Category Archives: Conferences

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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CFP, International Medieval Congress 2016 – “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Job”

MassMedieval is at it again, organizing for the International Congress. Building off the success of last year’s roundtable, for the 2016 Congress, our topic is a sequel “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Job.”

The professional reality is that many of us are at institutions at which we are the “lone medievalist,” without colleagues who share our areas of expertise and interest. In most cases, a department will hire only a single medieval specialist – and may be hard-pressed to convince administrations or hiring committees to approve even that one. While the advent of digital technologies has brought us the possibility of closer contact and greater collaboration with our fellow medievalists, our resource access, teaching opportunities, tenure cases, and other facets of our professional lives can be affected by our lack of numbers and by questions about the nature and value of what we do. In order to navigate these realities, we should be drawing on our collective experience.

At the 2015 International Medieval Congress, we hosted a roundtable entitled “The Ballad of the Lone Medievalist.” It was exceptionally well-attended and various members of the audience raised issues and suggestions that indicated the conversation had only just begun. For this next roundtable, we would like to extend this conversation. This roundtable, as the title suggests, will collect panelists who can provide suggestions and ideas for professional engagement, curriculum planning, and reappointment and tenure cases as the “lone medievalist” in a department or institution. Our intention is that this roundtable will not be a forum simply for bewailing the state of medieval studies in small institutions. Indeed, we anticipate that it will be an opportunity for camaraderie, suggestions, and advice. We intend it to be very forward-thinking and revitalizing as well as helpful to those of us in these positions. It is also a forum for gathering the contact information in order to build a “lone medievalist” support group.

If you’d like to take part in this important conversation, please e-mail Kisha at ktracy3@fitchburgstate.edu by September 15. Thanks!

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Kalamazoo 2014: MassMedieval Roundtable – “Digital Life of Twenty-First-Century Medieval Studies”

I know that I promised a final blog post about the last day of KZoo, specifically MassMedieval’s roundtable, “Medievalists and the Social Media Pilgrimage: The Digital Life of Twenty-First-Century Medieval Studies,” featuring  John; Peter Konieczny, Medievalists.netBrandon W. Hawk, University of Connecticut; Andrew M. Pfrenger, Kent State University–Salem; Joshua R. Eyler, Rice University; and M. Wendy Hennequin, Tennessee State University. Unfortunately, I simply haven’t had the time! To make up for my lapse, I decided, in lieu of a traditional post and in the spirit of the subject of the roundtable itself, to create a Storify of the Tweets from the session, which gives a fairly complete summary of the discussions. Take a look! –Kisha

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Guest Post – Jonathan Hsy: & (Presented at ICMS 2014)

MassMedieval is proud to present a second surprise! Jonathan Hsy was a panelist on the same Babel punctuation session at ICMS 2014 referenced in my previous post and in the guest post by Josh Eyler. After reading these posts (and publicizing them widely), Jonathan has also offered us the full text of his presentation on the ampersand (&). We are very grateful for this continued generosity, and we hope our readers are enjoying this series of posts as much as we are.

Jonathan Hsy is Associate Professor of English at George Washington University, and his research and teaching interests span the fields of translation studies and disability theory. His first book, Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature (Ohio State University Press, 2013) investigates the work of polyglot urban writers across the late medieval and early Tudor eras. His current book project, Disability and Life Writing: Authorship as Advocacy, Then and Now, explores writing by medieval authors who self-identify as blind or deaf. Hsy is also the founding Co-Director (with Alexa Huang) of the GW Digital Humanities Institute, and he is currently involved in a few collaborative digital endeavors. He blogs at In The Middle, serves on the Editorial Committee of the Online Medieval Disability Glossary, and is collaborating with Candace Barrington on Global Chaucers, an emergent online archive of modern adaptations of Chaucer in non-Anglophone settings.

In modern English, the symbol & [ampersand] stands out among punctuation marks due to its status not as a silent break between words but rather a glyph that signifies an entire word in itself. That is to say, the ampersand functions not as a punctuation mark but rather as a logogram, compressing an entire word (semantic unit) into one graphic symbol. The ampersand, moreover, really came into its own in Middle Ages as a ligature: most visible, for instance, in the linking of Carolingian letters E and T (the Latin word “et”).[1]

ampersand image 1

Over time, the stylized glyph transformed and was eventually carried over into vernacular languages as the grammatical conjunction that we pronounce, in English, as “and.”

I really love the ampersand because it’s so cute. So beautiful. So aesthetically pleasing. So logographically distinctive. The aptly-named blog 300&65 Ampersands devoted an entire year (2010 to be precise) to celebrating the ampersand in all its variety. Each day readers were reminded that the ampersand marks a distinctive flourish for graphic designers and typographers alike.

I also love the ampersand for its conspicuous capacity to signify “and”-ness across languages. The symbol has unique conjunctive powers, and the ampersand does not so much conjoin thoughts as squish them together, enacting a confluence of languages. The name “ampersand,” of course, derives from a bilingual utterance that schoolchildren would recite back in the days when the symbol was considered a “letter” of the alphabet like A and I. In this 19th-century hornbook, the ampersand appears at the end of the alphabet after all the capital letters. When reciting the alphabet (so the story goes), schoolchildren would make the utterance “A per se A” [A by itself means “A”], “I per se I” [I by itself means “I”], and “and per se and” to drive home the point that the symbol “by itself” signaled an entire word. “And per se and” becomes “Ampersand.” Its very name in modern English squishes together two languages (English and Latin) into a conjunctive neologism.

At this point I’d like to pivot to consider the post-medieval life of the ampersand when it enters into print culture and show some of the ways it brazenly flaunts its capacity to move across tongues. Shakespeare’s Henry V is one of my favorite fictive explorations of medieval language contact. In the final courtship scene (Act 5, scene 2), English Henry woos French Katherine initially through her interpreter Alice but soon both attempt to speak, however haltingly, in the other’s language. In this excerpt from a printing of Henry V in Shakespeare’s First Folio(1623), the French dialogue (code-switching) is signaled by italics.[2]

ampersand image 2

First, Henry speaks to Katherine in his halting French: “Ie quand sur le possession de Fraunce, & quand vous aues le possession de moy … Donc vostre est Fraunce, & vous estes mienne” [When I have the possession of France, and (&) when you have the possession of me, then France is yours, and (&) you are mine]. Throughout Henry’s utterance, the ampersand marks the French conjunction “et” [and], conjoining a chain of thoughts on language and reciprocal possession. Katherine then praises Henry’s French: “le Francois ques vous parleis, il & melius que l’Anglois le quel Ie parle” [the French that you speak, it is (& = est) better than the English that I speak]. Here, the ampersand shifts, standing in now for the French verb “est” [is] rather than the conjunction “et” [and]. In a case of typographical irony, the early modern compositor has improperly repurposed the multivalent logogram. Fittingly, this typographical toggling happens in the very episode in the play where boundaries between French and English vernaculars and their overlapping claims to “possession” are increasingly blurred.

And now for a coda, addition, appendix, appendage: some brief comments on the ampersand’s sibling, the Tironian “et” (i.e., the numeral-seven-shaped symbol or plus-sign glyph that also signifies the word “and”).[3] In one sense this Tironian symbol has a parallel life to the ampersand. On the QWERTY keyboard the ampersand (&) lives on the same key as seven (7), suggesting a typographical coupling or toggling between the two. And these symbols’ parallel lives nicely register across languages. This sign for a “pay and park” in Ireland uses the Tironian 7 in the Irish text but the & (ampersand) in English text below.[4]

Stan Carey - íoc & taispeáin, with Tironian et

Despite their similarity in meaning, the Tironian symbol and the ampersand are not entirely interchangeable. The Tironian “and” diverges from the ampersand in another important respect: it can serve a slightly different grammatical role in Latin. The mark in Latin texts did not merely signify a conjunction but could stand in for the enclitic suffix “-que” (meaning “and”).[5]

Perhaps, then, the Tironian “et” and the ampersand engage in a kind of graphic and syntactic sibling rivalry. I leave you with this poster in which Shakespeare is typographically surpassed by the Middle Ages through a deliberate divergence in punctuation. Some of the promotional posters for the film Tristan and Isolde (2006) use a provocative tagline that deploys two different symbols for the word “and.” This poster reads: “Before there was Romeo and [&] Juliet, there was Tristan and [+] Isolde.”[6]

ampersand image 4

So the next time you see the ampersand (or its sibling, the Tironian “and”), don’t just admire the symbol because it’s cute or aesthetically pleasing. Respect it as a logogram. Marvel at its power to move across languages. And consider how it encourages us to adopt not so much “conjunctive” thinking as a concurrent processing of languages and meanings.

[1] Image 1 is excerpted from the section on the ampersand from Keith Houston’s informative book on punctuation marks, Shady Characters (2013); the blog that spawned Houston’s book is also excellent.

[2] Image 2 is a screenshot from this digital reproduction of the Brandeis University Library copy of the First Folio, via Internet Shakespeare Editions.

[3] For the history of this symbol, see Keith Houston’s excellent blog posting.

[4] Image 3 can be accessed on this entry on Stan Carey’s language blog, along with related links about the ampersand.

[5] See Adriano Cappelli (trans. David Heimann and Richard Kay), The elements of abbreviation in medieval Latin paleography (Lawrence: University of Kansas Libraries, 1982), section 3.72 [p. 18].

[6] Image 4 was accessed through Craig Koban’s online review of Tristan and Isolde (2006).

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Guest Post – Josh Eyler: , (A Breath) (Presented at ICMS 2014)

In my last post, I wrote about the BABEL punctuation session at the 2014 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, and, in particular, the meaningful presentation by Josh Eyler on the comma. Now we have a surprise – he has been generous enough to post the full text of his presentation here on MassMedieval! We are very grateful for this opportunity and thank Josh for his willingness to share his work with us – and you.

After receiving his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Connecticut in 2006, Josh Eyler moved to a position as Assistant Professor in the English department at Columbus State University in Georgia.  Although he was approved for tenure at CSU, his love for teaching and his desire to work with instructors from many different disciplines led him to the field of faculty development and to George Mason University, where he served as an Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence from 2011-2013. In August of 2013, he moved to Rice University to take the positions of Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities. He has published broadly on medieval literature, and his eclectic research interests include brain-based learning theories, Chaucer, and disability studies.  His current projects include the book Teaching the Humanities in the 21st Century, which is under contract with the University of Nebraska Press.


The Comma:  it has always intrigued me that such a tiny sliver of ink on paper, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say, could be so powerful.  There are, of course, the heated debates about the Oxford comma that drive proponents of either side into near apoplexy (I am unabashedly in favor of ol’ Oxie).  And there are the books and internet memes shouting at us about the ways in which “Punctuation Saves Lives!”  When used effectively, commas can magnify beauty, as in the elegant, yet potent, appositive in the title of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, or in the proliferation that drives us deeper into the consciousness of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.  At the same time, when implemented poorly, commas can render prose nearly unintelligible.  There is power there.  I would like to suggest, though, that the comma’s power is more than just a stylistic one; it is a philosophical one too.  Today I want to productively splice the comma, weaving together a number of different perspectives on our field of Medieval Studies and ourselves.  To do so, I want to a build off of a foundation laid out in the Pulitzer Prize winning play Wit by Margaret Edson.  As you may recall, Wit tells the story of Vivian Bearing, a scholar specializing in John Donne’s poetry, and her ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer.  In one particular scene, Vivian recalls her time as a graduate student and a meeting she has with her mentor Professor E. M. Ashford.

(The scene performed in the session ends with “It isn’t?”)

It’s not.  The point is the pause.  The breath.

As I think about this field that caught my mind and my heart many years ago now, I think about a comma the way Ashford describes it.  The Middle Ages offer the pregnant pause of possibility, the nurturing breath that gave rise to some of the most profound works of art the world has ever produced.  And yet, at the same time, those centuries that we group together and label as “medieval” still represent only the briefest of moments before the world began to move in different directions.  Time has always operated like this.  The Classical era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, then, now, tomorrow—all simply breaths in the collective sigh of the past.  Because, despite what Stephen Greenblatt and other Burckhardtians would have us believe, history is not made up of full-stop “periods,” all separate from each other, but of commas, one inextricably linked to the next as parts of the same structure.

In a similar way, only the smallest of pauses, a comma, separates us from the medieval world.  The art of the Middle Ages still speaks to us with immediacy and urgency.  When Dante talks about his dark wood, we understand; manuscripts, written by hands not very different from our own, capture us intellectually; Chaucer’s jokes about bodily functions make us laugh; Boccaccio’s gripping account of the bubonic plague reveal what could still account for the best and worst in human nature; cathedrals and castles built a thousand years ago continue to inspire; Julian of Norwich’s claim that “all shall be well” resonates with a comforting, if not entirely convincing, hope.

Finally, nothing but a breath, a comma, separates us from our students–for we do not teach medieval literature, medieval art, medieval history, or medieval archaeology; we teach students about these subjects, about new ways to see their world through the lens of the past.  Our field will continue to live and breathe only insofar as we dedicate ourselves to teaching it.  And here I look to the wisdom of my dissertation director, Fred Biggs, who once told me that *everything* is a teaching activity—writing, presenting, publishing, but especially our work in the classroom, where we will teach hundreds and even thousands of students over the course of a career.  The work we do with our students will push back the boundaries of our knowledge about the Middle Ages ever further, but to accomplish this we need to tear down the tenuous hierarchies of our classrooms—professor/student, expert/novice—and move forward together as fellow learners, engaging in projects together, teaching each other, finding meaning together in this moment—our own pause, our breath, our comma.

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Filed under Conferences, Guest Post, Kalamazoo