Saturday, February 20, 2010

Medieval Disability Studies

by J J Cohen

In the comments to an announcement that reaffirms for me, once again, the revolutionary promise of postmedieval, Michael Pryke mentioned that his "postmedieval reading group" at York University (about which he was supposed to guest post at ITM, but never did, the lying bastard) might turn to medieval disability studies next.

I've been thinking quite a bit about that topic lately because I have a formerly disabled student undertaking an independent study with me on disability theory and the Middle Ages. We've been, quite to my surprise, unable to find a satisfying corpus of criticism in the field. Vigorous outside of medieval studies, disability studies seems always to be about to arrive in the discipline, but never quite has accomplished a full advent. We've noted work in the area many times here at ITM: guest posts by Greg Carrier and Alison Purnell; I blogged Chris Baswell's disability studies plenary at NCS Swansea; MOR has reminded us that work in the field tends to get forgotten, so that disability studies keeps being hailed as 'field-inaugurating'; Charlotte Allen had a tizzy over the subject; it figured (as it should) in our discussion of race; I wrote a piece on monsters and disability for a conference in Salerno, but threw it away in the wake of Sept. 11; MIMs is not a disability studies book per se, but wouldn't have developed as it did without the field (and without the reading group I once belonged to along with Rosemarie Garland Thomson and Robert McRuer).

So, disability studies makes frequent appearances on this blog, as it has at medieval studies conferences, and in some journal articles, but outside of Irina Metzler's under-cited, overpriced book and Edward Wheatley's forthcoming monograph on medieval blindness (from the press description it is very difficult to tell how cognizant this book is of the greater field) ... well, what is there? My student and I have been reading some classics in the field and then seeing if they travel back in time or not. So this weekend I've been perusing -- and very much enjoying -- Georgina Kleege's memoir of 'coming out as blind,' Sight Unseen. What I didn't realize until I began the volume is that Kleege was married to the medievalist Nick Howe. He has left an evident imprint throughout her work ... and what I'd like to do next with this book is to follow Kleege's influence on Howe's own scholarship, which -- now that I think about it -- has much to say to the topics of vision, cognition, identity, beauty and perception.

So maybe disability studies arrived in medieval studies quite a while ago, only I wasn't looking for it in the right place.


Mary K. Ramsey said...

Jeffrey, you're quite right that Georgina's influence permeates Nick's writing. One volume that stands out in this regard is his book of essays on place, Across an Inland Sea. (This is different from his book on Anglo-Saxon senses of place.) There are moments of breath-taking description, even of the most mundane-seeming things.

Unknown said...

place and disability is a very productive topic

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks Mary, that is exactly the book I was thinking of. Mary Kate raves about it and I admit I haven't read it yet, but it seems right on topic.

Rosemarie, if you have any specific suggestions please pass them along!

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: you're right, actually, that there has been a lot of discussion about medieval disability studies over the past few years, but precious little actually *yet* in print, but I think the next few years we will see a LOT, actually. In addition to Wheatley's book, Julie Singer [Romance Languages, Washington Univ.] has just completed a book, "Remedial Verse : Blindness and Therapy in Late Medieval French and Italian Poetry," which is going to appear [I believe] in Boydell & Brewer's Gallica series in 2011. Julie is also editing a cluster of essays for "postmedieval" on medieval disability studies, which is going to feature work in literature, history, religion, and musicology [and also cover Britain, France, and the Middle East]. I note in my own searches that there have been quite a few seminars and symposiums and conference sessions devoted to medieval disability studies since at least 2005 or so, and if you factor in typical publishing trajectories [time-wise], including dissertations-to-books, I predict 2015 as the year when we will be sick of the subject. Just kidding.

Edward Wheatley said...

Hello, Jeff. What serendipity that you should post this on the very day of a symposium at the Newberry Library in Chicago called "Disability and Disease in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance." Chris Baswell, Walt Schalick, and I held the medieval fortress, and the one-hour Q & A that followed our talks was one of the liveliest that any of us has ever been involved in. At the end of the day the Newberry consort did a program of disease and disability in early music; who knew that Marin Marais had written a piece about undergoing a gall stone removal operation?

Yes, disability in medieval studies is active, though there is still plenty of room for work in the field. In the next year at least two essay collections on the topic will be coming out, one edited by Josh Eyler for Ashgate and one co-edited by Wendy Turner and Tory Vandeventer Pearman for Edwin Mellen. I have written the afterword for the latter, and it includes my perceptions of what is most desperately needed in the field.

As for my book, I definitely do my best to work with disability theory, including, I think, every one of the theorists whom you mention in your blog piece (though maybe not McRuer, though he is important in an article of mine on the French romance Berinus). I find myself apologizing to people when they talk about the book: it will have been nineteen months between when I signed the contract with Michigan and when the book appears, supposedly on April 28 (according to, and since Jeff Bezos is the all-knowing god of commerce, who am I to argue?). But thanks for mentioning me in your blog.

I'm chairing a panel on disability at the NCS Conference in Siena in July. Will you be there?


Martin Foys said...

Jeffrey -

Though I do not think it has yet seen print, Alan Cooper is doing cool stuff with William Longbeard and issues of post-traumatic stress syndrome after the siege of Acre. Not strictly disability in the physical sense, but related nonetheless.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Eileen, thanks. I am too impatient, I suppose, spoiled by the instant gratification of electronic publication: the huge lag time between completing a project and its birth as hard copy is too much for me sometimes.

Edward, good to "see" you here -- and thanks for posting this update on your work. I am very much looking forward to your book. Contact me or any other ITM blogger if you are interested in doing a guest post on the project; we'd love to feature it.

Martin: excellent reminder that cognitive/mental/psychological disabilities belong in a discussion of disability studies, which can too easily focus only upon corporal difference.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, At the risk of self-promotion I would just like to point out that Routledge have finally this year given in to my pleas (if not to say persistent nagging) and made _Disability in Medieval Europe_ available in more affordable format as a paperback direct ... irina

Josh Eyler said...

Thank you for this post, Jeffrey, which calls important attention to a field to which I've devoted the last few years. I also want to thank Edward for mentioning my collection that will be coming out from Ashgate in May. You'll be pleased to know that I mention "In the Middle" (and all of its moderators) in a footnote in the introduction.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Josh and Irina, for adding to the conversation.

Christina Lee said...

Hi Jeffrey,

I only just came across your post. If medieval disability has been under-researched in the past it is fast catching up. The Universities of Nottingham and Birmingham established a network on 'Disease, disability and healing' in 2005 and we have never looked back. Some very good books are in press or about to be published.