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.

Pedagogy

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!

–Kisha

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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: wturner1@augusta.edu)—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.

NOTES

[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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Disability Studies goes to the Medieval Academy…

Disability Studies in the Middle Ages: Where Are We Now? (Part I)

[Earlier today, I took part in 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. My own contribution was a brief consideration of the state of medieval disability studies at the present and the likely “look” of the field going forward. Kisha and I are hoping that several of those involved are willing to put their words up on this blog as a way of continuing the conversation that started this morning.]

In the interest of making this an introduction to the comments that were offered during the panel, I’ll keep my own comments brief. I want to talk a bit about what I see as the nature of medieval disability studies as a field both in its current phase and in its broader—or, one might say, existential—identity.

Since its inception, medieval disability studies has grappled with something of an identity crisis. It is, on the one hand, searching for the rules and habits of mind by which disability was conceived, imagined, understood, and enacted in the medieval world. On the other, it seeks conversation with the larger field of disability studies, with its established politics, methodologies, and language (or, perhaps, debates about language). As we move forward with our lines of inquiry, we find ourselves caught between scientia and opinio—between the appeal to principles and the appeal to authority. I generally find myself on the scientia side of the debate. The language, perspectives, and assumptions of modern disability studies are bent toward unpacking disability as it exists in a modern context. Only by thinking through “medieval things” can we come to a greater understanding of the meaning of our subject. As Sally Crawford has recently written, “health and disease are not static and unchanging […] Medieval ideas of healthy and unhealthy […] were not necessarily, or even usually, comparable to modern approaches.”[1] While looking to modern disability studies for parallels can yield significant insights, it is a welcome development that medieval studies is developing a greater cultural specificity in our critical apparatus.

But beyond that, a remarkable sea change has begun, and I think it’s now fair to say that modern disability studies is shifting toward a welcome skepticism about the binary of “able” and “impaired” bodies that might well prove more congenial to the work already being done in medieval disability studies. Recent work by Lennard Davis, Susan Burch, Michael Rembis, and others has begun to take steps toward articulating a sense of the instability of the “able” body as a normative center for identity; those in this room might well recognize the instability, permeability, and corruptibility of the physical self as inherent in medieval thought, if not always accommodated in social practice. To repurpose Catherine Kudlick’s metaphor on the subject, medieval studies has a starring role to play in disability studies, and in the last decade or so scholars seem to have become aware that the work we do is needed onstage.[2]

One part of the move toward asserting the importance of medieval disability studies to medieval studies as a whole is the production of resource materials and other scholarly aids. Since I’m in humblingly august company [on the panel] in that regard, I’ll move along to a brief discussion of a collection that Kisha and I are editing and then make way for the others on this panel to talk about their work.

Our collection is designed for the Ashgate Research Companion series and is meant as a standalone volume that situates the questions and critical perspectives of disability studies as they pertain to medieval studies specifically. Our goal is to provide a state-of-the-field volume that will attest to the remarkable variety of work being done in the name of medieval disability studies. As others have observed, medieval objects and literature attest to the ubiquity of markers of difference in the medieval world. Whether present in the distressed, distrained, corrupted, altered, senescent, or injured body or mind, or simply omnipresent in the destabilized and fallen mortal coil, impairment was never far from the medieval experience. The contributors to the collection are producing work that will individually take up the challenge of interpreting the inscribed markers of difference in an array of texts, cultures, and periods. The aggregate work will, we hope, also serve as a sort of non-manifesto for medieval disability studies, privileging a kaleidoscope of perspectives over a deliberate uniformity of position or language.

Any articulation of the different or “othered” body or mind as a medieval subject must necessarily be informed by contemporary constructions of otherness and, for that matter, constructions of the able or the unremarkable. Those constructions are informed by a complex cultural matrix. The responses to injury and resulting impairment in contemporary law, literature, and art; the impaired body as a site for miraculous figuration or transformation; the presence of physical and mental difference in different cultural modes than exist in the modern world; the role of theosophical thought in characterizing difference; all of these and more demand a cultural specificity not offered by the current discourse in the wider field. The necessity of thinking through “medieval things” requires that elements of disparate fields of inquiry be brought into conversation—so that material culture, diachronic historical study, literary study, the depiction of difference in art or law, gender studies, race and age and religious studies all be considered in the light of disability studies and examined intersectionally. The implications of DS scholarship are far-reaching, and the goal of this work must not be simply to revisit well-trodden fields and to demonstrate to surprised colleagues that they have been “speaking disability their whole lives”; it is also to open up new and understudied perspectives and unheard voices from the past. And as I’ve already suggested, an indirect goal of the project is the value to disability studies as a whole that might come from the fruits of this work on medieval constructions of difference.

 

 

[1] Crawford, “Introduction.” Social Dimensions of Medieval Disease and Disability. Studies in Early Medicine 3. Ed. Sally Crawford and Christina Lee. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2014. 5.

[2] Kudlick, “Smallpox, Disability, and Survival in Nineteenth-Century France.” Disability Histories. Ed. Susan Burch and Michael Rembis. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014: 185.

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Significance of Studying the Middle Ages

Recently, I asked a favor of my fellow medievalists. I have started beginning my courses (particularly general education ones) with “why are we studying this” units, which I have found very effective in getting students to think about the value of the course, rather than simply thinking they are required to be there. I currently added one to my British Literature I (spanning medieval and Early Modern) course. I am essentially starting with a two-week unit with relevant readings, blog posts, etc. As a part of this unit, I asked my medievalist circles to contribute a few sentences as to why studying medieval (and Early Modern) literature is important/significant/relevant. My students will be required to respond and ask questions. The idea was well-received, and some wanted to use it in their own courses. Thus, I have created a Facebook group on which to collect these thoughts/discussions/relevant links, and, so far, the posts are thought-provoking. If you are interested, please feel free to join the group, post your thoughts, share with others, and/or use it with your own students!

Why do I think studying the Middle Ages is significant? Here are a few thoughts…

Progress: “Perhaps at the core of many of the social, economic, educational, and intellectual problems that face us today is our deep, nearly unconscious commitment to the notion that history is progress, that the human community moves inexorably and endlessly towards betterment, sophistication, wisdom, happiness, and that the future will be preferable to the past…Those of us involved in historical studies need to be introducing cautions about the doctrines of progress. It should be stressed that past cultures were sophisticated in ways that often outstrip us” (Milton McC. Gatch, “The Medievalist and Cultural Literacy,” Speculum 66, no. 3 (1991): 591-604 at 595). I must give grateful credit to Sarah Harlan-Haughey for introducing me to this article and quotation. It captures my experience as a student of literature and history, an instructor, a citizen, and even a Facebook onlooker. There is a distinct tendency to believe that what is past – especially what is long past and thus different than our present view – must be “primitive” or even “wrong.” I wonder if technological development is part of what contributes to this bias. The printing press saved us time; therefore, it is better than handwriting. The internet makes life easier; therefore, it must be better than…no internet. This sense of constant update might contribute to this idea that we must be progressing as a species. Whatever the causes, there is a general belief that the peoples of the past were somehow exempt from (positive, especially) human nature, or had less of a sense of morality (by any definition) than we do now, or were unaware of basic human dilemmas or triumphs. This approach to history often creates – wittingly or unwittingly – a “better than thou” attitude and a rather stagnant complacency.

The Middle Ages in particular seems to draw these sorts of conclusions: dogmatic slaves to faith, universal abusers of women, staunch deniers of science, etc. Relegating this time period to”primitive” distances us from close examination of what has not changed in society or, if it has changed, that it might not indeed be for the better. Women’s rights, in particular, is a striking example (my students often have to pause, for instance, when they get “disgusted” by primogeniture or other patriarchal customs, only to be reminded that the United States has yet to elect a female President). Assuming that women have more rights now (and dismissing the Middle Ages as a result) prevents discussion of the nuances of such a topic, for this is a society that also produced Christine de Pizan, who commented in her Book of the City of Ladies, that (paraphrased) “God has truly made women’s minds sharp enough to learn, understand, and retain any form of knowledge.” Progress indeed is a tricky concept.

Humanness: Without studying human beings over the course of time, we risk failing to discover what it is that it means to be human. Our modern experience is only one of many throughout the course of history. Studying what we know about our counterparts in the past, how they reacted to and understood their world, and what commonalities they share with us presents a method to understand what – putting aside technology, social or religious structures, governments, etc. – “humanness” is. Not what the modern human is, or the American, or the first/third-world citizen. But what the human experience is universally, regardless of time and geography.

And, yet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp all of humanity in the same thought. We can process more deeply when delving with focus into a defined set of information – or, in this case, a defined time period. The Middle Ages is the final pre-modern period in Western civilization and, thus, ideally situated as a locus for deep investigation into past humanness. It reaches simultaneously backward to previous civilizations and forward to future generations. It encompasses both tradition and innovation. It operates before certain major technological inventions and yet exhibits scientific inquiry (which is aside from the technology and speaks to invention). Studying this experience as well as in comparison to our own yields a clearer image of what is intrinsically human.

Alterity Immersion: In a Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “One College’s Method to Prove Its Value: Scanning Students’ Brains,” one university has decided to use brain scans to test the efficacy of study abroad programs. They theorize that “students who spend 15 weeks abroad in a highly structured, fully immersive program end up with a greater intellectual capacity and an increased ability to work with people from different cultures than do their peers who stay on the campus.” I would agree that the physical interaction with a different culture has the ability to change perspectives dramatically, and it is an experience I would encourage every college student to have if logistically possible.

Yet, I would argue that it is just as vital to immerse ourselves in the alterity of past cultures as well as modern ones. This, of course, poses certain practical problems, especially as time travel hasn’t been perfected…yet. To do what we can though – to increase contact with the artists of the time, to struggle with putting ourselves in their minds and daily lives, to think in their languages, to imagine the scope of and reasons for their wars – it gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in other mindsets and beliefs. It’s only through contact with “the other” that we shape who we are and develop tolerance, empathy, and acceptance.

In addition, there is perhaps no better time period in order to consider the issues of alterity. Quite literally, it’s everywhere in the Middle Ages – literature, art, history, medicine, sociology, religion, economics, etc. There are a multitude of examples of “the other” in the contact among cultures and in how its varying forms negotiate and are negotiated by society.

Faith/Belief: It may seem counter-intuitive after the discussion of “progress” above to include then a section on faith and belief. That reaction is unto itself something to reconsider. Faith is an aspect of studying the Middle Ages that deserves recognition. While there is indeed science in this period and some rather sophisticated thought at that, it is a time period occurring prior to what we call the scientific revolution or the age of psychoanalysis. Their worldview is frequently defined in terms of faith and belief – not the blind belief that is often associated with the period, but, rather, deep and careful thought about the very meaning of belief and how belief can be explored, shaped,  defined, and applied. It strips the trappings of “knowing” away,  opening up what is possible. This is a period when, no matter how we might diagnose it, Julian of Norwich believes firmly in her visions. There is a freedom from prosaic explanation that allows for imaginative exploration.

Technology: I have mentioned this several times already, so I won’t belabor the point. The Middle Ages is the time of transfer from oral to written (then to printed) text. This shift in technology is essential to the study of literature, storytelling, individualism, identity, memory, book production, and so much more. There is indeed a humility in recognizing the achievements of civilizations before our “tools of progress” made certain activities comparatively “easy” and second nature.

Development of Critical Study, Empathy, and Skepticism: I think this is a truly beneficial side effect of studying unfamiliar civilizations. As my friend and colleague Brandon Hawk stated, “If we can learn to critically think about medieval culture, we can learn to critically think about any culture.” For instance, if what we have been taught about this culture is wrong, what else is also incorrect? If we can learn to appreciate the nuances of this culture, then what can we discover about our own? If we can develop an empathy for the peoples far removed from us, what empathy can we feel for modern peoples?

These are only a few thoughts. Indeed, my belief in the significance of studying the Middle Ages is endless.

–Kisha

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Guest Post – Brandon Hawk: Life in a New Job

First, let me say how happy I am to be back in New England and within the proximity of Kisha, John, and the wider MASSMedieval community. And thanks to them for the invitation to share some thoughts on my new position as Assistant Professor in English at Rhode Island College. At RIC, I am “the lone medievalist,” but I mostly see this an opportunity rather than a drawback: while I’m the sole pre-modernist in the department, I’ve also been encouraged to pursue some of the ways in which I can look beyond the medieval period in my teaching and research. In other words, I see plenty of possibilities for expanding the diversity of my work.

For example, I’m eager to cultivate my interests in the long history of media and technologies. Several of my colleagues have a strong media studies focus, and there’s a close link between English and the Media Studies Program. Related to that, I’ve made some great friends in the Adams Library on campus, including a new reference librarian who specializes in English and digital humanities, as well as the interim Head of Digital Initiatives. While there are no details plans yet, we have informally schemed to think about collaborative projects around campus and using the library’s special collections.

In terms of research, I’m using some of my interest in media studies to start new projects or reframe old ideas as I revise. In particular, I am turning to revising my dissertation into a book, which I’m tentatively calling Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England. As I rethink this project, I’m particularly thinking about the long history of media, how Anglo-Saxon culture can be thought of as “multi-media,” and what that can tell us about the contexts of translation and adaptation, the circulation of books, and especially preaching in medieval England. Last weekend I attended the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium (http://tonyburke.ca/conference/) and presented part of my research on sermons and visual art related to stories about Jesus’ infancy in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. This represents one step in bringing medieval and media studies together as I forge ahead with the larger book project.

Teaching has also posed opportunities both to stay rooted in the medieval and to look beyond it. I’m teaching a 100-level general education “Literature and the Canon” course; a 200-level course that welcomes students to the English major as “Introduction to Literary Study”; and a 300-level “Literature of Medieval Britain.” I’ve taken the most liberty to look beyond the medieval period in “Introduction to Literary Study,” in which we’re reading a smattering of literature including Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “A Village After Dark,” Homer’s Odyssey, the biblical Genesis, Sophocles’ Antigone, Beowulf, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Virginia Woolf’s short stories in Monday or Tuesday, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Essentially, I’ve mixed a bit of classic, canonical literature with things that I just want to read (and some, like Woolf’s stories or Satrapi’s Persepolis, that I’ve never read before). For the last book of the semester, I had students nominate ideas (a total of 6) and then vote on them—offering a type of democratic ending to the semester—for which they collectively chose Harper Lee’s recently published Go Set a Watchman. I’m also taking the opportunity to experiment with teaching, like an exercise you can read about here (http://brandonwhawk.net/2015/09/04/teaching-with-lego/).

So far, I’ve had a good start to the semester and this position, and I’m looking forward to what else might come—medieval and otherwise—in my future at RIC.

–Brandon

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