Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Greg Carrier on Medieval Disability II: Margery Kempe

by Greg Carrier

[read this and this first]

When Jeffrey invited me to guest-blog here at ITM, I sent him an email outlining my post on medieval disability studies. At one point in the email, I brought up Margery Kempe and whether or not she could be considered a legitimate source in terms of understanding disability in the medieval period, as she tends to be one of the most common sources that people think of when I tell them I am working in medieval disability studies.

Scholars who work in medieval disability studies cannot avoid her: she must at least be acknowledged. I think that Kempe herself should not count as an actual disabled person, but is more representative of what disabled people were thought to be like in terms of their position in medieval thought; in other words, Kempe’s (auto)biography demonstrates that disabled women (assuming Kempe was indeed mad) had a socially acceptable ‘position’ in medieval society if they so chose to avail themselves of it, that of being a mystic. In this way, Kempe reminds us that disability could be perceived as having positive connotations, namely in that she was ‘blessed’ by having a special communion with Jesus that was beyond the ‘normal’ experience of a Catholic in this period.

That having been said, I cannot give Kempe as much value as other scholars may think – or wish – that I should. There is the question of whether her (auto)biography is a genuine (auto)biography, particularly in that it fits within the established framework of mystic literature at that time. (As Jeffrey legitimately pointed out in his reply to my email, it is possible that this work could be an elaborate fiction, as per Lynn Staley, but that does not mean that it was [entirely] fictional.) The second difficulty is the question of ‘translation’: did her clerical ghostwriter modify Kempe’s experiences in order to make them more understandable to his/Kempe’s audience? If so, we must consider the possibility that Kempe’s ‘disabled experience’ was modified in order to make it more approachable or understandable to the audience, for instance.

Jeffrey also remarked upon the issue of Kempe’s aging and her “unwanted role as caregiver to an incontinent, almost immobile husband.” (Jeffrey’s comment.) This raises another question: was a distinction made between congenital and sudden-onset disabilities and disabilities that came about as the result of old age? Were disabilities in the latter category perceived as disabilities, or were they described more as infirmities, frailties, the product of old age, as opposed as being described (and understood) as something ‘different’ or ‘abnormal’? Even though Margery did not want to care for her husband, did she make a distinction between her situation and that of her husband? This question reveals why, at least for me, we cannot perceive Kempe’s (auto)biography as a strong source for medieval understandings of disability: how can we ask Kempe to compare her position, which is based upon religion and mysticism, an extraordinary and to some degree unnatural experience, to what is a perfectly ordinary and natural experience for her husband and even for herself in the later stages of her life? Was Kempe even capable of making this distinction in relation to herself, particularly in terms of her increasingly frail body, a common thread in her (auto)biography?


Dr. Virago said...

I think Kempe is interesting in thinking about the rhetorical uses of disability. Whether she was actually mad or not, those who accused her of being so and tormented her for it only helped construct her (self)importance as persecuted figure. And yet she claims she is not mad, but blessed by her "dalliance" with Christ. And so if someone thinks she's NOT mad, they're also helping construct her holiness. There's something interesting going on here vis-a-vis the rhetorics of disability, but given what you've written here and at your own blog, Greg, I can see why it's not what your focus is.

Karl Steel said...

Provocative post, Greg, and one that you know of course people will argue with.

I'd say that one of the chief benefits of disability theory, as with theory is general, is that it makes us aware that there's nothing that comes to us unmediated for analysis. There are of course unmediated experiences: digestion, cancer, old age, what have you. We might be able to experience, but not to study these things--satiation, pleasure, pain--directly (and this gets at the questions on whether pain has a language. Perhaps this accounts for the interests in bodies and, more generally, phenomenology: a desire to slip past the supposed distance language puts between us and experience, whether our own or someone else's).

Thus I think it's a mistake to declare Kempe not a good record for thinking through medieval thinking on disability either because Kempe's experience has been mediated through an amanuensis or because this is 'just' an elaborate fiction. The Aelred story I quoted from his Life of Ninian is likely more of a fiction than Kempe ever was, yet I'd say it's useful (and not "nonetheless useful") for understanding how the medievals thought at least one variety of disability in its corporeal/social/moral aspects (and all these of course form a disunified, mobile node). Likewise with the Kempe book: among its values to us is for helping us understand how disability was thought. And certainly understanding how disability might be thought, and might have been thought, is what turns disability from a "condition" into something that has a/participates in/helps form our history.

That said, I'm glad to have a chance to hash out my ideas, such as they are, and I have to say I love the questions you're posing about old age. Here I think of the many, obsessively rendered, repulsive details of old age in the Maximian tradition (think Henryson's Testement of Cresseid, the Reeve's Prologue). I did some reading on this material 5 or 6 years back, and I'll give bibliography below. My first answer to some of your questions is that: I can't think of any miracles of old age being "cured." This (perhaps?) inability or refusal to imagine old age being done away with in this world strikes me as an instance of what Marcuse called the ideology of death, the belief that old age and death are natural and right and thus forces that "belong" to life (or rather that life ultimately belongs to these forces). BUT there has to be more here!

Great questions, Greg! Thanks.

Coffman, George R. “Old Age from Horace to Chaucer: Some Literary Affinities and Adventures of an Idea.” Speculum 9 (1934): 249-77.

Nitecki, Alicia K. “Figures of Old Age in Fourteenth-Century Medieval Literature.” Aging and the Ages in Medieval Europe. Michael M. Sheehan, ed. Papers in Medieval Studies 11. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1990. pp. 107-116.

Shahar, Shulamith. “The Old Body in Medieval Culture.” Framing Medieval Bodies. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin, eds. New York: Manchester UP, 1994. pp. 160-86. [caveat or perhaps just a cavil: I know it's uncouth to complain about an anthology that really was groundbreaking in its time, BUT there doesn't seem to be much, if anything, on disability in this, and the bodies in question in this volume are always, if I remember correctly, human bodies]

Robbins, Rossell Hope. Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1400. XXII: Proverbs, Precepts, and Monitory Pieces. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1975, 333, for the poem “Elde Maketh Me Geld”

Wright, Thomas, ed. Reliquiae Antiquae: Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts, Illustrating Chiefly Early English Literature and the English Language. 1841. New York: AMS, 1966, 119-35, for an anonymous instance of the English "Maximon" tradition.

Henryson's “Ressoning Betuixt Aige and Yowth,” available I think in the TEAMS Henryson

Jeffrey Cohen said...

(left this below, but will repeat it here, where it is probably re appropriate)
Well, I was thinking that, Eileen, and writing it to Greg -- last week, that is, and that's why his Margery Kempe post already has some of my commentary embedded within it. My question about Kempe has to do with this search for what Greg calls "actual disabled persons" and "actual disabled bodies." What's at stake in the actual? Does a temporary disability not count as an actual disability? That is, do actual disabled bodies have to be in a steady state of disability?

I ask this because also behind my Kempe questions is this blunt fact: all of us, if we live long enough, become disabled. That's a blunt fact of senescence. Kempe experienced with her husband John, reduced an incontinent and infantile state, wholly dependent upon others for his care (and possibly bereft of his own sense of self as well). Kempe experiences it for herself as well, in Book II, when in Germany the reality of possessing a body advanced in age slows her down, makes her ache, makes her weary.

I guess what I'm asking of Greg -- and anyone else -- is, how flexible do you want disability to be? My own answer would be VERY flexible, so much so that it overlaps other messy categories (queer, hybrid...) Why exactly is it so important to sort the actual disabled bodies from those that might inhabit some space between the real and the fabulated, or between the saint and the madwoman, or between the mother of fourteen and the elderly pilgrim, or between the caregiver and the prosthetic-user, or between the medieval and the modern ...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

(a little more here)

Rick Godden said...

jjc and Greg both raise some interesting questions concerning how disability is defined. This conversation puts me in mind of that South Park episode where the two resident crips, Timmy and Jimmy, try to find out whether it's better (more authentic I guess) to be disabled from birth or to become disabled later on. In terms of sudden-onset disability, I think Mark Rank's work on poverty is a decent (but not perfect) analogue--he argues that people move in and out of poverty during their lives, and it seems to me that many people move in and out of disability due to old age and illness.

More seriously, though, what's problematic here is the definition of "disability." In modern society, disability is a bit of an umbrella term that means, at times, any deviation from the normal, and it also has legal ramifications. I wonder if there's more work that needs to be done in terms of how certain varieties of disability were treated under the law in the Middle Ages. I'm thinking, for example, of Middleton's reading of the narrator Will in Piers Plowman in relationship to the Statute of Laborers. The issue of disability under the law may also point to some of the problems of porting modern disability theory to the Middle Ages.

We tend to treat mental and physical handicaps as being equal under the umbrella term of "disability," but were they treated so similarly in the medieval period? Greg raises questions about whether or not Margery would distinguish her husband's frailty from her own disabilities. I have few answers and only more questions. I've been bothered for a while by how disability gets defined, and I think the term is just as fraught when looking at the medieval period.

Anonymous said...

Another provocative post, Greg!

I'm curious about the ways in which spatial configurations matter here, whether we're in search of old or "actually" disabled bodies. Dr.V's point is v. well taken. Doesn't it matter where these bodies are located (or how they are rhetorically positioned)? As I said before, I find Freund's theories of disability as a spatial and temporal classification really useful because it requires us to grapple with a range of cultural presumptions about how bodies and spaces work *should* work together). For example, in Greg's sources about those medieval murderers, the deaf body was rendered unknowable in court, but what about in the realms in which the murder took place? The same might be said for JJC's theories of aging. If one is really going to be theoretically flexible about this category, then to assume that aging always results in a kind of disability privileges certain kinds body/spatial configurations, right? (Is it really always a given? Are some experiences really "unmediated"? I find that strand of phenomenology less interesting than its influence on thinkers like Paul Gilroy or Mark Smith, who argue that one of the most fascinating things about phenomenological, sensory experience is that we *think* it provides raw data, despite the fact that the senses have been educated, trained, or honed and such training varies greatly across time and space).

An emphasis on the spatial and temporal contours of the category of "disability" necessarily challenges any understanding of "actual" bodies, but, I still sort of think it seems in line with what you're after, Greg, which is a sort of material understanding of medieval disability.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

hd: a quick note, if only to say that you are right of course: it is the lived experience of a particular space that is disabling, not necessarily something in the aging body itself. So universal access in facility design will prevent many bodies from being disabled by the spaces which they inhabit. BUT I do want to emphasize as well that it is highly unlikely (not impossible, but highly unlikely) that any body as it ages will never experience being disabled. Growing old typically brings with it a plethora of changes that are going to make it increasingly more difficult not to be disabled by the space in which one lives. In many cases the disabling effect won't even be contextual -- meaning that, if Alzheimers takes away your sense of time and sense of self, haven't your failing neurons disabled you no matter how adaptive your surroundings? (I keep thinking of the euphemistically named "Reminisce Wing" of Uncle Paul's assisted living center, where the Alzheimer patients are confined).

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I'm wondering if you all could answer a question about what has unfolded so far as it potentially relates to *teaching* Margery Kempe (since I am unfamiliar with the "disability studies" conversation): If we consider MK "disabled" in a mental or physical sense, don't we simply give students a way to medicalize/categorize her radical alterity? When I teach Kempe, I struggle constantly against all the diagnoses my students want to apply to her "case" (as if she's a strangely contained, albeit interesting enough, example of [medieval] madness, depression, or aging). You name it, they come up with it; docs on the spot. I often think that this is their way of separating themselves from MK, or of keeping her from touching them. They construct a space--a discursive space in this instance--where they can cordon her off/write her off. With their appeals to medical conditions (which are offered in putatively empathetic ways, often enough), they seek to keep her within some bounds that they think they understand, or at least control. Now, I immediately see that the considerations at work in this discussion readily demonstrate that these pop-medical categorizations of disabilities are not so easily understood. How, then, might we convey the complexity and contingency of "disability studies" to our students?



Jeffrey Cohen said...

One of the many things I like about the GW English Department is that we actually do teach courses in disability studies, so I can count on at least some of my students having some exposure to the field when we examine the Book of Margery Kempe.

But I also realize the impulse to diagnose her (and, as you say Holly, to thereby contain and distance her) is so strong that I typically do a preemptive strike against the maneuver: I read a list of the various neuroses with which she has been labeled since her text was rediscovered, a list lengthy enough and psychobabble filled enough to raise a chuckle from my students. I ask if anyone has anything they'd like to add; they usually do. We also get things like "schemer" and fake" out of the way at this time as well.

I then say: can we agree now NOT to pathologize Kempe? Can we, as an experiment, take her seriously, and see what she has to say, without giving her an all-inclusive label? My students agree (of course) and so whenever the class moves back towards dismissive medicalization or drive-by ethical disparagement, I gently interject something like "Maybe that's true, but since we decided not to keep in her the doctor's office ..."

It works very well, and helps to clear a space in which to take the Book on its own terms.

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating: JJC, you said: "One of the many things I like about the GW English Department is that we actually do teach courses in disability studies, so I can count on at least some of my students having some exposure to the field when we examine the Book of Margery Kempe." But I'm still not sure why that would be a benefit to students--okay, if you are going to talk about the ways in which disabilities are constructed, and the ways in which we rely on such categories to maintain our own sense of "abledness," I get that. But one of the things that is perpetually interesting about Kempe is the ways in which she eludes all such categories--she is one of the most abled bodies of the MA, constantly out of bounds, but in bounds enough to resist any categorical fixity. Maybe I'm with Greg on this one--if I take him correctly to be saying that MK does not quite fit the mold of disability (maybe because she discomfits most categories). She seems to illuminate the ways in which disabilities are constructed, but giving over to the categories of disability (and I'm only talking about ours) seems to grant students the language with which to affirm their suspicions {Sounds like more a lesson in socialization--"let's not pathologize"--than a frightening, confounding, and yes, sometimes insensitive, even offensive, confrontation with the limitlessness of Kempe's destabilizing body}. I rather like it when students have no ready language to account for what they feel when they are engaging her text...

Eileen Joy said...

I'm with Holly [and Jeffrey] on this one. I don't want students to medicalize or pathologize Kempe, any more than I want them to pathologize Lemuel Gulliver, and by extension, Jonathan Swift, which also happens *all* the time--I discovered recently that there is a whole body of early to mid-nineteenth century criticism of "Gulliver's Travels" that essentially treats Lemuel Gulliver as deranged in mind, and therefore Swift must have also been deranged--because they're the same "person," right? I share some of this criticism with my students when we read "Gulliver's Travels," in order to discourage that approach, just as Jeffrey does with Kempe [I've only taught Kempe once, by the way, last fall].

But I love Holly's idea of Kempe as maybe one of the most "abled" bodies of the Middle Ages, particularly because of her ability to elude all sorts of categorizations that would hem her in. In this sense, she is, in my mind, first and foremost to be taught as a writer/artist [even, an escape artist!], and a very clever, almost postmodern one. I've never believed for a minute that Kempe had an amanuensis or clerks helping her write this: it always struck me as perfectly sensible that, in order to guard herself against the censure and condemnations that she surely felt would be coming her way, that inventing the fiction of an amanuensis was a smart way to insulate herself against, say, the censure of her book, because it has been "approved"/written in advance by a man, and a clerical one at that. I see the book as a kind of performance of a self, which nevertheless has some social reality and truthful biography in it.

One thing that Greg wrote that discomfits me just a bit that I would also like to address here has to do with the idea that, somehow, mystic literature [which Kempe's autobiography may fit into] is less authentic than a so-called real autobiography, and that the ways that Kempe's life might have been steeped in religion and mysticism might make her narrative less "natural," too "extraordinary," such that we could derive some real information from it regarding, say, the very natural experience of aging that her husband, and also she, go through. The aspects of Kempe's life, and even self-understanding, that are more "mystical" are not necessarily less "real" than her more, let's say, "ordinary" life aspects [her role as a mother, let's say, or wife to her husband, or business owner, or world traveler, or interlocuter with her supposed amanuenses]. We can still locate within the mystical "mode" a type of self-definition" that is always rooted, in some important respect, in the ordinary world. It is not a question of "natural" versus "unnatural," but rather, of seeing the reality [maybe?] in multiple planes of metaphoricity? So, does it really matter how "fictional" or "non-fictional" Kempe's book is, if we're ultimately interested in how a medieval self defines it-self in relation to multiple contexts--social, legal, cultural, religious, etc.?

Greg Carrier said...

Virago: Yeah, the problem is that that particular emphasis has really been emphasised to the point that it's quite difficult to move away from this almost instinctive reaction to perceive her as being mad or not. It's a minefield of sorts, I think (and you allude to that, JJC, with your comment about 'keeping her out of the doctor's office').

Karl: Thank you! I intended for it to be provocative and to invite discussion. I fully realise that some people will disagree with my position, and that's absolutely fine by me - I certainly am not suggesting that this is the be-all and end-all of a discussion of MK in terms of disability studies.

I don't disagree that we can't understand how disability was perceived. My issue is that there tends to be an idea that MK is the exemplar of madness and (sometimes, unfortunately) disability as a whole in the medieval period. If we consider her in her context on her own, I have absolutely no issues with what you've suggested here, Karl.

Regarding old age, that's the kicker, isn't it? Is it a disability? Is something that everyone inevitably experiences a disability, or merely an indicator that one is at a particular stage of their lives? Perhaps it's not necessarily a disability in a socio-cultural context, but on a personal/individual level?...

Another question you might want to add to the list, Karl:

I'm deaf, so does that mean when I approach old age, I'm more disabled, or would I merely be an old man who just happened to be deaf? Would normal, natural life processes be seen as (more) disabling when they occur to those who are already disabled?

Many thanks for the biblio - will add them to my reading list!

JJC: Woops - I seem to have done what Eileen's done in that I'm also going through things one at a time. I've left my comments to your comments on the 'Stop the presses!' post.

Rick: That's a good point about whether physical and mental disabilities would have been seen on the same level or not. I honestly don't know the answer to that question. Part of the problem is different sources prioritise disabilities differently (see my most recent comment at 'Stop the presses!'), so if you're asking if there's a 'standard' answer to that question, I don't even know that there is a standard one. For all I know, I've opened up a can of worms in that there are 'x' definitions, which means I have to figure out where they all stand in relation to each other...if that's even possible.

Again, most assuredly a lifetime's work for those of us working in the field!

hd: Everyone seems to be raising questions to which I don't have the answers! Regarding the deaf-mute murderers, that is the question: just how were they determined to be the murderers? I have some cases that suggest that some mad people were used as scapegoats within their community because no one seems to have known who committed the crime in question.

For all we know, the deaf-mute just happened upon the body, got some blood on his clothes, picked up the murder weapon as a 'free' item and voila! Murderer! Off to court with him!

Is it then possible that the courts are really recognising this potential - not necessarily actual - possibility that the poor unfortunate just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when they dismiss these cases?

This is why I love and hate medieval records.

JJC: your comment to hd - I'll touch upon it in my blog post.

Holly: Your idea of MK as being one of the most 'abled' bodies is a point that I seem to be suggesting in my post. (You're right in that I'm noting that she does not quite fit the molds of disability.)

[It appears there's a word limit on comments, so I'll pick up on Eileen's comments in the next set.]

Greg Carrier said...

Eileen: Following with your comment about Holly's regarding MK as being 'abled', even if MK can be read as an escape artist, doesn't she still have to be read in terms of a framework? In order to suggest that she's challenging, breaking down, escaping from something, there has to be something with which she can demonstrate this.

Also, isn't it possible that by challenging those around her with her madness, holiness, disability, whatever we want to call it, she's perhaps limiting herself by reinforcing ideas that those around her hold that this is or isn't socially acceptable? By challenging social understandings and conventions through her actions and words, isn't MK defining precisely what it is women/mad people/the disabled/mystics, etc. can't do by showing what they can do if they put their minds to it (no pun intended)?

Your point is v. well taken regarding metaphorical planes of existence, Eileen. But MK's still dealing with actual people, so in a sense does she not have to at least attempt to 'translate' her experiences in such a way that they're (metaphorically) understandable to them?

I suppose what I'm asking is: can we assume that the different planes that are present in MK's book, while not necessarily being experienced by everyone in her time, would at least have been understood by most people?

Isn't that perhaps the problem in terms of understanding disability specifically in MK - has she brought in so many planes of experience and thought that it was difficult for both her contemporaries and for us today to understand what it is that she did ultimately experience?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wow, what a great discussion.

Holly, I just want to say re:teaching, for those of my students who will have had a disability studies course, they likely would have had the version taught by my colleague Robert McRuer, whose book Crip Theory and whose research is on the intersection of the disabled and the queer. So they would see "disabled" as a category that --like queer -- is historically contingent (ie, the 19th C invalid isn't the same as the ...) but also in some ways transhistorical. They would know that disability needs to be viewed not only as an imposed category of being, but from the inside out as one that is lived, and in that living challenged, disrupted, etc. That is, they'd know quite a bit about -- for example -- disabled artists who use their art to expand/challenge/provoke what ability and disability are.

They would see disability as a nebulous, deeply challenging, potentially creative, even nomadic site. Thus I think your excellent summation of Margery Kempe's ability would be very much in synch with what they would have taken from Disability Studies at least as taught in my English Department ... and I want to emphasize such an approach is far from the universal truth or mode of academic disability studies!

For me disability studies has always seemed best understood in tandem with other kinds of studies, since I'm still not sure that disability can stand alone from categories like race, class, gender, sexuality.