Post 3: King John’s Palace and Sherwood Forest Up Close and Personal

My main reaction to the experience of participating in the Sherwood Forest Archaeological Field School at King John’s Palace in Clipstone, Nottinghamshire is this: medievalists not in the field of archaeology should participate in this field school or something like it. I cannot emphasize that enough. This opportunity was unique and eye-opening. It both reinforced my passion for the period as well as opened up new avenues of experience.
When I first arrived at the field school, our hearty band of nine volunteers introduced ourselves to each other. At my turn, I added that being on an archaeological excavation had been a bucket list item for many years. This is true. The archaeologists from Mercian Archaeological Services leading the site laughed when I said it was a bucket list item. Like any of us, they know the tedium and hard work that goes with their job, but, for me, I have been fascinated with archaeology for as long as I can remember. The act of uncovering even the tiniest of artifacts, piecing together the story of a location, people, or event, is not only an interesting endeavor, but, I feel, a necessary one in order to understand the past. I really would have been content at almost any site, but to participate in one in the heart of Sherwood Forest, the heart of the land that I’ve studied and dreamed about since I was a child? This was unbelievable.

King John’s Palace – the above ground part!

On our first day, Andy Gaunt of Mercian explained some of the history of King John’s Palace and the surrounding area. I have in a previous post mentioned the history of the Palace, particularly that six successive Plantagenet kings from Henry II to Edward II used and visited it. As with any other architectural structure, it was built up, neglected, added on to, and burned at regular intervals throughout its history. Much of the excavations have attempted to define the boundaries of the Palace land, particularly the early versus later ones. Our job on this field school was to excavate a trench on an embankment in order to begin the determination if it might be an outer wall of the early Palace. More on that later!

Our trench!

Part of Andy’s initial briefing was to talk about Sherwood Forest. It’s easy enough to say blithely – and I have frequently before this experience – that a medieval forest is not just trees. It is different, however, to see the landscape in context. They explained that the area around the Palace still looks very similar to what it did in the Middle Ages. The Palace would have been visible from any direction of approach. The small village of Clipstone (or Kings Clipstone as its known to distinguish it from the bigger, modern town of the same name) would have existed in a similar configuration as it does now.
But it certainly was and is not in the middle of what we typically call a forest. As Andy pointed out, the Sherwood Forest Visitor Center is this typical forest landscape, but the original Sherwood encompassed forest, heath, villages, buildings, hunting-scapes, etc. In reality, it was a huge area. Again this is a known fact, but to witness it – to see the land around the Palace where the kings and their guests would have stayed, the heaths in what is now called Sherwood Forest that would once have seen hunting parties riding across them, the ancient and veteran trees that have witnessed the comings and goings of history for centuries – is a different experience.

View from the Palace into the village


Heath in Sherwood Forest – typical hunting area


Deer in Sherwood Forest seen from King John’s Palace through the lens of a Total Station during a measured survey of the ruins – photo taken and posted by Mercian (click for original link)


Look closely – the indent of a medieval path still exists through the forest!


Popular impression of what Sherwood Forest was/is – trees!


Major Oak – famous Sherwood Forest tree – legendary hiding spot of Robin Hood

It reinforces and provides context for image after image described in medieval texts. No less importantly, it grounds those texts. Quite literally. It grounds them in the feel and presence of their own settings.
In the next couple of posts, I will give some detail about my other impressions of participating in the field school as well as some of the archaeology skills we learned.

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Post 2: Some Thoughts from James Wright’s A Palace for Our Kings (King John’s Palace)

In preparation for my Sherwood Forest Archaeological Training Field School, I have been doing a lot of reading. In particular, I was pleased that James Wright’s book A Palace for Our Kings: The History and Archaeology of a Medieval Royal Palace in the Heart of Sherwood Forest came out at the end of June. It is specifically about the history and excavation of King John’s Palace at Clipstone, which is were I will be located. While I haven’t completed reading it yet (too many deadlines this summer!) – I am hoping to do so on the plane ride over – there have been several aspects that have intrigued me that I will share here. Some are thoughts; some are simply a collection of quotations around a concept. Some I am reacquainting myself with, some are ideas I want to remember as I begin the excavation, and some are totally new and specific to Clipstone. There will be more as I continue to read!
Definition of Palace
Citing the Oxford English Dictionary, Wright defines a palace as ” a large and impressive building forming the official residence of a ruler, pope, archbishop, etc.,” which is what he calls a “pleasingly malleable definition” (5). Later, he provides what is perhaps a more inclusive and useful description: “Palaces were used in remarkably elastic fashion by the monarchs. Their purposes varied according to a wide variety of circumstances not just from king to king but even within individual reigns. The personal preferences of a king might lead to a combination of reasons to visit a particular palace which may have involved sport, recreation, councils, parliaments, building campaigns, impressing magnates and dignitaries, retreating from plague, or as a resting point on a longer journey” (17). The Palace at Clipstone was one of the more impressive and maintained residences over the course of several reigns. The scale of Clipstone “lifts it to an entirely different level [than manor houses]” as it “stretched to seven and a half acres of enclosed land” (6).
King Edwin
I found it intriguing that the area of Clipstone is associated in “strong local tradition” with the death of King Edwin of Northumbria. He died in the battle of Hatfield in 633, long before the palace at Clipstone was established: “The precise location of the battle is not fully understood, but placename evidence and the discovery of a large number of skeletons during the 1950s in an apparent mass-grave beneath foundations of the north wall of the twelfth century church at Cuckney, six miles to the north-west of Clipstone, has led to speculation that it may take place close by. Traditional stories persist that, prior to his burial at Whitby, the slain king was interred at nearby Edwinstowe and it is possible that King John’s 1205 foundation of St Edwin’s Chapel in Birklands may have been related to this” (19-20). Mercian Archaeological Services, who sponsors the field school I am attending, received permission and funding to fieldwalk the area of St. Edwin’s Chapel in 2014.
Kings Who Visited
There are as always several dates involved when considering the multi-century history of a location like Clipstone. I found it useful to mark when kings first visited the site (chart below). Although a manor had been there prior to the Norman invasion and there is evidence of repairs and construction on the site, Henry II in 1181 is considered the first documented royal visitor to “his palace and deer park” (27). It is interesting that he visited Clipstone after the wars with his sons, wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and other political leaders that they recruited. When he won, he set about essentially strengthening his hold over castles and forests, including Sherwood. Richard I first visited Clipstone immediately after he returned from his imprisonment. I like to imagine this as a much-needed respite before setting about punishing John and the other rebels. Wrights claims that it was to make sure Clipstone was in order for a later meeting with the Scottish king William the Lion (39). Citing Roger de Hoveden, Wright comments that Richard traveled to Clipstone and Sherwood, “which he had never seen before, and they pleased him greatly” (39). John seems only to have been at the palace, at least according to any remaining official records, nine days in total over seven visits (41), but he was in the area quite frequently so there could be many unrecorded visits as well. Henry III is the one who really took an interest in the architectural design of the Palace and ordered quite a bit of construction, particularly in response to the comfort of his queen Eleanor. Edward I held parliament at Clipstone in 1290, where he announced the plans for another Crusade (68). Edward II differed greatly than his predecessors in that he spent more time at each of the locations he visited, including Clipstone. I suspect this is due to the changing nature of centralized government and the perceived security of the times.
Year First Visited Clipstone
Henry II
Richard I
Henry III
Edward I
Edward II
Forest Law
Forest Law plays an essential role in the history of King John’s Palace as it was often used by the kings as a hunting refuge. Wright discusses this role and the perception of the Law (spoiler alert: it wasn’t good). I’ll be thinking more about this in relation to the Robin Hood legends, but for now:
  • “…monarchy could take advantage of the proximity of the great game reserves created in the royal forests such as Sherwood…The forest was a legal definition, associated with Forest Law. Perhaps one third of England was under this law during the twelfth century. The law was intended to protect the beasts of the chase and to encourage their welfare so that they would thrive and enable the kings to have vast stocks to hunt.” (9)
  • “The presence of Sherwood Forest was a key reason for the monarchy’s interest in Clipstone. Forest Law was introduced by the Normans to a land that was not used to such restrictions. Although there was a concept of the ownership of woodlands and the animals within them during the Saxon period, if those animals strayed into another man’s wood he was free to hunt them. Deer were not the preserve of the monarchy alone. The Norman idea of a forest set aside for the enjoyment of the king alone comes from the laws of Charlemagne and northern France.” (24-5)
  • “Forests were such a symbol of royal power and authority that Henry II reneged upon his wartime promise to reform the Forest Law…The law therefore became a stringent political tool and a survey of the forests in 1175 was carried out in person by the king…it was partly the tension caused by the extents of the forests that contributed to the outbreak of civil war between John and his barons…Magna Carta attempted to redress the balance but had no great effect…The Charter of the Forest in 1217 agreed to the removal of all land added to the forest by Henry II…but it was not until Henry III came of age that he ordered the enquiry of 1227 which fixed the extent of Sherwood so that the east of Nottinghamshire ceased to be forest.” (25)
  • “The penalties that could be imposed upon the local population at Clipstone for poaching the king’s deer, or even for cutting down the trees upon which the animals relied for their habitat, were severe….Although the 1217 Charter of the Forest removed the death penalty for poaching there were still a severe punishments [sic] for transgression…the Forest Law was so unpopular and controversial that even his [Henry II’s] own treasurer Richard Fitzneal wrote disapprovingly of it in the Dialogues de Scaccario: “The Forest has its own laws based, not on the common law of the realm, but on the arbitrary decision of the ruler; so that what is done in accordance with the law is not called ‘just’ without qualification but just according to forest law.” (27)

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CFP: The Lone Medievalist Roundtable for the 2017 ICMS (Kalamazoo): “Greater Than The Sum Of Our Arts: The Multitasking Life Of The Lone Medievalist”

For the third year running, the Lone Medievalist will be organizing a roundtable for the International Congress in Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, and the organizers, on behalf of the Lone Medievalist membership, solicit proposals offering perspectives on the theme “Greater than the Sum of our Arts: The Multitasking Life of the Lone Medievalist.”

The 2017 session is envisioned as a continuation of the conversations held at the 2015 and 2016 Congresses. A theme of the discussion during those sessions has been the sometimes overwhelming variety of teaching, administrative, scholarly, and other responsibilities shouldered by working medievalists. The scope of expertise expected of Lone Medievalists on top of these responsibilities only amplifies the problem. These pressures can make the focus necessary to advance our research agendas (or even simply to maintain intellectual currency in our field) difficult to achieve. We invite speakers who can address strategies for maintaining a meaningful focus on medieval studies alongside, or in combination with, the myriad expectations placed on us in our campus, department, and classroom lives.

For the first time, our session topic has come about as a result of suggestions made during our “business” meeting at the Conference. We’re hoping that many of those who attended will have proposals for the session. If you’d like to offer your voice on this important topic, please be in touch! You can e-mail notice of your interest and a brief explanation of your perspective to John Sexton at by September 15. Thank you, and we look forward to hearing from our fellow LMs.

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Post 1: Sherwood Forest Archaeological Training Field School 2016

Exciting news! I have received the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation Fellowship to participate in the Sherwood Forest Archaeological Training Field School 2016. This program runs August 8th-12th. The Field School is organized by Mercian Archaeological Services CIC and is located at the ruins of King John’s Palace, Kings Clipstone, Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire, England.

As the web site states, “This is not an ordinary field school – this is a ‘Training Field School’ where you will learn about all aspects of archaeological excavation and receive hands on training and learning from archaeological professionals in the heart of Sherwood Forest.”

The following, by way of an introduction to the project, is edited from my grant proposal…

The benefits of this project to myself, my students, my discipline, and my university fall into four categories: continuing education, pedagogy, community outreach, and future scholarship.

Continuing Education

In addition to the archaeological training, the site describes:

“As part of the field school attendees will have the opportunity to learn all about Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood, outlaws, foresters, the landscape of Sherwood Forest in medieval times, the forest law, courts, offences and judiciary, the Palace at Clipstone, monasteries, chapels and hermitages, hunting parks, Nottingham Castle, Sheriffs and much much more about life in Medieval Sherwood Forest.”

These particular themes are essential aspects of my research and teaching. This experience will provide practical knowledge and a unique perspective to complement my previous academic study.


The list above of topics covered in the Field School are ones that often are included in my courses. For instance, Robin Hood is a unit in my medieval literature study abroad course (link to blog post on that: “English Studies Abroad: A Gest of Robyn Hode“), Henry II and Richard I are kings I frequently include in historical background discussions, religious buildings and castles are prevalent settings for texts, forest law is key to histories (particularly with respect to royal rights), and courts and law in general provide context for understanding the medieval world view. In addition, in my courses with medieval content, I teach several texts that fall into the genre of romance, a significant body of work of the time period. The forest and hunting are ubiquitous aspects of these texts, and it is important to provide historical context to students about these unfamiliar settings. As the Field School site states, Mercian Archaeological Services CIC has “interpreted the surrounding lordship [around King John’s Palace] as a ‘designed’ medieval romantic hunting landscape.” In essence, this is the exact setting of these romance texts, and taking photos and videos of this example of landscape will be helpful for many students who find it hard to imagine it. I intend to video interview the experts at the site in order to create a compilation that I can share with my students.

Given that I teach not only medieval literature, but also early world literature, the Bible as literature, and classical mythology, archaeological sites are recurring elements of my courses. Much of what we read in these courses was found in such sites or is continuing to be found. We study the site at Troy, the location of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, the burial site at Sutton Hoo, the recent discovery of Richard III’s skeleton, among many others. In some courses, I require my students to visit the Fitchburg Art Museum, which has ancient artifact collections. Indeed, my courses are some of the few at Fitchburg State that provide exposure to archaeology as a method of studying the past.

More recently, I have started beginning my courses (particularly general education courses) with “why are we studying this subject” units, which I have found effective in helping students to think about the value of their courses and curriculum, rather than simply defaulting to thinking they are required to take certain subjects. For example, I begin my World Literature I course with a unit that includes readings and discussion related to the idea of present and historical deliberate destruction and appropriation of cultural heritage. In particular, we study the destruction by ISIS of archaeological sites in the Middle East and the protection of library collections in warzones by private citizens, many of which have direct connections to the texts we read in the course. By foregrounding the class with such a unit, students begin to understand the value of what we are studying (i.e. if cultural heritage – including literature – is targeted for destruction and is key to preserve, then what we study is important), and I have seen a marked increase in investment.

However, as I have not previously participated in an archaeological dig, my understanding of the workings of these sites and how artifacts are discovered and preserved is theoretical, which makes deepening our study of and fielding questions about these subjects difficult. In the past, I have invited working archaeologists as guest presenters to provide students more context, but having my own experience to impart will be far more consistently beneficial.

Community Outreach

Given my expertise in medieval topics and in Robin Hood in particular, I have been asked to present various times on the topic, including this one:

Participating in the Field School will provide a new dimension to such talks. I will especially volunteer to speak at local historical societies in addition to academic venues such as those above. I also am considering proposing a National Endowment for the Humanities summer program workshop on the topic of Robin Hood, which has the potential to bring scholars from around the country to Massachusetts and Fitchburg State.

Future Scholarship

Finally, in terms of my own personal research, I would like to pursue two separate approaches. The first article I would consider is the pedagogical benefits of such an experience, exploring the effect on teaching and learning early literature from being able to incorporate practical knowledge into courses. A separate article, also pedagogical, would be to consider incorporating archaeological field experience into study abroad courses. The second topic would be the applications of archaeological study to medieval literary studies, thinking about how the interaction with the physical affects our reading of the textual.

As a public scholar, I intend to write a series of day-by-day (pre-, during, and post-) blog posts on the academic, pedagogical, and personal aspects of the experience. I am co-founder of MassMedieval as well as The Lone Medievalist Project, so stay tuned for a blog series and photolog!


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Past, Present, and Future of Medieval Disability Studies (Wendy J. Turner)

[Transcript of comments by Wendy J. Turner at a roundtable-style session (which was tweeted with the hashtags #maa2016 #s13) at the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference, held this year in Boston.]

In the 1960s, scholars challenged ideas of centrality and normality as ways of defining who we are as humans. Academics in medieval fields picked up on these concepts and began to ask questions of particular conditions—blindness, deafness, madness—rather than looking at links between the various groups. The closest medieval scholars came to understanding the disabled as a group, came from those looking at alms-giving or community bonding. It was not until the 1970s that they began to examine the “fringe” of society, the few that had been pushed to the edge of the societal population grid and excluded.[1] Studies on Jews, lepers, and prostitutes, stood along side those on the blind and the mad.[2]

It was the 1980s and 90s when the first scholars began playing with models of inclusion and exclusion—rethinking disabilities generally for the Middle Ages. Works such as F. Fandrey, Krüppel, Idioten, Irre of 1990, and Michael W. Dols, Majnun: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society of 1992 examined connections outside of the concepts of “fringe” and “other” to comparing physical impairments to mental ones or Islamic ideas to Christian ones. Catherine Kudlick finally asked the key question: ‘Disability History: Why We Need Another “Other.”’[3]

In recent years, Disability Studies as a field has taken off among medieval scholars—at times as an extension of medical or legal history, and at others as part of a critical discussion of prejudice or inclusivity. When I started writing my dissertation in 1998, I felt quite alone. I thought my work fit well with the study of the marginalized, the so-called “fringe” population in 1990s terminology.

It was not until 2006, that I met anyone else working on disabilities. I was on a panel with Michael O’Rourke and Irina Metzler at the IMC in Leeds. Irina Metzler’s now well-known work on Disability in Medieval Europe in which she adopts the sociological model for the study of disabilities was newly out and on display. Later that year, the first meeting of the workshop on Disease, Disability and Medicine in Medieval Europe would take place at the University of Nottingham under the direction of Christina Lee—where they are currently investigating the eye medicine from the Leechbook of Bald that has been so much in the news this year. In 2007, I began to notice other medievalists working on disabilities at the ICMS in Kalamazoo. By 2008, in an almost impromptu fashion, we—Josh Eyler, Julie Singer, Tory Pearman, Mark O’Tool, Sasha Pfau (who was there but had to leave for another meeting before we finalized our plans), Julie Orlemanski, and myself (as I recall, please send me an email if you know otherwise:—formed the Society for the Study of Disabilities in the Middle Ages. Four years later, in 2012, the Creative Unit: Homo Debilis at the University of Bremen was awarded a 3 year, 3 million Euro grant to study the disabled in the Middle Ages. The director, Cordula Nolte, hopes to see the grant renewed this month.

We have, as a group, made great strides. Nearly all medievalists have rejected the medical model for study of the disabled. After all, we have no way of knowing what was medically wrong with people, only that premodern society labeled them in some way as outside normal—lame, blind, deaf, insane, etc. Metzler suggests a social model: “The notion of the social construction of disability […] permits historical investigation and analysis—of what is and what is not disability.”[4] She explains the models’ bifurcation between the impaired person and the disabled one, disabled individuals being only those impaired who meet a social barrier keeping them from participating in society fully and completely. Even Metzler, though, has expressed concern that the social model does not take into account quite all scenarios and has since adopted Snyder and Mitchell’s “cultural model,”[5] although her use might be better called a “socio-cultural model.”

Edward Wheatley, studying real and metaphorical blindness, adopted much of Metzler’s social model but put a twist on it for his medieval sources, calling it a “religious model,” which he claimed in his 2010 work—Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind—as more appropriate for research on the Middle Ages. His religious model acknowledges the power invested in the medieval Church to create and dissolve disability. The Church claimed those who embraced their disability would gain in Heaven, changing a temporary disadvantage into a long-lasting advantage. Other literary scholars have examined the idea that “sin” and either “madness” or a “crooked” body were linked in the Middle Ages.[6]

At nearly the same time as Wheatley, Josh Eyler and Tory Pearman countered Metzler’s model with a call for multiple models. They, at first, wanted to use a medical model if it was appropriate and definable through medieval medical efforts, while other models would be used to organize disabled literary characterizations, implying a literary model.[7] Eyler ended up also using the “cultural model” of Snyder and Mitchell because, as he puts it, it is “less divisive” as a model, using the term “disability” to include everyone even those Metzler calls “impaired.”

I have recommended rethinking the structure of all of these models, suggesting an environmental model, which places the view of the disabling moment with the individual looking out, rather than from the judgment of society, culture, medical or religious community looking in. The lived environment—natural and created, physical and political—emerges, then, as the common element that “disables” or “empowers” individuals. This theory is in-press in Germany at this time (and I will publish a version of it in the US/UK in the near future).

While we continue to wrestle with models and questions of terminology, our output has been strong enough to make the rest of medieval studies aware of the phenomenon of disability studies in the Middle Ages; as well, scholars of modern disability studies are now cognizant that disabilities are being studied far earlier than they thought possible.

Many of the original questions from the scholars in Homo Debilis, DDM, SSDMA remain: how to define terminology, boundaries of the field, and whether models are useful. As we move forward, though, perhaps the questions are changing. One trajectory is in the direction of medicine. At Nottingham, Christina Lee’s blended team of English and hard sciences students and professors work together to reconstruct medicines in the Leechbooks and other medical manuals of the Middle Ages in pursuit of possible superbug medicines. The Homo Debilis group in Bremen wants to widen the view of premodern disability scholars to include all those persons suffering with long-term illness, because they, too, would have been in many ways “disabled” in the Middle Ages. Think about the farmer out with a major illness or a broken leg for even 6 weeks: if his crops fail, his broken leg could mean death or near-starvation over winter. Injury is another topic that has yet to be fully investigated in terms of recovery, issues of temporary disability, and what role hospitals and the community played. And, rather than precedent law or administration of law, forensics could be unpacked for the disabled (as well as several other subjects), as Sara Butler did to some extent in her recent book on Forensics. (And, I agreed with John at the roundtable that medieval Eastern and Middle Eastern needs further exploration.) The whole community often needed to be involved in care in the Middle Ages—making walking aids for the lame or helping ill or injured neighbors. Care was far more encompassing than simply alms for the poor.

Aside from actual medicines and the medieval treatment of the injured, ill, and impaired, there are other issues starting to be examined in more detail. Archaeologists have begun to notice more prosthetics, such as the artificial big toe recently in the news. I am surprised there has not yet been a dissertation on the material culture of the disabled—the materials, construction techniques, and individuality to the things the disabled used, such as canes, walkers, hand-trestles as well as prosthetics. The discussion will continue, I think, for a while yet over the medieval, at least literary, connection between between sin and illness, disability, or madness. I know, too, that I, at least, have stuck to the more centrally located royal records for my work, but at some point a more thorough investigation of peasants’ disabilities in manorial records would round out our overall picture of the disabled in the Middle Ages.

Finally, I will certainly be content the moment a new history of psychiatry or medicine comes out that does NOT skip over the Middle Ages as “backward,” “superstitious,” or “ignorant” of the disabled. As I hope we all know here, care and understanding of the physically and mentally disabled was ever evolving and always as technologically helpful as a society could be; and, while prejudice reared its ugly head from time to time, on the whole, most disabled persons were accepted as part of their community and assisted to live as fully as they could within the restrictions their bodies allowed.


[1] Doob (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974). Neaman (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1975). Pickett (Ottawa, Ontario: The University of Ottawa Press, 1952). Neugebauer, Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences 14 (1978): 158-169. See also: Neugebauer, “Mental Illness and Government Policy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England,” (Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 1976). Clarke (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1975). Foucault’s full title is: Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, (orig. Histoire de la Folie, Paris: Librairie Plon, 1961) translated by Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), see esp. his chapter I: “Stultifera Navis.

[2] Hellmut Flashar’s 1966 Melancholie und Melancholiker in den medizinschen Theorien der Antike, and Thomas Grahams’ 1967 work on Mental Health in the Middle Ages gave way in the 1970s to scholarly publications such as Basil Clarke’s 1975 book on Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain: Exploratory Studies, Judith Neaman’s 1975 study on the Suggestion of the Devil: The Origins of Madness, and Saul Brody’s 1974 work on The Disease of the Soul: Leprosy in Medieval Literature. Kroll, Psychological Medicine 14 (1984) 3: 507-514.Porter, History Today 38 (Feb 1988): 39-44.

[3] American Historical Review, 108 (2003), 762–93

[4] Metzler, p. 21.

[5] Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, Cultural Locations of Disability (Chicago and London, 2006), p. 7.

[6] Huot, p. 10.

[7] Eyler, p. 4.

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Mad for Margery: Disability and the Imago Dei in the Book of Margery Kempe (M.W. Bychowski)

[Transcript of comments by M.W. Bychowski at a roundtable-style session (which was tweeted with the hashtags #maa2016 #s13) at the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference, held this year in Boston. For M.’s bio and website, please click here to see Transliterature: Things Transform.]

“Dixit Dominus ad eum: Quis fecit os hominis? aut quis fabricatus est mutum et surdum, videntem et cæcum? nonne ego?”

—Exodus 4:11

In the seventy-fourth chapter of the Book of Margery Kempe, Margery asks God how she might come into His divine presence. In response, Christ “drow hys creatur unto hys lofe and to mynde of hys passyon that sche myth not duryn to beheldyn a lazer er an other seke man, specialy yyf he had any wowndys aperyng on hym. So sche cryid and so sche wept as yyf sche had sen owr Lord Jhesu Crist wyth hys wowndys bledyng” (Staley, 74.4178-4182). She asks to see the Imago Dei, the image of God, and is shown the disabled. Through the “lofe” and “mynde” of Christ, Margery comes to read lepers and the other unreasonable bodies of the Lazar Houses as images of God’s presence.

After the transmission of Aristotle’s texts during the twelfth century, there was renewed interest in Europe for classical philosophy. Evident in the work of scholastic theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, Faith had to make room, as Reason became the measure of all things; including what it meant to be made in the image of God. By the fifteenth century, the Middle-English word “Mad” had developed into two distinct but not incompatible concepts:  “mad,” meaning “made,” the state of being a creature in a process of creation with social contexts, and “mad,” meaning to be “uncontrolled by reason” or “filled with enthusiasm or desire” (OED). Madness in the latter sense marked differences through exceptions rather than histories, then isolated rather than contextualized these differences from communion with humanity or God.

In Mad for Foucault, Lynne Huffer contends that neither madness nor rationality is a personal state of being but a social product. Huffer credits the development of the Lazar Houses, where lepers specifically and “mad” persons generally were isolated from civilization, propelling the idea of individual subjectivity and sovereignty by inscribing the association of internalized madness and exterior rationality. Reason becomes a byproduct of suppressing private “Unreason” within public thought and government. As such, madness is not the exception but the foundation for Reason. To dwell within the Lazar House or within madness allows for the possible resistance of lying bare the means by which common unreasonableness (e.g. desire, dependency) turns into exceptional thought. In other words, Huffer writes, madness reveals “thought thinking itself.” (103)

While adeptly critiquing the implications of the Lazar House and madness for later human social relations in the Age of Reason, Huffer’s Mad for Foucault does not account for how the workings of “madness” point towards a medieval past with critical, contentious relationships with God. While madness in the fifteenth century not only threatened disability in this life, but damnation in the life to come, with worldly isolation prescribing eternal confinement in Hell, I argue that the self-conscious work of madness in the Book of Margery Kempe not only challenges the rationality of the world but the cosmological order. The implication that the mad were Imago Dei, made in the image of God, and that to go to a Lazar House was to enter into the presence of Christ turns the value system of rational society inside out. Subsequently, I contend that Margery breaks open of madness as being “mad,” i.e. both “made” and “unreasonable,” in the Imago Dei through the making of a spiritual treatise and comforting the poor and marginalized by entering into community, constituting an early form of liberation theology.

The power to create may beg the question the Lazar House attempts to answer: what is the goal of creation?  The demand for an end is essentially a product of Reason. The end serves as the rational justification for the work of creation. When Reason is the standard measure, assessing all things in terms of reasonability, only the reasonable serve as sufficient tools or products. The Lazar House is one such attempt to determine whether or how one contributes to the world. It then isolates the “mad” as those bodies operating beyond Reason’s ability to understand or govern. The problem with this is that reason becomes what G.K. Chesterton calls a “perfect circle” (21). By rejecting all that does not fit into itself, “what a great deal it leaves it out!” asks Chesterton (21).

Anything or everything may turn out to be unreasonable and Creation’s madness, argues Bruno Latour, is evident in the surprising existence of Existence itself.  “Modernists believe they make the world in their image just as God made them in His. This is a strange and impious description of God. As if God were master of His Creation! As if He were omnipotent and omniscient. If he had these perfections, there would be no Creation… God too, is slightly overtaken by His Creation, that is, by all that is changed and modified and altered in encountering Him. Yes we are indeed made in the image of God, that is, we do not know what we are doing either. We are surprised by what we make.” (Latour 287). As a metaphysical sign, the Imago Dei does not govern but creates and revels in madness. Creation in this sense testifies against Reason. “No Creation” is reasonable because it is a closed loop. A self-sufficient perfection does not need to create. Our surprise in what is mad testifies that the Imago Dei is not Reason alone, but the work of creative community.  If the Imago Dei makes and makes without reason, it is most reflected by co-creative “madness” and not self-governing reason.

The Book acts as such a self-conscious Imago Dei, opening and closing with descriptions of its making, proudly proclaiming, “this boke was mad” (Staley, 17.873; 89.4245).  This recursion deepens in the only two instants in the Book where madness explicitly means unreason. The Book quotes the Pryke of Life’s author confessing to being “ovyrcome thorw desyr, begynne for to maddyn, for lofe governyth me and not reson… thei seyn ‘Lo, yen wood man cryeth in the stretys,’ but how meche is the desyr of myn hert thei parceyve not” (Staley, 62.3638). Likewise, Margery admits that “crying and roryng” for God makes her a “mad woman” (80.5489). In both cases, the writers testify that their madness arises from acts of making that exceed reason. The Book is a mad machine, “thought thinking itself” that suggest what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation” or “Creation creating itself.” (Huffer 103). The Book, draws us to glimpse God’s “madness” making itself. The difference between the circular logic of Reason and madness’s recursion is critical. Reason functions by maintaining the exclusivity of what is inside and outside its parameters. It is fundamentally conservative. Madness functions by the creation of difference and so affirms what Huffer calls “co-extension” (29).

Turning again to Margery’s prayer for God’s presence, readers stand witness to how the Imago Dei in the “mad” bodies of the Lazar House inspires acts of liberation. Receiving her revelation, Margery “went to a place wher seke women dwellyd whech wer ryth ful of the sekenes and fel down on hir kneys beforn hem” (Staley, 74.4292-4193). Margery challenges the exclusionary logic of the Lazar House by crossing its threshold with a gesture of community. Seeing madness from the inside, Margery offers no rational answer to the woman’s ills, but remains with her, “Comfortyn hir” (74.4204). Coming from the Latin, “comfort” means: “to strengthen (morally or spiritually); to encourage, hearten, inspirit, incite” (OED). Comfort is an act of community making, as the pre-fix suggests the strengthening be done “together, together with, in combination or union” with others (OED). “Comfortyn” incites a collective act “To confirm, corroborate” our togetherness (OED). By comfort, Margery confirms that they are “mad” together. “Creative power,” writes Reynolds “is essentially a relational power.” (180).  The encounter with the madness of the Imago Dei breaks a barrier for Margery that prevented her, like the walls of the Lazar House, from finding comfort. “In the yerys of werldly prosperité,” Margery regarded “no thyng mor lothful ne mor abhomynabyl …than to seen er beheldyn a lazer” (Staley, 74.4186-4187). The Book uses “abominable,” like the Book of Leviticus, to mark things excluded from the community. It aligns the logic of exclusion with “worldly prosperite,” suggesting that the Imago Dei could not be present until she accepts her own madness. Only then could she find and give comfort.

Margery finds herself most drawn to a woman “labowryd wyth many fowle and horibyl thowtys” (74.4201-4202). Subject to visions of her own, the woman Margery ministers to mirrors herself, “a mad woman, crying and roryng” (1.80.4588-4589). Entering the Lazar House, Margery not only finds comfort for the leper, but for herself.  The drive to comfort does not excuse the violence and isolation governing madness but seeks co-creation and co-liberation by a communal sharing of strength (physical, social, spiritual). Disability, writes Reynolds, marks how all things are mad “contingent in an open universe subject to elements of unpredictability, instability, and conflict” (177-187). As things are formed as disabled, they get pushed to the margins, but the Imago Dei of the Book of Margery Kempe gives a call to seek each other and make a co-creative community. Instead of being mad in isolation, we become mad for each other.

Works Cited

“com-, prefix.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 3 June 2014.

“comfort, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 3 June 2014.

Chesterton, G. K. “The Maniac.” Orthodoxy. Ed. Sheridan Gilley. South Orange, NJ: Chesterton Institute, 2008. Print.

Huffer, Lynne. Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. Print.

Latour, Bruno. “”The Slight Surprise of Action”” Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

“mad, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 3 June 2014.

Reynolds, Thomas E. Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008. Print.

Staley, Lynn, ed. The Book of Margery Kempe. Kalamazoo, MI: Published for TEAMS (the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages) in Association with the U of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan U, 1996. Print.

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Disability Studies in the Middle Ages: Where Are We Now?

[Continuation of John’s post with our comments at a roundtable-style session (which was tweeted with the hashtags #maa2016 #s13) at the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference, being held this year in Boston.]

Please forgive me for my absence. I am very upset not to be present at today’s discussion. I will blame my students for passing along the stomach bug that has been making its rounds on campus. I am pleased that this panel was accepted by the Medieval Academy, bringing medieval disability studies to this conference. I think it’s a step forward for our particular field of study.

To pick up where John left off, there are multiple medieval traditions that must be considered in thinking about medieval disability. These traditions consider perspectives of geography and chronology as well as specific groups of individuals with specific concerns, all of which will provide cross-overs in thought on disability, but also unique nuances and complexities. Geographically, examples include Byzantium, France, England, and Iceland, among many other locations. Chronologically, we can consider periods from the Roman Empire to the Anglo-Saxon to later. Within these frameworks, sub-sections of the populace – or the imagination – emerge – for instance, saints and the complicated, sometimes conflicting roles of disability in their lives. Emerging from these discussions are various critical lenses that can be useful in this work. One major example is offering theories concerning gender, which can be approached by offering a medieval framework and/or examining the impact current attitudes have on readings of medieval texts. We begin to see through these critical perspectives that there are dynamic relationships between disability studies and other approaches, both medieval and modern (and for that matter, Classical and other adjacent periods), to analyzing text.

While these methods of studying medieval disability are exciting and promising, we have found that there are still some challenges in the field – perhaps different ones than we have previously experienced now that the field has evolved and grown.

In putting together this collection, it is apparent that scholars in medieval disability tend towards the literary and the Western. It is perhaps unsurprising given that there were many literary scholars at the forefront of developing medieval disability studies. However, it still remains true that much of the work being done focuses on literature. This is not to say that there aren’t others working on non-literary or non-Western subjects, but there remains a great deal of potential for growth in these areas. John mentioned material culture, which is certainly a rich avenue for consideration. Visual studies is another.

Another major challenge that we have found is crossing the boundaries between modern and medieval disability studies. While modern scholars are thrilled – a direct quotation, not mine – that medieval disability studies is growing, we found that they were quite hesitant to engage with the scholarship, particularly citing that they are uncomfortable with the historical divide and feel they have nothing to offer. This is something we can attempt to rectify. There have been discussions about how to accomplish this, and there has been headway, I think, in working towards this goal. For instance, medieval disability scholars are presenting at more general disability conferences – and, for that matter, at general medieval conferences – with more regularity. John has noted the importance of thinking through “medieval things,” and this is very true. I think we have much to offer in considering, for instance, the variability we see in medieval thought on the subject.

On a related note, I’ll simply bring up a general fact about medieval disability studies. I’ll preface by saying that I in no way think of this as a negative, but it is simply something to consider. The scholars in medieval disability tend towards early career and graduate students. As I said, not a negative – it implies fresh looks and new ideas, which will keep the field moving forward. It can, however, provide an impediment when publishing. Some publishers look to balance “established” scholars with newer, and it’s simply a challenge we have to overcome – or argue against as the case may be. As a side note, as far as our volume is concerned, we very consciously attempted to invite medieval scholars who don’t normally work on disability, with healthy success.

On a final note, I will offer that, as diverse as the interests of medieval disability scholars are, we have much more work to do concerning “invisible” disabilities – for instance, mental disabilities. This can be a particularly difficult avenue of research, especially due to language differences. I will put a plug in here for the online Medieval Disability Glossary as a method of working through the problems inherent in language and terminology (not to mention a way to bring medieval disability to our students). Studying mental disabilities often requires a great deal more interpretation, and there is often the danger of falling into diagnosis mode or into modern definitions, yet it is a significant aspect that needs even more attention.

I shall stop here as I am sure others in the room can define more challenges that we face – and hopefully provide some suggestions. I will conclude by reiterating the significance of this field of study, how it opens up spaces for individuals and groups of historic people and how it adds even more to our understanding of the complexity of the medieval world. Thank you for being a part of this discussion.

Stay tuned for other posts with transcripts from other panel members…

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