Sunday, May 25, 2008

Nature Against Itself? A Human Burden?

by Karl Steel

Here's another story from the Aelred volume I've just read, here taken from his Life of Ninian:
A certain man among the folk had a pitiable son, born of his own wife. He was a sorrow to both of his parents, a source of astonishment to the people, and a horror to those who looked at him. Nature had formed him contrary to nature, with all his members turned awry. The joints of his feet were turned backward, his heels were extended forward, his back met his face while his chest was near the back of his head, and his arms were twisted so that his hands touched his elbows. What more shall I say? This pathetic figure, who had been given useless members and a fruitless life, simply lay there. With all his other limbs useless, his tongue alone remained; with it he bewailed his wretchedness and moved those who saw him to grief and those who heard him to tears. He was an unremitting sorrow to his parents, whose sadness increased daily.

At length there came into their minds the most holy Ninian's majesty, which they had quite often experienced. Full of faith, they took up that wretched body. Approaching the relics of the holy man, they offered "the sacrifice of a contrite heart" (Ps 51:19) with floods of tears, and they persisted in their prayers faithfully until evening. Then, laying that disfigured carcass in front of the saint's tomb, they said "Accept what we offer, O Blessed Ninian; a loathsome gift indeed, but one well suited to proving your power. We who are feeble, we who are fatigued, we who are afflicted with sorrow, we who are overcome with anguish present this to your loving-kindness. If it is a gift, surely grace is due us who offer it; if it is a burden, you who have greater power to relieve it are more capable of bearing it. Here, then, let him die or live, let him be healed or parish." These words, or some like them, they accompanied with tears, and leaving the sick boy before the sacred relics they departed.

And behold, in the stillness of the dead of night, the wretched boy saw a man coming towards him, shining with heavenly light and resplendent with episcopal insignia. Touching his head, this man ordered him to stand up whole and to give thanks to God, his healer. When he had departed, the poor boy awoke as if from a deep sleep. With an easy movement, he twisted each limb into its natural place, and when he restored them all, he went back to his home whole and unharmed. After this he gave himself wholly to the church and to ecclesiastical discipline. First tonsured as a cleric and afterward ordained a priest, he finished his life in the service of his father. (59-61)

Sadly, CUNY gives me no online access to the PL or the CCCM, so there's no way for me to check the translation. Nor do I have anything sustained to say about this, which represents my own weak entry into the forthcoming discussion of disability on this blog, which also bears witness to my perversity in including a "literary" example before the (welcome!) flurry of legal examples I hope to see from our guest.

First, I direct our readers to Greg Carrier's discussion of the problematics of the "invisibility" of his own deafness. Certainly there's no invisibility here! We have quite a different set of problems:
  • Nature, which does something against itself: can we understand this peculiar situation as an instance of debates about the naturalness of miracles?;
  • the "fruitless life," which suggests that life has no value in itself, but that it rather attains value through being instrumentalized. But is the horror that he summons, and the self to which he gives witness, not a kind of "fruit"?;
  • the strangeness of the gift, or the burden, of the disabled child;
  • The complete abandonment of the child: "let him die or live, let him be healed or parish";
  • the furtiveness of the healing;
  • the odd admission that this story is, charitably speaking, a reconstruction: "these words, or some like them...";
  • the absence of his parents from the narrative after the child is "restored": he returns home, but to what?
Really, I can only offer this to you and ask you, if you like, to engage with it in some way. In so many ways, this is just another miracle story, but the more I read it, the stranger and sadder it seems (and by ending with this word, "sadder," I may be participating in the lachrymose history of disability, apt I believe for twelfth-century England--especially given the sad fate of the madman elsewhere in this volume (79) left to die by a riverbank--but this sadness is certainly not the whole story!).


Greg Carrier said...

My post, which is hopefully sitting in Jeffrey's inbox at present, will not mention legal examples, sadly!

It's more of a general introduction to the field of medieval disability studies.

However, Karl, if you'd like for me to write up a post for some later date that includes and discusses legal examples, I'd be glad to do that - just let me know!

Karl Steel said...

Greg, if you have time (and only if you have time! or if it'd be helpful for your own work), I'd love to see that, especially because I simply can't (or won't) duplicate the groundwork you've done in the legal records

Alison Purnell said...

Karl, does your book give the appropriate PL or CCCM reference? I'd be quite intrigued to go look this passage up, because I know as I was reading it, certain parts jumped out at me as questionable bits - choice of pronouns, etc. I find as I work with my Latin sources I have to be extremely careful how I translate, because so much of translation comes from my own prejudices and preconceptions, and there were sections in that passage that sounded very familiar to me.

Thanks for the interesting "pre-post"!

Greg Carrier said...

I could probably write up something over the next couple of weeks, actually. It would be interesting to see what the ITM community makes of legal examples, particularly if we put them next to the miracle story you reference, for instance.

Now that I think about it, a post on this subject could work quite well as a follow-up to my general post.

I'll be sure to let you know when it's ready.

To whom should I email this follow-up post to when it's ready?

Karl Steel said...

Volume 195 of the PL has Aelred.

The Ninian life might not be in the PL; it's certainly in Alexander Penrose Forbes's Lives of S. Ninian and S. Kentigern (Edinburgh, 1874), and also in Pinkerton's Lives of the Scottish Saints (1889, using a 1789 edition. The list of the CCCM editions for Aelred look unpromising: in the first volume, Ascetic works, and then two volumes of sermons, then sermons on Isaiah. The last volume listed appeared in 2005, so perhaps there's been more since then.

Greg, glad to hear it: you could email it to Jeffrey, but I know I'd be happy to post it if you sent it to me: Eileen's probably still traveling, and Mary Kate might still be suffering from a cold?

Alison Purnell said...

Thank you! The PL doesn't have it, but there's a copy of Forbes nearby that I can consult. My own post is unlikely to touch on the miraculous, but I will get back to you one way or the other.