That's a good question. And I'm decompressing (a wonderful participle I picked up from a book about sailing ships in space!) from my advisory meeting, so I figure I'll write a whole post.
I'm researching the history of disability, specifically in the high to late Middle Ages. England is a good little record-keeping nation, so there's lots to read, but not everything was written in Latin (heu!). On the continent there are other resources, but those would necessitate learning, say, Old French or some other bastard Latin-wannabe language. Not that it wouldn't be cool (show of hands, everyone whose second language is technically dead?), but I have a list of more important languages I need to learn as well, and time is limited. As irritating as Middle English is, it's still closer to my mother tongue than, say, Occitan. So, Middle English it is, at least for the time being.
I'm just starting out on this whole dissertation thing, which means I'm still checking out possible sources and lines of thought. When you have a concept or a field that's still rather unstudied, it gets confusing. Feminist studies? They know what they're doing, and there are tropes and methodologies and authoritative scholars. Same for history of science folks. And magic scholars. All those little fields have had at least a few decades to mature and develop. History of disability? Well, there's a handful of us. People are starting to publish. There're a few secondary sources.
All this makes it difficult to simply pin down who and what we're talking about. One of the ways I can narrow my field is to look in the dictionary. What words were people using to describe or label the physical conditions I'm curious about? What other contexts to they appear in? If a word has 5 possible meanings, are any of them related in a conceptual way? And in which genres of literature do my words of interest appear? There's a lot of questions there, and if I knew more about lexicography I'd have a better idea how to answer them.
My advisory meeting today went okay. It was revealed that no, I do not have much familiarity with Middle English. I think my advisors realised that I'm feeling a little overwhelmed with the enormous list of things that I need to explore, and that I need to focus on just a handful of things at a time. Otherwise I'll just sit there surrounded by a mass of books looking bewildered. I've got a short list of things to do before the next meeting. I hope my search for secondary sources will be more fruitful this year than it was last year.
Oh, and there is also potential for presenting at Kalamazoo next year, through one of the groups my advisory heads. Cool beans, though it might be a bit of a stretch for me to fit under the umbrella.
(Plus, guys, it's really cool that I'm starting to see random people wander their way over to my blog. Woot.)