Thursday, May 29, 2008

Alison Purnell on religion and medieval disability

by Alison Purnell

[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.


Karl Steel said...

Alison, I presume you know Barbara Hanawalt's "Medievalists and the Study of Childhood," Speculum 77 (2002): 440-60. This is one of a small handful of articles I know on the subject, so I can't say whether or not Hanawalt's takedown of Ariès has been bested.

I really am very green when it comes to all this (I've read some Berube, some Lennard Davis, and that's it), so mostly I'll just be back here, with the baggage train. With that in mind, first, I want to express my enthusiasm for your project: at the least, there's value in multiplying our sensitivity to how various (certainly overlapping, but also discrete in various ways) discourse communities handled disability. We saw that with the deaf man's murder trial (where the law no doubt surprised some members of what we might call the vernacular community), and we might also think we see this in the love madness of knights who stumble from their noble suffering into the (discourse) realms of churls to be pelted by filth (for many, many examples and also for great theoretical work on the topic, see Sylvia Huot, Madness in Medieval French Literature: Identities Found and Lost (Oxford, 2003) and also a work I'm sure you already know, Jean-Marie Fritz, Le discours du fou au Moyen Age : XIIe-XIIIe siècles: etude comparee des discours litteraire, medical, juridique et theologique de la folie (Paris, 1992)).

So, two questions, the first a request:
, 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

If you don't mind sharing, I'd love to see an example from your primary texts.

Second, we had talked in one of Greg's posts about old age as potentially a species of disability. What about childhood? There's certain a sense in resurrection doctrine that children are incomplete; after all, they will be resurrected into "full" bodies, as adults, with what they lack--and I mean this word in its full force--made up by God. This is a miracle (depending on the doctrine in play at the time: see Bynum of course), one resembling the other completions of 'wrong bodies' in the resurrection. I imagine there's a great deal of discussion in disability theories about the 'infantilizing' of the disabled: while we of course--given the discussions below--do not want to port this discussion wholesale to the MA, we might certainly put medieval and modern disability theories on this topic in dialog..

Alison Purnell said...

I think that being aware of the genre of texts (as you said, the discourse community) is highly important. In my browse through the Middle English Dictionary and the Dictionary of Medieval Latin, I became aware that the definitions provided were according to the dictionary compilers' own opinions, and occasionally I disagreed with how they categorised their sources. As we move into this discipline of medieval disability, I think we need to be extremely sensitive to the nuances of authorial intent.

In fact, that is perhaps the over-arching theme of my post, that we can't simply look at sources without looking as well at the literature that informed them. So here is the answer to your first question: my primary texts encompass a rather wide range, from commentaries on Aristotle's De memoria et reminiscentia to commentaries on Peter Lombard's Sentences to the rise of the cura animae pastoral manuals in the thirteenth century.* The manuals, especially, are important to me, because they were intended to be used by priests on the front lines, priests who had personal influence on their penitents and who were forced to consider the penitent's conditio and adapt the traditional penances accordingly.

The idea of childhood as disability is a bit troubling to me, because like Greg I am not sure where the line is between "natural" and "abnormal." I am hesitant to venture into these waters, because my project is to explore what normal and abnormal meant to the people who wrote these books. I have not (at least yet) gotten the sense that childhood was considered abnormal. Immature certainly, but not something that would prohibet a person from the religious obligations and privileges considered normal for them. It is an interesting question, to be sure, and one I would need to put a lot more thought into before coming to a conclusion.

Anonymous said...

thank you ALison, for another thought-provoking post!

I, too, wondered about childhood, at least as it mimicked structures of "vulnerability" that seemed to be infusing our discussion of old age, particularly the temporality (and spatial mapping) of these vulnerabilities (represented most poignently by Uncle P's Reminisce Wing in the care facility, and its spatial and titular euphemism). Childhood often represents a vulnerable past that one has survived, whereas old age seems to represent a "disabling" future (at least in modern configurations). Both seem very different than other kinds of conditions that influence the interactions between bodies and environs, because both seem to be understood through a perspective "from the middle," which can seek to correct/understand these vulnerabilities through relativity.

Like Allison, I think greater specificity might be needed. Which is all just to say that these dissertation projects seem v. promising! Good luck, ya'll!

Liza Blake said...


Just swooping in, uninformed but interested, for a few comments ...

1) Given the discussions following Greg's post, I think you're really onto something with focusing on madness as a disability, given madness's ... how to say ... potential to come and go. A child born "disabled" in your definition (not yet able to participate in certain religious activities) could later lose this disability (when reaching adulthood). This mutability of "disability" seems key.

2) Also really interesting, and perhaps worth emphasizing, is the implications of your definition of disability -- not as something located in the body (someone with an ambulated limb as not ABLE to walk, e.g.), but structured by external circumstances (it is only because walking with two legs is "normalized" that an amputation is perceived as being "disabled" -- so that disability is created by circumstance and context). I'm drawing here on Davis, Thomson, and (in short) everyone Jeffrey has no doubt recommended to you -- modern theorists of disability -- but this seems to me one instance of where medieval disability could be really useful to inform modern theories: it's a lot easier to understand being "disabled" in the eyes of the church because not the right age, for example, than imagining a world where no one really uses their eyes so blind people aren't disabled (though H.G. Wells did this in a short story).

Thanks for sharing your work -- as you can see, I'm charmed by the flexibility of disability promised by the text you've given us, where disability is more -- provocatively more -- than something lodged/inherent in a body.

Greg Carrier said...

Alison and Karl: Metzler discusses resurrection doctrine in her book, but admittedly it's only in terms of those who are actually disabled, not necessarily children and the idea that they're disabled, thus they need to be 'properly' turned into adults.

If I may, Alison, a question. When you discuss the Church, are you talking about the Church as an institution, or as a collection of many different parts, or both? Did your writers think in institutional terms or more practical terms (e.g. how their ideas could be 'translated' into practice, which would not necessarily follow 'the Church's' direction)?

I suppose I'm asking if it's possible that religious understandings of disability may have resulted in far more definitions than, say, legal ones, especially if they relied more on local circumstances.

Legal theory (including that concerning the disabled) increasingly became centralised and codified under the Crown: did the same happen with religious theory vis-a-vis the disabled?