Thursday, March 11, 2010

Disability in a Medieval Corporal Commonplace?

by KARL STEEL

ITM fans, a research bleg: you're familiar with the medieval commonplace that the bipedal human form is both evidence of human reason and a reminder to humans to think celestial thoughts, and that the stereotypical animal form, quadrupedal, low to the ground, is evidence of animals' merely terrestrial, alimentary thinking? See for example the early fourteenth-century exempla and doctrinal compendium Ci nous dit:
Les bestes vont à .IIII. piés en senefiant qu’il sunt en leur païz; et nous alons a .II. en senefiant que nous ne sonmes pas ou nostre. . . . Et quiconques met l’amour de son cuer en terre, ainsi se fait il semblans aus bestes; maiz devons avoir tous nous desiriers ou ciel, que pour ce nous a Diex faiz. (Vol I.36-37)

Beasts go on four feet to show that they are in their country; and we go on two to show that we are not in ours. . . . And whoever puts the love of his heart in the world makes himself resemble beasts; but we ought to have all of our desire in heaven, which is what God made us for.
Or Robert of Melun's Sentences commentary, where he writes “Inquantum ex corporea est, cum ceteris animalibus communis naturae habet participationem, sed in formae compositione ab alia animantia differentiam habet” (inasmuch as man is corporeal, he has a participation with the common nature of the other animals, but with regard to the arrangement of his form, he has a difference from other living things). He explains that the animal form is prone, lowered to the ground, “ex quo significatur praeter ea quae terrena sunt ab eis nulla esse appetenda” (86; by which is meant, apart from other things, that they are earthly creatures and that nothing else but earthly things are to be desired by them).

Okay? Good. Do you know of any instances where this tradition--which is everywhere, really, one you start noticing it--considered those humans unable to stand upright without assistance or to see anything at all, let alone the heavens? I'm familiar with William of St. Thierry/Gregory of Nyssa's hypothesis about handless humans becoming beasts (e.g., On the Making of Man VIII.8), but have yet to encounter anything specifically on the tradition challenging itself by considering individual disabled humans. (Note: unless I missed it, there's nothing in Metzler, Disability in Medieval Europe.)

16 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Quickly, I will say: it doesn't surprise me that loss of access to celestialmindedness would not necessarily attend loss of bipedal form, since the argument seems to be about an ancient imprint (made in God's image, and that still includes the disabled) rather than an argument from a specifically inhabited contemporary body.

You could also think in slightly similar terms about ancient humoral imprint on bodies: moving a dark African to Europe will not resort the preponderance of blood that darkened him in Africa's heat to begin with (or so Galenic theory would hold, I think).

Karl Steel said...

Maybe so, but I think of an entry in Sidrak and Bokkus that's troubled by the possibility that human “fooles þat no good ne can / ne no wit haue of man” (9933-34) might not resurrect, since they're irrational. Ultimately, it decides in favor of their resurrection, which isn't surprising.

Still, there's precedent for the challenge of disability to the human subject as human in a pretty conservative and very widespread medieval text, so I wouldn't be surprised to find some reflections in other, equally conservative or widespread texts on the inherent rationality of legless, lame, or blind people.

I'd also be surprised to find something other than the expected counterargument you describe. There'd be references to 'God's image,' and also to the resurrection body, the 'authentic' body of the human self, which as Metzler observes (see Augustine Enchiridion, for example), will be a body 'cleansed' of all disabilities.

Surely it's out there somewhere? Or, if not, it must have been at once time.

(I remember the first year of my doctorate making my first prediction on what I might find based on medieval thinking: I thought that some medieval commentator would have said that the cross was made of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Lo and behold, I was right! That connection's everywhere (see Cursor Mundi, e.g.). For some silly reason, I felt as though I'd arrived, but it did give me (too much?) confidence for future predictions)

Got Medieval said...

Perhaps you should broaden your search out to the thought processes of the recently shape-changed more generally. Does Gauvain-turned-into-a-dwarf have any different urges or drives than normal Gauvain in the Vulgate Cycle? Or William of Palerne when wolfed out?

Suzanne Akbari said...

Interesting question. I think that the humoral discourse is a little different from the one that Karl is talking about. Albertus Magnus says (and the related quodlibets reiterate) that an individual Ethiopian taken to a northern climate will not turn white, but the offspring of that Ethiopian will be white (they vary on how many generations it takes for this to happen). This kind of climate-based notion of human bodily nature is, I think, very different from what Karl is talking about, which is a notion of embodiment that assumes that the body's actual form exists in some future, ideal time (as the glorified body that each person will have at the resurrection), not the actual regular old body that the person has in his or her lived life. What we would call disability would be understood as defect, damage, or the result of illness or old age, right? I can't think of any case where disability is expressed differently.

Karen Bruce said...

Admittedly, most of my work in the field of medieval disability studies has been in the Anglo-Saxon period, but my feeling is that the loss of bipedalness would not mean the loss of celestialmindedness. I think you could find strong evidence of this in hagiographical narratives, where people with impairments seem to be the main beneficiaries of the saints' miraculous powers, and where they are often vouchsafed visions of them as a result. They seem to have full rationality in these accounts.

Karen Bruce said...

In response to Got Medieval: I've been working up a paper on that precise subject. So far, my findings are that Alphonse the werewolf (which is the best name for a werewolf ever!) remains reassuringly human, but the two lovers seem to change in strange and troubling ways, according to whatever skins of the animals they're wearing at the time. So, I think it would be a good place to go and consider that issue.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks Carl-with-a-C GM P: I did not know about Gauvain becoming a dwarf! As for Guillaume, which I'm teaching for the first time next week, I think a passage like Gregory of Nyssa/William of St Thierry may lie behind its insistence that Guillaume and Melior eat with their hands, even while disguised as bears. From the Leslie Sconduto translation:

Then they eat, since they were hungry,
From what they have they feed themselves well.
Each one pulled a naked hand
From the skin that it had been wearing,
For she who put them in skins
Stitched the covering in such a way
That each can free a hand
Whenever it pleases them, according to their desire. (3319-26)

Karen, whenever you're ready to share, I'd love to see what you come up with for Guillaume. Peggy McCracken, incidentally, did a paper on the above passage at the last Kzoo, although for the life of me I don't remember its argument: I suppose I could just ask her.

Your point about hagiographic narratives holds true for another work I skimmed last week, William of Canterbury's Life of Thomas Beckett, which I looked at primarily for its scattered animal resurrection tales; but there are many lame, blind, leprous, etc people who benefit from Thomas's attention, with none of the anxious explanations that William appended to many of the animal miracles.

Susan, I also did not know about that Albert tradition, nor the quodlibetal follow-ups. Wonderfully strange! Rather than in hagiographic narrative, I think it's in precisely this kind of scholastic hypothesizing material--echoed perhaps in the Erotapokriseis-form of Sidrak and Bokkus--that we would find the kinds of speculations about disability I expect exist.

Karl Steel said...

er, "Suzanne." Sorry.

v said...

I don't have an example of what you're looking for, I did have these these:

(a) Aquinas on the disability of verticality; i.e., mankind lacks the ability to smell well. (ST Ia. 91)
(b) Gerson on the superior cognition enabled by blindness (De mystica theologia practica c.8.2)

Karl Steel said...

Thanks V! I don't have access to the Gerson right now: will track it down. Aquinas connects the weak nose of humans to their upright stature, but only as a side effect.

Unless I'm misreading, Aquinas argues that for humans to be able to stand upright, the human heart needs to be hot; the large human brain acts as a cooling mechanism. Unfortunately, its coolness and humidity is incompatible with a keen nose. See ST 1, q. 91, a. 3 ("Whether the body of man was given an apt disposition?"):

Reply to Objection 1. The sense of touch, which is the foundation of the other senses, is more perfect in man than in any other animal; and for this reason man must have the most equable temperament of all animals. Moreover man excels all other animals in the interior sensitive powers, as is clear from what we have said above (Question 78, Article 4). But by a kind of necessity, man falls short of the other animals in some of the exterior senses; thus of all animals he has the least sense of smell. For man needs the largest brain as compared to the body; both for his greater freedom of action in the interior powers required for the intellectual operations, as we have seen above (Question 84, Article 7); and in order that the low temperature of the brain may modify the heat of the heart, which has to be considerable in man for him to be able to stand erect. So that size of the brain, by reason of its humidity, is an impediment to the smell, which requires dryness. In the same way, we may suggest a reason why some animals have a keener sight, and a more acute hearing than man; namely, on account of a hindrance to his senses arising necessarily from the perfect equability of his temperament. The same reason suffices to explain why some animals are more rapid in movement than man, since this excellence of speed is inconsistent with the equability of the human temperament.

Interestingly, the bit from Wm of St Thierry/Gregory of Nyssa also appears in Aquinas, again, 1, q. 91, a. 3, in this case, reply obj 3:

if man's stature were prone to the ground, and he used his hands as fore-feet, he would be obliged to take hold of his food with his mouth. Thus he would have a protruding mouth, with thick and hard lips, and also a hard tongue, so as to keep it from being hurt by exterior things; as we see in other animals. Moreover, such an attitude would quite hinder speech, which is reason's proper operation.

magistra said...

I don't know whether there's anything in sources connected with Hermannus Contractus, particularly noted both for his scholarship and his paralysed state.

Karl Steel said...

Magistra, thanks much! I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of Herman C. aka "Herman(n) of Reichenau." The brief vita from the Chronicle of Berthold of Reichenau available at the Hermann site (and also a at the MGH site, which I presume all our readers know about?) has nothing that I need precisely, but it's wonderful material nevertheless.

We see the bit about distinguishing between his paralyzed exterior self and his marvelously intelligent interior self, surely a standard trope even by the 11th century (or whenever Berthold was writing)? Footnote 1 on the MGH page, which cites a brief life of Hermann written in the margin of another ms, is also worth reading.

De isto Hermanno legitur in historia quia sit filius regis et regine scilicet Tratie; a cuius matre pregnante questitum diuinitus, utrum magis vellet habere filium contractum et turpissinum aut insipientem et speciosum forma pre filiis hominum; que fertur respondisse, se malle turpem et sapientem habere quam pulcherrimum et insipientissimum. Natus est enim iste Hermannus secundum sue matris optatum; scilicet gibosus ante et retro et contractus, claudus.

[lose trans, since I have to run out the door] ...his mother when pregnant was asked whether she wished to have a son who was paralyzed and ugly or foolish and more beautiful in form than other sons; and she replied that she preferred to have a son who was ugly and had wisdom than one that was very beautiful and very foolish. And this Herman was born according to his mother's wish; namely, he was humpbacked and backwards and paralyzed, lame.

Karl Steel said...

*hunchbacked

Karl Steel said...

AND here's something very promising. Rick Godden suggested Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hiberniae, Book III.112 (first recension), Book III.35 (second recension). Judging by O'Meara's translation (of the first recension), doesn't seem as though Gerald changed anything between the two versions. He speaks of the tendency of the Irish to be blind, lame in body, defective in some way, because of their many sins against nature.

Et digna Dei vindicta videtur, ut qui interiore mentis lumine ad ipsum non respiciunt, hi exterioris et corporae lucis plerumque doleant destituti.

"It seems a just punishment from God that those who do not look to him with the interior light of the mind should often grieve in being deprived of the gift of the light that is bodily and external" (O'Meara trans, Penguin, 118)

THANKS RICK! It's not precisely what I'm looking for, but it's about as close as I think I'm going to get (and it makes for a nice contrast to the material on Hermann Contractus)

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Cf. the related constellation of themes in this Ovidian inversion:
http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/arethusa/v042/42.1.cherubini.html

Claire said...

Again, perhaps not exactly what you’re looking for, but interesting nonetheless: Hildegard of Bingen’s fourth vision on the soul and body relationship in Book One of her Scivias compares conception and birth of a human child to the formation of cheese. The quality of the cheese (human being) depends on the quality of the milk (semen). One of her glosses of her vision treats the question of why “stunted and deformed infants are born” (the voice of God is presumably speaking here):
And often, as you see, when male and female unite in forgetfulness of Me and in the mockery of the Devil, those who are born are found to be stunted so that their parents, who transgressed My precepts, may feel anguish at having these children and so return to Me in penitence. Often also I let these strange births take place among people for My glory and for that of My saints, so that when those who are thus deformed are restored to health by the help of My elect, My name may be more ardently glorified among people. (Scivias, trans. Mother Columbia Hart and Jane Bishop, The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1990. 1.4, 119)
But there is also this said about the “inequality of human seed and the diversity of people made from it”:
You see also on the earth people carrying milk in earthen vessels and making cheese from it; these are the people in the world, both men and women, who have in their bodies human seed, from which the various races of people are procreated. One part is thick, and from it strong cheeses are made; for that strong semen which is usefully and well matured and tempered, produces energetic people, to whom brilliant spiritual and bodily gifts are given by their great and noble ancestors, making them flourish in prudence, discretion, and usefulness in their works before God and man, and the Devil finds no place in them. And one part is thin, and from it weak cheeses are curdled; for this semen, imperfectly matured and tempered in a weak season, produces weak people, who are for the most part foolish, languid and useless in their works in the sight of God and the world, not actively seeking God. But also one part is mixed with corruption, and from it bitter cheeses are formed; for that semen is basely emitted in weakness and confusion and mixed uselessly, and it produces misshapen people, who often have bitterness, adversity and oppression of heart and are thus unable to raise their minds to higher things. Many of them nonetheless become useful; though they suffer many tempests and troubles in their hearts and in their actions, they come out victors. For if they were left in peace and quiet, they would become useless. (1.4, 118)