Category Archives: Disability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Metzler, p. 21.

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

[6] Huot, p. 10.

[7] Eyler, p. 4.

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

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

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

—Exodus 4:11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kalamazoo 2014: Friday (with the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages)

My day began as I prepared to moderate the “Disability Studies and the Post/Human” panel, sponsored by the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages (SSDMA), of which I am a member. I have been looking forward to this panel, mainly because I am mostly unfamiliar with posthuman scholarship, and I was hoping to learn quite a bit from the presenters. Phillip Bernhardt-House began with a talk entitled “Medieval Irish Cybernetic Debates.” This work focused in particular upon the texts of Nuada Argatlam (Nuada Silver-Arm). Referencing Miach, the healer who sets the arm, as the first cyberneticist, Bernhardt-House discussed how, in spite of being the one to fashion metal into limb, he is more concerned with the humanity and humanness of King Nuada than anyone else. Of particular interest to me is the point made that the loss of the silver arm and, thus, the loss of the very “thing” that gives him his name is particularly troublesome for the characters, tantamount to taking away identity.

Nicole Eddy presented “Mental Disability and Mental Illness in the ‘Lives’ of the Devotio Moderna.”  First, I was once again struck by, no matter how long I have been in this field and how many books and articles I have read, there is still so much to which I am constantly introduced. One of the many reasons to love being a medievalist – it’s never ending. All that to say, the community of the Devotio Moderna is new to me, all the more surprising given that they are an influence upon Thomas à Kempis. Eddy’s work focuses on the texts produced by this community, particularly those that detailed the lives and especially the end of lives of some of its members. She emphasized how these lives, while clearly aware of the saint’s life motifs, did not stylize their subjects in this way. In particular, she discussed how disabilities brought about by aging, such as what we would term dementia, are described. Of interest is that, while disability was a means of demonstrating virtues (as defined and prized by the Devotio Moderna), virtue was not affected by disability.

Last in the panel was Tory Pearman and “Perceval’s Sister, (Dis)ability and the Posthuman.” Tory’s engagement with the concept of the posthuman and then creating a new category of the prehuman to discuss this character was enlightening. I was especially interested in her reading of the Grail itself as potentially emblematic of the posthuman. This reading seems to be useful, especially considering the varying identities and fluidity of the Grail. Considering only the idea of the Grail as vessel for holding Christ’s blood and the considerations for understanding it as a “body,” and a potentially immortal one, is vastly intriguing. In the discussion afterwards, it was brought up how the knights (in Malory, for instance) are almost analogous to the Grail, and subsequently its relationship to Christ’s body, in the many moments they are pierced, wounded, and bleeding.

In the afternoon, between SSDMA panels, I decided to attend the “Cultural Approaches to Teaching History of the English Language,” sponsored by the Medieval Association of the Midwest. I teach a course occasionally called Structure and Nature of Language, which shares certain characteristics with a traditional HEL class. I was curious to see what others do as I have found the class challenging for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that students sometimes resist the material, but, more importantly, there is so much to cover, especially as we do not have other supplemental linguistic courses. Elizabeth Howard, in “An Integrative Approach to Teaching HEL,” offered the idea of teaching the material with the principles of the “new-known” pedagogy – start students with what they know and then step-by-step lead them to apply what they know to the new concepts. It’s an approach I will have to consider.

The second SSDMA panel was a roundtable, featuring “Disability Studies and the Digital Humanities.” The roundtable provoked a great deal of useful discussion. Indeed, so many ideas were being examined that it is difficult to summarize it all. I will limit myself to three main ones. Rick Godden began the panel thinking about how the debate (argument, brouhaha – whatever you want to call it) about whether it is better to take notes by hand or on a digital device raises some serious issues about access. The claim that pen and paper is the better method can exclude those who are prevented from using it for a variety of reasons. To me, it seems that the thought that one or the other is the only solution is incredibly limiting. Both traditional methods (pen/paper, books, etc.) and digital methods (laptops, tablets, voice machines, etc.) have their time, place, usefulness, etc. Digital advancements have opened up access to many, which should be something we embrace and explore – with reason and research and careful thought, yes, but with open minds.

This discussion led to the second idea I want to mention, which is, as Cameron Hunt McNabb commented upon, that with the advancements in access we also need to consider advancements in production. These advancements might be in who is able to produce or it might be in the types of production of which we are now capable. It’s a good point. Inventions, digital enhancements, etc., can be fascinating, but, if we do not ask the next question of how they can be put to use, then they become mere toys.  John, also on the panel, is an advocate of considering well how to adopt the digital humanities, particularly in light of the fact that new digital platforms require a great deal of time and effort to train on and use, which could take away from time spent elsewhere. Still, one aspect of digital humanities that he highlighted is its ability to bring what we do to newer audiences in a format we can control and maintain.

The fourth member of the panel, Jonathan Hsy, demonstrated the possibility of digital humanities to promote activism. One example he gave is the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship project here at Kalamazoo who are sponsoring a well-publicized Wikipedia Write-in in order to promote and edit entries on medieval women. He also discussed how difficult or typically uncomfortable topics can be opened up on social media in ways that they cannot in other venues.

There ended my day (well, it ended on the SSDMA business meeting, but I’ll stop here!). On to the next…




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#MedievalDis on #DayofDH

John and I are both a part of the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages. Yesterday, the Society chose to participate in the Day of Digital Humanities by doing some work on its project, the Medieval Disability Glossary, and recording everything on Twitter. Using the hashtag #MedievalDis (and #DayofDH), there was some interesting and fun discussion, which we gathered into the Storify post below. Check it out!


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