20 August, 2008


The most recent written work I've done (for a supervision) has left me with some odd thoughts.

I feel that in some way, we're re-writing the dictionary here. First, in the most simplistic way, those of us working on medieval disability are discovering nuances and usages that the dictionaries of medieval Latin never bothered specifying.*

Secondly, one of the more important mental adjustments we have to make is moving away from modern preconceptions and definitions. That means leaving behind all speculations that Leonardo da Vinci was autistic, and similar speculation, because it is simply not relevant, and makes it difficult to explore the actual medieval issues. When we label Leonardo as "autistic," we put him in a box alongside all the baggage that we carry with the diagnosis today. We automatically begin seeing his life in that lens, nevermind how he experienced his life, or how his contemporaries viewed him.

But that leaves a vacuum of terminology. What do we call people who displayed an abnormal mentality to their contemporaries? I have moved away from "fools," because that seems to be more of a literary/artistic term. More commonly, I come across "idiot" or "imbecile," idiota or imbecillens, but the problem is that those words carry modern-day baggage as well. A hundred years ago (even 50 years ago) they carried clinical connotations before moving into the common speech of pejorative. I have begun using them, generally as a strict translation of what's on my page.

These words have become so taboo in scholarship of disability, though. They have become the disability studies equivalent of "the N-word." (Fortunately I do not have to use the word "retard," because that might get too awkward, even for me.) It is a strange feeling, transgressing these lines we've drawn. Yet I see no other way to allow the texts to speak for themselves. It is easier among fellow medieval scholars, who understand the methodology we are stuck with, but quite tricky when facing modern disability scholars.

Sometimes there is a thrill in the transgression, in throwing a taboo word at someone, but sometimes it just feels weird.

* There is a LOT more to the word lunaticus than simply "madman," for example. Note the luna stem...

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