Monday, May 26, 2008

Greg Carrier on Medieval Disability

by Greg Carrier

[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.


Team Wilderness said...

Great post, Greg! I'm looking forward to more... and to folks' responses. :)

I'm particularly struck by the following passage:
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.

Agreed, 100%. If I may be so bold, I'd like to posit that more firmly establishing concrete medieval conceptions of disability must and should inform modern disability theory. Some claim that societies in the Middle Ages were far less advanced than ours today -- but if, as is becoming increasingly apparent, there were clear roles and accommodations for the disabled in medieval society, then it is a travesty that we must rely on modern, (relatively) fledgling disability theory to comprehend medieval social roles and accessibilities for the disabled. They were doing it their way seven centuries ago, and with some degree of success. We need to find out where their greatest successes occurred, and learn from their model.

The value of medieval history is not limited to a study in literature and rhetoric. It holds vast implications for modern society, and for modern theoretical constructions. The two-way dialogue is a necessity indeed.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Greg! And I echo Rachel's sentiments that I'm looking forward to reading more.

I am wondering if this burgeoning field might intersect (at least in some places) with another one: sensory history. Sensory history is equally invested in thinking through and, at times, sidestepping bio-medical configurations of the body. It is also invested in the ways in which bodies (and spaces) were organized differently in other historical moments.

I have a hunch that there are productive links between these two fields. (And like most of my hunches, it comes from my students.) Last term, I taught a freshman course on the senses. Our goal was to explore how the senses complicate our understanding of what a bodies "are" or "have been," shifting attention to querying what bodies do or did. (it was Very Deleuzean... thank you JJC!) My students, like most of us, started with firm beliefs about the past (and modern superiority to it). Despite many readings that suggested contrary conclusions, my students held onto teleological convictions that the present is a better place, sensory speaking. This changed somewhat, however, when we read Peter Freund's "body, disability, and spaces." Freund's argument that the concept of "disability" emerges only through bodily relationships to particular spaces galvanized our understanding of the history of the senses and the ways in which sensory-hierarchies reconfigure themselves in nuanced ways. Suddenly, the past, albeit in distinct moments and particular ways, *could have been* better, more accommodating, richer than modern spaces.

Which is all just to say that, from my own very limited experience, that this is a very productive line of inquiry. The most fascinating angle (for my research and teaching) seems to be the ways in which bodies engage with particular time and spaces. The moments, to paraphrase Rachel's point, of successes and failures that accrue around particular spaces certainly offer rich glimpses (grasps/echoes/sniffs?) of everyday experiences of the past but also of the "accommodations" our bodies make to inhabit certain spaces.

Rick Godden said...

Greg, I enjoyed your post. I've also been concerned about the porting of concepts from modern disability studies to medieval disability studies. I had a conversation with someone once about this where someone who worked in modern was encouraging me to do similar work in the medieval (full disclosure: I'm also disabled). But our conversation reached an impasse when I was uncomfortable with the definition of "disability culture" that was put forth, and the way it seems to be a motivating spirit for modern disability studies.

But, I am wondering if there are some areas of overlap. Is there anything from modern disabilities studies that you find useful or productive for looking at the actual medieval disabled bodies?

Also, not trying to veer into the "idea" as opposed to the "actual," but what are some of the categories for disability at play in the medieval period? I'm asking more out of ignorance here than anything else. There are fine distinctions between types of disability in the modern era, not only biologically, but also experientially (though this is sometimes overlooked I think). Are there such fine categories at work? Are they spelled out by anyone or is that work we need to do?

I've been rather skeptical of medieval disability studies in general, but I'm quite looking forward to further posts Greg. Cheers.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Greg, a great post. Thanks for offering it.

One thing I'd like to have you write more about is this caution you have about not porting modern conceptions of disability back to the Middle Ages. Who wouldn't agree with you when you phrase it like that (it is basically an argument against the imposition of anachronistic categories on the medieval past, and implicitly an argument that even a diagnosis masquerading as a self-evident truth ["autism" "schizophrenia"] still is historically situated and therefore contingent). OK, so that would seem a good argument against bringing a contemporary, medicalized discourse of disability back to the Middle Ages.

Where I'm not following you though is when you go on to say that "modern disability theories" ought not to be be brought back ... because when I think of disability THEORY (rather than an un-self-reflective medicalized notion of disability), I think of a loose alliance of scholars and works similar to that which could be gathered under umbrella designators like Queer Theory and Postcolonial Theory. What all three of these (quite overlapping) alliances have in common is an emphasis on impurity, historical contingency, and alternate histories.

This is a long way of saying that the disability theory I know (and I would never claim to be well read in the field) does seem already quite in sympathy to your transformative and historically sensitive project, even if it is focused upon the contemporary. So that would be Michael Berube, Rosemarie Garland Thompson (she and I were in a 'Body Theory' reading group together for many years, so I watched the work she did to get disability studies recognized by the MLA in awe), and my GW colleague Robert McRuer, whose recent award winning book Crip Theory looks at the intersection of disability and queer theory ... and cries out for a medieval counterpart.

Just some thoughts.

Josh Eyler said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Greg, about the wholesale importation of modern theory into studies of the Middle Ages, but (as I've just written in a comment on your wonderful blog), I agree with Jeffrey in that I think we can use this modern theory as a jumping off point in creating our own models for understanding medieval disability. Obviously, contemporary models such as the social model or the cultural model* (which I like better because it's more inclusive) fall short in terms of acknowledging the lived conditions of medieval people, but isn't there some aspect of medieval disability that is socially constructed? The question of disability in medieval society seems to hinge on the person's perception of how others saw her or him, or how he or she was treated by society at large, which would make "medieval disability" itself at least partly a construction. Once we can create our own models, I think it will help to answer Rachel's call for dialogue with scholars in other fields.

As always, these are terrific questions that you've raised, Greg, and I'm thrilled that we're having this kind of conversation.

*See David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, _Cultural Locations of Disability_ (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005).

Greg Carrier said...

Some brief comments, if I may.

Rachel: Yes, I agree that that is what is needed. I'm not attempting to argue that we cannot employ modern theories of disability, as Josh and Jeffrey rightly point out that I haven't necessarily formulated in full.

Jeffrey and Josh: What I'm suggesting, and perhaps a bit poorly in the post, is that I simply want to see theories and frameworks based on medieval sources and understandings be developed to the point that we can compare them against modern theories to allow, and promote, a two-way discussion. I think that if we continue to use modern theories as a springboard right now, the field could potentially - and I am not attempting to suggest that it will - end up relying on modern theories to the point of never really allowing medieval theories to be unearthed, assembled, and discussed to the same extent as modern theories are.

I suppose what I'm implicitly suggesting is that perhaps we need to 'slow down' in that we should work more towards developing medieval understandings before this porting of modern theories to the field potentially becomes de rigueur.

I realise that you, and others, may disagree with me on this issue. I merely wish to show that this field is still very fluid and pliable, and that we should exploit this advantage as much as possible in terms of exploring just where we can take this field without necessarily thinking that we must start every discussion of medieval disability studies on the basis of modern theory.

hd: You raise some very good points, and in a sense, you've explained exactly what it is that fascinates me so much about this field, this idea that bodies could be 'organised differently' in the medieval period, as you put it. (This is also part of why I'm a bit leery of modern disability theory, because the implication is that we use 'modern organisations' as a starting point, which suggests that medieval 'organisations' were different [which they may or may not have been] or are necessarily 'abnormal' in that they are not understandable in modern discourse unless a modern framework is used in 'translation'.)

I'm very glad that you raised the point of trying to break out of this conception that the medieval period was 'worse' than today in terms of disability. I really think that the best way to look at the medieval period (or any period) in terms of this is to look at what was considered practical. I think that's a very good way of finding out what people actually thought about disability: it isn't necessarily always a good/bad discussion but a practical/impractical discussion.

For instance, I have legal cases pertaining to deaf-mutes who committed murder. (Yes, Karl, they'll make an appearance in my post with legal examples coming your way eventually, don't worry!) The judges are very sensible: they say that since the deaf-mute cannot speak, he cannot defend himself, and since he cannot communicate, no one can defend him because they have no way of discerning his actions, and thus developing a defense. Every case I've found, the judge threw it out; the deaf-mute was allowed to go on the grounds that he was incapable of malice, ill will or something along these lines. There is no discussion of religion or what's good or bad for the deaf-mute or the plantiff(s) or the legal system: it really reads like a "Well, we have this situation, what's the most sensible way to deal with it?" philosophy.

Rick: Another good point about 'disability culture'. Perhaps this is something I should explain a bit further. There's a sense that one can develop a 'culture' based on specific disabilities. The deaf community, with its usage of American Sign Language (ASL), is perhaps the best-known example of this. This reflects on my disability, but part of why I'm a bit leery of disability theory is a sense by the disability 'community', if you will, that we can use modern theories to explain past epochs, and thus create disabled 'communities': what happens if there isn't a community in the first place?

As for your question, I have to agree with Josh that the cultural model is quite good, especially since it explicitly moves away from the medical model and, as Josh rightly points out, is more inclusive (and more flexible/portable, I think). I do apologise for not making that clearer, Josh, as anyone who's read my recent posts at my blog will likely have discerned that I'm working with and questioning social constructions in my writings there.

Regarding categories, those are still issues that we need to work out, actually. Thanks for bringing them up, though!

I hope this covers the points that you've all brought up so far. I'd be glad to continue discussing these points, and any others, though. Thanks for the comments and critiques so far!

Karl Steel said...

Greg, I think what you're doing here is fundamentally wise, and absolutely fascinating (your example of the deaf-mute on trial is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to see), and I'm just glad to see some new voices here (not that I'm tired of the old, mind you).Like others, I'm especially fond of your call for a "two-way discussion" and your call for slow, careful work. Surely the vitality of any theory derives simply from its calling us to be more aware of terms, of ideas, as ideas, and also from its always being a two-way discussion. In that regard, better disability theories, like any theory, are already ready to admit difference, to shift and open, according to the evidence and to the affect of the evidence: this is what I expect your work will do!. Of course, the worse versions, like the worst versions of any theory, hamfistedly 'apply' the theory to generate the same readings, regardless of what it is they encounter. Here I think, for example, of readings of medieval ascetics as anorexics or of the Wife of Bath as a typical 'battered wife.'

Matthew Gabriele said...

OFF TOPIC (sorry)

JJ, I responsed on my blog as well but thought I'd catch you here. I used Adobe Dreamweaver on my VT pages. It's WYSIWYG, so it wasn't that difficult...

Eileen Joy said...

I am coming very late to this conversation and have decided I will just work my way slowly "from bottom to top" [haha], as this is a very rich series of posts [from both Greg and now, also, Alison Purnell]. Disability studies--in either its medieval or more modern forms--is not a field with which I have any real familiarity so I feel lucky to be able to read these posts and learn more about it, especially in this conversational mode that a weblog affords us. My main sticking point at present, as I indicated in a comment to another post, is over what seems to be some kind of gap, or fissure, that is perceived to exist:

1) between "actual" and "thought" disabled bodies;

2) between the "lived" or "concrete" conditions of disabled bodies and the "construction" [cultural, social, phenomenological, medical, and otherwise] of those bodies in critical/medicalized thought;

3) between "documentary" history [charters, rolls, wills, parish records, inquisitions] and "cultural" history [ideas]; and,

4) between "medieval" and "modern."

Greg worries [and perhaps rightly so] about the one-way relationship in which medieval disability studies is developed in a linear trajectory that begins with modern disability theory and works its way backwards to the medieval historical context and doesn't allow for a two-way relationship in which a more nuanced understanding of "actual" medieval disabled bodies would have an effect on modern disability theory and vice-versa, and I can't but help but see the benefit in that, especially since I myself have been whining for years about the ways in which certain scholarship in the medieval period is not just *applying* theory but has been developing theories all its own [Karma Lochrie's work comes to mind, as does Glenn Burger's, as does Jeffrey's, as does Diane Watts's, as does Carolyn Dinshaw's, as does Kathleen Biddick's, as does Amy Hollywood's, as does Kathleen Davis's, as does Carol Clover's, etc. etc.] that, if taken into consideration by scholars working in more modern fields, could really have an impact on the development of modern thought in highly productive fashion. So, I can't agree more with Greg on that point, BUT:

in all honesty, I'm distressed by some of the binaries being capitulated in this discussion between, as outlined above, "actual" and "thought," "concrete" and "theoretical," "lived" and . . . "unlived" [i.e., thought *only*?]. There is no "lived" experience that can be, frankly, experienced outside of thought, or let's say, cadging from hd, sensation that always has thought trailing behind it. Even if there is an experience that is entirely visceral [and of course there are many], how can it be talked about, discussed, understood, outside of thought, which is itself embodied, always? Likewise, we cannot return to the past, bearing in our arms, the charters, rolls, and wills that supposedly make available to us something that is more "real" than what is enclosed within, say, a medieval poem or romance: all textual artifacts, on one level or another, are literary and offer, not the *real* past, but an endlessly mediated one.

Since I have spent the bulk of the past year working with Anglo-Saxon law codes, as well as with Old English poetry, I think about this a lot, as I am very concerned in my own work now to try to come to grips with what a "stranger" or "foreigner" was in Anglo-Saxon England, and I think a lot about the so-called "real" foreigner. Am I closer to that person when I am with a Grendel or a Guthlac-in-the-fens or when I am with the figure names in one of Alfred's laws as a "feorran cuman" [man who comes from afar]? I honestly don't know, although I often rely on Anna Kloswoska's statement, in her book "Queer Love in the Middle Ages,"

"art reveals more of life than life does."

Eileen Joy said...

And a line from Sara Ahmed's "Queer Phenomenology" also seems appropriate here:

"The promise of interdisciplinary scholarship is that the failure to return texts to their histories will do something." [p. 22]

Greg Carrier said...

Karl: Yes, that's exactly what I'm suggesting. If you have the reference to the article about the Wife of Bath as a 'battered wife', that'd be great - I'd like to read that, if I may.

Eileen: You raise many very good points here! I must admit that I'm having trouble with the binaries as well. In all honesty, I don't know what I can replace binaries with yet, because I've only really focused on legal records, and I think a more far-reaching study is needed in order to examine questions of binaries. I do, however, think that different sources and/or aspects of medieval society reflect different definitions of disability - some things were emphasised while others were de-emphasised in a particular set, and the (de-)emphasis could very well have been quite different in another set, and this applies just as well to literary representations as to legal codes, say.

I think the best way to deal with binaries right now is perhaps to 'cheat' a bit by using this framework, at least as a support of sorts, until scholars have uncovered enough evidence to be able to really get into the question of whether or not binaries existed in respect to the disabled.

This, of course, raises a good question: did the 'Other' exist? We often think of this binary - i.e. the normal v. the Other: what isn't normal must be Other. We haven't necessarily engaged with the idea that the Other can be normal as well in this field, and I think it's issues like this that need to be examined, so to a degree, I think binaries can be employed to try to arrive at a deeper understanding of what constitutes 'normal' and 'the Other'.

In a sense, what you're proposing, Eileen, is a lifetime's work, but one that I'd be quite happy to undertake, I must say!

Karl Steel said...

What a rich set of comments, here and throughout. I hope to respond to them adequately later: but, quickly, Wife of Bath as battered wife...well, she was battered, but in her essay in the Peter Beidler Bedford edition of the Wife of Bath, Elaine Tuttle Hansen argues, among other things, that the Wife enjoyed it; I'm not sure if Hansen makes the same argument in Fictions of Gender.

At any rate, I think it's a misreading.

I hope much more to come from me later!