[Hello, JJC here. I'd like to introduce Greg Carrier, a graduate student working on the intersection of medieval and disability studies. We've lauded his lively blog here at ITM, and now he has graciously agreed to compose a series of guest posts. The first, an overview of the field, appears below. A second, on Margery Kempe, will be published later in the week. Greg has asked me to mention the new Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages. The Society has a blog. Readers interested in further information or membership may contact Joshua Eyler at [eyler _ joshua @ colstate . edu]. Greg is also seeking suggestions as to potential sources of funding for a PhD thesis on medieval disability studies being undertaken at York. Greg also invites readers to contact him directly at [greg . carrier @ gmail . com] should they wish to discuss the post offline, or to provide suggestions as to funding sources. Though we, of course, look forward to your posting comments below. Thanks, Greg, from all of us at ITM for sharing your work with the medieval studies community.]
In “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” Douglas C. Baynton writes: “Disability is everywhere in history once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write.”1 His comment pertains to modern American history, but it is relevant to the field of medieval disability studies as well. Irina Metzler writes in Disability in Medieval Europe that the field has been relegated to an intellectual backwater populated by assumptions that medieval understandings of disability equated disability with sin.2 There is an assumption that few medieval sources explicitly discuss disability, so little work can be done in this field. Disability history is thought of as belonging more to the modern period because of the greater number and variety of sources, particularly in terms of source materials produced by disabled people themselves.3
Baynton’s comment also points to a key issue that scholars have tended to gloss over in terms of medieval disability studies: current examinations of medieval disability have been couched in terms of modern disability theories, such as the medical and socio-cultural4 models. Such approaches emphasise fitting medieval conceptions within modern theories and correlating them with modern conceptions.5 The sense is that we cannot understand medieval conceptions of disability on their own: we have to ‘translate’ them into modern conceptions before we can begin analysing and understanding them.
My particular interest arises out of personal circumstances. I am myself deaf, and I have a service dog. I am (naturally) interested in medieval socio-cultural perceptions of the disabled body, more specifically actual disabled bodies. Put baldly, it is time to move away from the prevalent idea in the current historiography that modern models of disability need to be employed in order to understand medieval models, because this approach requires scholars to begin their study with the idea of the disabled body, as opposed to beginning with actual disabled bodies.6
Such an approach would encourage scholars to examine the nature of their sources. The vast majority of sources that mention disabled people are ‘top-down’: the skewing of sources towards the elite is, of course, the result of the values and priorities of medieval society as much as it is sheer chance that those sources survived to the present day. However, most scholars have not considered the possibility that the nature of the sources they have available to them inherently encourage them to examine disability in terms of theoretical models and constructs – the idea of ‘disability as sin’ comes to mind here – because the sources were produced by educated thinkers and theorists. It is possible to examine the issue of medieval disability the other way around, by examining medieval perceptions of the actual disabled body and seeing how that influenced the idea of the (medieval) disabled body.
An emphasis on the actual disabled body would also cause scholars to re-examine the current state of the field and their dependence upon modern frameworks of disability to explain disability in the medieval period. This needs to be done in order to develop the field as a field of its own and not as a sub-field of (modern) disability studies. I have recently come to think of the field of medieval disability studies as the result of what I call a “confused postcolonialism.”7 This field is currently so new that the closest thing to it in terms of a source of ideas and scholarly discussions is modern disability history: as such, the field’s reliance on modern ideas has resulted in the field unintentionally being ‘colonised’ with modern theories on the assumption that they can be projected backwards in an attempt to provide scholars with a guide to understanding medieval understandings of disability at best, or as a ready-made framework for understanding medieval conceptualisations with little analysis at worst.
Medievalists in this field have recently been attempting to create medieval frameworks based on medieval sources, but there is still a sense of confusion present in the field that suggests, to me, that scholars are still unsure as to what role modern theories should play in the field, and whether medieval theories can ever attain the same status as modern theories, particularly given the different worldviews, as well as the variety and number of sources, of the medieval and modern periods. There is not a consistent sense that the medieval field can – and should – stand on its own in terms of this field, and perhaps even influence modern conceptions, thereby creating a two-way discussion instead of becoming an anachronistic one-way discussion that degrades the value of medieval understandings and the contributions they can bring to modern understandings.
I realise that I have raised difficult issues –issues that will take years to answer, issues that likely will not be answered to my satisfaction or that of other medieval disability scholars in my academic lifetime, but they are still important issues nonetheless. My particular focus is on what happened ‘in the middle’: what happens when one brings the theory behind medieval understandings of disability – whether it be theological, medical, legal, philosophical, and the like – together with what happens on the ground? What happens when this theory collides with the practical, lived experience of the disabled themselves as well as that of their families, guardians, and communities? Do the ‘non-theoretical’ actors in this drama have their own concepts of disability based on their lived experience, or do they adopt theoretical definitions to fit their own needs? What do the theorists do with the real-life experience and knowledge that the disabled and those around them possess, if anything at all? Is the discussion between the theorists and those ‘down in the trenches’ a vertical one (top-down or bottom-up), or is it horizontal (i.e. are both ‘sides’ accorded equal value)? Does anyone beyond the theorists even care about this discussion (again, assuming it exists)?
There are a wide variety of medieval source materials that will facilitate an examination of these questions, particularly in terms of discerning the role and importance of those with lived experience.8 Administrative records are particularly rich in references to disabled people and those around them and may potentially allow scholars to get closer to the ‘disabled experience’. Some examples of records are patent rolls, close rolls, inquisitions post mortem, and the curia regis rolls, as well as wills and parish records, which may be employed in terms of producing a picture of medieval disability in medieval England, perhaps specifically within Yorkshire.9
These are some general thoughts about the current state of the field of medieval disability studies and, I hope, a concise indication of the potential richness of this field, particularly in terms of promoting new directions of study and promoting a better understanding of disability, both in medieval and modern contexts.
Woof! What Greg said. Now can we go play fetch, please?
1 Douglas C. Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 52.
2 Irina Metzler, Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about physical impairment during the high Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400 (London: Routledge, 2006). See especially her historiographical chapter, which takes past scholars to task for promoting the ‘disability as sin’ model.
3 Catherine J. Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other’,” American Historical Review 108 (June 2003), 763-793. The most developed sub-field of (modern) disability studies is deaf history. See Harlan Lane’s When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (New York: Random House, 1984) for an introduction to the field. The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education, ed. Harlan Lane, trans. Franklin Philip (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984) contains English translations of primary source materials written by the earliest teachers of the deaf in France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and also materials written by deaf people themselves.
4 See, for instance, Gregory Zilboorg, A History of Medical Psychology (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967), Herbert C. Covey, Social Perceptions of People with Disabilities in History (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1998), Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, Cultural Locations of Disability (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006), and The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge, 2006). Metzler’s historiographical chapter is also valuable regarding this point, especially in terms of modern understandings of medieval disability.
5 At the recent conference in Kalamazoo, I presented a paper on defining the mentally ill in Plantagenet England. One scholar asked me if we could correlate the various Latin terms (and their respective definitions) for the mentally ill with modern (medical) terms like ‘autism’ and ‘schizophrenia’.
6 I suspect that this may have something to do with the assumption that there are few sources that explicitly discuss disability and actual disabled people. This leads scholars to assume that the closest they can get to discussing medieval concepts of disability is to discuss the concepts themselves, particularly in terms of literary, religious, and medical representations, as opposed to looking at disabled people themselves.
7 This is an idea that I hope to expand upon, and as such is still in the formative stages. Comments on this point would be greatly appreciated.
8 In terms of theoretical sources, I could potentially examine sources such as the legal treatises Bracton, Britton, Fleta, and The Mirror of Justices (legal); the Church Fathers (esp. Augustine and Aquinas) and patristic literature (theology); Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates (philosophy); Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna, Gilbertus Anglicus, and Bartomoleus Anglicus (medicine). There are others, of course – as always, comments would be well-received.
9 This is certainly a possibility, given that my PhD will be undertaken at York.