it possible that people were legally disabled (could not represent themselves in court), and yet were full members of their church? Where can we locate sacral disability?
In my doctoral work, I am examining the interplay between natural philosophy of the mind and how that is reflected in the pastoral and regulatory literature of the Church in regards to mental abnormality. At the ICMS, Julie Singer (Washington Univ.) posed the question of the “vernacular” of disability.2 Different sources in different genres, times, and languages did not use a single static vocabulary of disability, and as scholars we must seek to understand the language of disability from inside the sources. While in the past, scholars have imposed a framework (as Greg commented earlier) on the medieval period, analyses of the theory and practice will together allow me to piece together the framework in which religious writers and theorists understood mental abnormality. Instead of applying the legal definitions to religious sources, we must discover what the religious sources say about themselves.3 I am interested in the seeming variability of medieval definitions of disability according to genre, time, and geography; we can begin to understand what medieval pastoral literature means by terms like furens or imbecillens (two common examples of words denoting abnormality) through further exploration of the concepts behind them. In other words, it is time to examine the vernacular of disability that is found in religious literature.
It has been said that there was no state of childhood in the Middle Ages.4 However, when approached from a disability standpoint, this theory becomes problematic. In a sacral sense, there is a definite differentiation between childhood and adulthood: there are sacraments which are reserved for adult members of the religious community, predicated on adult understanding and knowledge. The ritual difference between a child and an adult is the basis for my use of the term “sacral disability”: being barred or hindered from full participation (inclusion in the rites and sacred responsibilities considered the norm for their age) in the religious life of the community due to a perceived Otherness. Spiritual adulthood carries different rights and responsibilities than legal adulthood, and thus the requirements for sacral adulthood do not necessarily correspond to the requirements for legal adulthood, and this highlights the need to examine each vernacular in its own context. The concerns of pastoral writers are spiritual and focused on the eternal ramifications of life on earth, while legal theorists seem to be most concerned with the practical applications of the law.
Without a fuller understanding of where the authors of pastoral and regulatory literature drew their constructs of impairment, we can't actually know what they meant when they used terms we have traditionally associated with disability. We don’t know what the words actually mean in their social/religious context. When we can understand what the writers of pastoral literature meant, we can begin to locate the mentally Other within his or her own society.
1 “Liminality or Centrality: Locating Disability in the Middle Ages” ICMS, Kalamazoo, MI. Friday 9 May 2008.
2 “Bodily Difference in the Vernacular” ICMS, Kalamazoo, MI. Friday 9 May 2008.
3 This does not mean we should exclude legal language wholesale; especially in the case of marriage, the two “vernaculars” may end up being quite similar.
4 Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of childhood : a social history of family life. trans. Robert Baldick. New York : Knopf, 1962.