Disability and labor, disability and political representation, disability and animals. Disability and textuality, and collectivity, and resurrection, and naming. Disability and allegory, genre, sex, scholarly evidence, ethics, rhetoric, form. Disability today and in the medieval past. These were some of the connections that we tested, contested, and otherwise explored at last month’s “Reorienting Disability” seminar at the NCS Congress in Reykjavík, Iceland.
Because the two-hour seminar format was a new one for the conference, Jonathan Hsy and I, the session organizers, weren’t sure what to expect. So, it was a thrill to have an energetic crowd of about forty people filling the classroom at the University of Iceland on the rainy Friday morning. During the first hour, this crowd played the part of audience, hearing introductory remarks from Jonathan and myself and then listening to five smart, engaging presentations from the seminar participants (described briefly below). The speakers concluded their respective remarks with a question for discussion, and in the second hour, the audience became collaborators in the project of reorienting the study of medieval disability. We also benefited from lively documentation on twitter. See, for instance, this selection of tweets curated by M Bychowski.
The seminar’s original call for participants was as follows:
Since the category of “disability” was not in circulation in the Middle Ages, what exactly does a medievalist disability studies investigate? The scholarship of the last decade suggests that such research begins with acts of translation: by moving between disability in the present and its analogues and precursors in the past; by crossing from disability’s recent contexts to distinctly medieval configurations of care, sensory experience, constructed environments, physical impairment, and notions of embodied difference; and by marking both the similitudes and the disjunctions between, say, blindness then and blindness now, between literal blindness and spiritual, between blindness as a narrative device and as a lived experience. Building on insightful recent work, this seminar brings together participants engaged in “re-orienting” the study of disability in the Middle Ages. What questions and methodologies, we ask, promise to open up new lines of theoretical, historical, or literary-critical inquiry? How do disability approaches (re)constitute and (re)configure social relations and modes of analysis?
The seminar speakers addressed these queries with precision and originality. They also placed their remarks within the broader conversations of medieval studies and disability studies. Read their abstracts here, and see the seminar’s archive of recommended readings here, to find out more about the thinking that went into our discussion in Iceland.
The seminar’s first speaker was Leah Pope, a PhD student in medieval English literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Leah outlined the concept of “spiritual prosthesis” to describe how aberrant bodies “enabled” medieval hagiography and the institutional Church more broadly. Leah drew attention to martyrdom’s combination of disability and superability in saintly bodies. Playing on David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s now familiar idea of “narrative prosthesis,” she suggested how medieval disability studies might develop tools to analyze not just fiction and literature, but the various genres of lived experience that medieval Christianity helped to organize.
Haylie Swenson spoke next, addressing issues at the intersection of disability studies and critical animal studies. Haylie, a PhD student in English at George Washington University, illustrated how advocacy for disability rights has tended to sharpen the distinction between humans and animals. Yet the limitations of this distinction emerge whenever it is defined: it tends to leave out certain kinds of disabled lives as well as animal lives. Haylie cited disability-studies scholarship concerning nonlinguistic rhetorics (by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson) as a pivot to move to John Gower’s Vox Clamantis and the poem’s bestial portrayal of rebellious peasants. Haylie drew out new implications from Gower’s description in light of disability, animality, labor, class conflict, and allegory.
John Sexton, associate professor of English at Bridgewater State University, then turned our attention to how contextually specific were the meanings and values attached to bodily difference in the Middle Ages. His corpus of evidence was rich and suggestive: the record of nicknames in the Anglo-Scandinavian world. These names mediated between identity and embodiment and between individual and collective judgment. In a number of brief case-studies, John showed that bodily form, nickname, and social identity implicated one another but not in a straightforward manner. Context mattered. The historical specificity of medieval disability, John suggested, has a contribution to make to modern disability studies. The Middle Ages reveals the historical contingency of concepts in use in disability studies.
Brantley Bryant, associate professor in the English Department at Sonoma State University, focused on the fifteenth-century Middle English poem Mum and the Sothsegger. What are the implications, Brantley asked, of considering the sothsegger, or political “truth-teller,” to be a disabled figure? The poem shows the character unable and incapable of keeping his disruptive judgments to himself. The project of fixing, or healing, the soothsayer and the project of fixing, or healing, the body politic together raise questions of political representation: who gets to be part of the common voice? Brantley’s remarks reflected on political poetry, allegorical figuration, and the late-medieval resources for imagining collectivity.
M Bychowski was the final speaker in the seminar. M played upon the double meaning of the Middle English word “mad” to discuss the fifteenth-century English laywoman and visionary Margery Kempe. “Mad” had the senses of the Modern English words “mad” and “made.” Margery plays a part within the long genealogy of madness, hysteria, mental disability, and so-called sexual deviance. M drew attention to the cross-temporal reach of this genealogy by sounding a rhetorical echo between Margery and a condemned twentieth-century woman. Margery, however, can also be thought of as someone “made” – made by God as a fallen but beloved “creature” and also made through others’ interpretations and desires.
I cannot do justice to the hour of discussion that followed these excellent presentations. However, several themes stand out in my memory.
- LABOR: medieval definitions of disability in relation to one’s inability to work; the erasure of certain persons’ labor-value; the social, cultural, and religious “work” performed by exceptional bodies in the Middle Ages
- TEXTUALITY & LANGUAGE: If our sources are textual, how does this influence the evidence-base for medieval disability? Are there alternative rhetorics, apart from language? Is rhetorical training, or writing, already a prosthesis? What sources and scholarly tactics might supplement textual ones?
- RELIGION: works of mercy and the medieval ethics of care; the universality of bodily imperfection, theologically assumed rather than exceptional; eschatology and teleology of the body, including eventual resurrection; ecstasy of martyrdom as a way of thinking the pleasures of disability?
- POLITICS: relation between body politic and disabled bodies; social meaning and effects of disabled personifications; natural law; collective judgment; being “incorporated’ and regularized in common representation; embodied individuals vis-à-vis groups
- MIDDLE AGES AND TODAY: How do we understand the study of medieval disability in relation to current conversations and debates?
I was moderating the session and doing so with the aim of inclusion – that is, giving lots of different speakers the floor and getting as many ideas as possible in the mix. Such an aim sometimes has the effect of scattering the flow of discourse: more people speak, but they speak in different directions. At one point, I nervously interrupted a disagreement between Eileen Joy and John Sexton, about just how different the Middle Ages and the twenty-first century are from one another. Happily, we returned to the question toward the end of the session – and the difficult but important connection between past and present emerged as the most persistent concern of the seminar. Eileen Joy articulated the question that, we hope, will receive a range of thoughtful answers in emerging scholarship on sickness, impairment, and bodily difference in the Middle Ages: what do we want the interdisciplinary study of medieval disability to contribute to how we grapple with disability in the present?
— Julie Orlemanski