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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  1. Pingback: Making the Invisible Visible - Hybrid Pedagogy

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