28 November, 2008

An answer to that nagging question

"Medieval disability scholar" is a mouthful, and ambiguous to boot. "Scholar of medieval disability" is less ambiguous, but even longer. So what is a self-respecting scholar of disability in the Middle Ages to call herself? Simple.

I'm a madologist.

20 November, 2008

Calling off the stabby rampage

The wonderful, wonderful secretary of the CMS managed to get through to SSHRC and explain the situation, and they will not penalise me.

I have to find some way to thank her for everything she's done for me.

Accommodation, Medieval Style

I got a question in response to my recent post on the visibility of impairment. I didn't forget about it; I wanted to give it more thorough discussion than a comment usually warrants.

The question was for an example of the accommodation of a medieval impaired person. The situation I was referring to actually seems fairly common, so I've picked a representative case from the calendar of the Patent Rolls.

Nov. 19, 1412. Westminster.
Commission, by mainprise of Peter de Pole of the county of Derby and Robert Suthwell of the country of Hertford, to John Leventhorpe, esquire, of the keeping of the body of John son and heir of John Petbrigge, knight, an idiot, and all his lands in the counties of Essex and Huntingdon with reversions, to hold so long as the lands are in the king's hands for that cause, rendering to the king of the same John be proved an idiot before the council by due examination 20l. and finding competent maintenance for the heir, maintaining the houses and buildings and supporting all other charges.*

John Jr. here is an idiot (or whatever the editors decided was an idiot). I said in the previous post that I did not mean "accommodation" the way we use it in modern discussions. There's no ADA here. But John Jr. is an unusual situation, and because of the possibility that he would "waste" his lands (squander them away or alienate them from the family inheritance), his abnormality demanded that he be treated abnormally.

Briefly, John Jr. was given into the care of Leventhorpe, along with all of his lands and property - things that he had a responsibility for according to the laws of inheritance. It sounds cold and cruel and far from "accommodation," but I find it sensible, in theory. (How do we treat our idiots today? Often they are put into homes before their parents die, and rarely do they inherit, and almost never do they retain control of any inheritance they come into.) In this case, John Jr. retains titular rights to his inheritance: it's still his, he just can't control it. He isn't cast into the streets, as the common myth would suggest. He is given a guardian and his care is ordered and he is to live comfortably.

Sadly, we have few records, if any, that discuss what happens after an idiot is taken into guardianship. We don't know how common it was for guardians to ignore care instructions or act abusively. Very rarely, an idiot or an idiot's family and friends will bring a case forward that the guardian is acting outside his jurisdiction, but it's always he-said-she-said and politics inevitably clouds the reality.

However, it remains that an idiot's social group had to find a way to deal with his presence. That is what I meant by accommodation. They didn't ignore him, kill him, or cast him out of town. They created rules governing the care of such idiots and legal mechanisms to enact the rules. There are occasionally cases where people tried to act outside the standard rules, but once found out, the investigation starts right from the beginning.

Instances of physical impairment being accommodated are somewhat different, because the situations are more varied. Hopefully this will explain the general gist of my point, though. When we speak of accommodation in the modern sense, we often conflate it with "accessibility." We have to be careful: accommodation, especially in reference to the Middle Ages, is simply the process whereby a society deals with the presence of abnormality in its midst.

And that's what's the most important thing, I feel, when we speak of medieval accommodations. Impaired people still existed in society. They had a midst to be in.

* Calendar of the Patent Rolls. Henry IV, Vol. 4, pg. 453.

19 November, 2008

"It's because they're English"

Fun times today. You can file this post under important things to know about British universities or screaming rage at red tape, take your pick.

The University of York just now got around to posting something to SSHRC. Something not a transcript. A week past the deadline.

Apparently, a single database where all grades are entered and stored for easy retrieval (at the registrar's leisure, natch) is way, way too easy for British unis. Too sensible. Too efficient. Real British unis don't go in for that namby-pamby efficiency nonsense!

It's far better to have inconsistent grading standards in different departments, all stored in the departments. So if a student asks for a transcript, instead of just printing a copy from the student database, the registrar has to submit requests to all the separate departments, who have to look the student up, send the info back to the registrar, who then organises it and tries to harmonise all the grading standards, and THEN prints it out. And if you're a research student, they get really confused, because you have no classes to grade, and thus no transcript.

And apparently they just sit on your request for a while scratching their heads, and finally mail of something that's not a transcript but confirms that you do, in fact, exist and attend their institution. Or something of that sort. But they won't just dash that off, no. First they have to spend three to four weeks considering it. Because apparently research students never ask for transcripts or something?

Colour me unimpressed, and very, very upset.

The CMS secretary, however, is a wonderful woman. She is going to write to SSHRC and explain that my request was submitted with plenty of time (it was, according to everything they say on the registrar's website and in the office in person), but plain old British inefficiency stupidity thoroughness delayed it beyond reasonable expectation. It's a good thing we have such a wonderful secretary here because I would otherwise be writing this post after consuming several alcoholic beverages, or from a cabin in the woods were I was hiding from the police after my mad stabbing rampage. Possibly both.

17 November, 2008

What we see and what we don't see

An offhand comment from one of my supervisors a few weeks ago has really stuck with me. At first it seemed rather trivial, but the more I contemplate it, the more I think it is important.

How much do we see of impairment in the Middle Ages? Equally important, how much do we not see?

If you ask almost any medievalist about mental impairment (aside from the Enlightened Ones like yourselves, who read this high quality blog, or Greg's), you're likely to get a response along the lines of "I'm not sure there's enough source material to even study that." That's the first response I got, at least, and I've heard it many time since. If you ask a non-medievalist, you will almost certainly be regaled with horror stories of Bedlam, chains, abandonment, changelings*, sin, and violence. You might, as well, hear stories of court fools or especial holiness attributed to fools.

These two responses embody the questions I posed above. In many ways, mental impairment and abnormality in the Middle Ages is invisible. Lunatics and idiots do not tend to be powerful or noteworthy. There are exceptions, but on the whole, madness tends to preclude importance. It is also, simply, hard to see. Mental impairment isn't visual the way the loss of a limb is, or leprosy, or palsy. It exists in the brain and its only external signs are secondary characteristics.

It's these secondary characteristics that have caught the attention of so many previous historians. By "secondary characteristics," I mean the motley of a court fool or the travelling circus of the ship of fools. In the popular imagination, we also see the raving, chained, whipped madman in Bedlam Hospital. These are highly visual portraits: we can easily conjure the image in our mind's eye.** They are the portrayals that have dominated the histories, but they are severely limited.

It's not possible that every mentally abnormal person could have lived such a life. Kings are not that plentiful, and the ship of fools and Bedlam Hospital are extremely late phenomena, and highly local. (In the case of the ship of fools, it's not even certain that it's a historical phenomenon at all.)

It is to the detriment of disability historians that they never looked beyond these manifestations. There are so many references to everyday men and women in various legal, ecclesiastical, medical, and literary sources that it would stun you. They are not particularly special men and women. They're not remarkable. Their impairments only warrant mention because they need accommodating.*** They are very difficult to visualise, and thus more difficult to empathise with. Less dramatic. More difficult to write about.

And yet, they are arguably the most valuable references we have. They represent an invisible majority. They are what is important if one wants to write about madmen and idiots. And the silence of the records is actually quite loud**** - they tell us that abnormality was not as abnormal as most assume. If idiocy was truly exceptional, it would be described in far more detail. What is unusual warrants discussion. What is commonplace needs only be mentioned in passing.

It is the commonplace, undramatic, everyday fool that I am concerned with. I want to know their history. Highly visual representations may have been easier for historians (and pseudo-historians) to write about, but the invisible needs a chance, now.

* The blame for this one belongs almost exclusively to Martin Luther. See: Goodey, C.F. and Tim Stainton. "Intellectual Disability and the Myth of the Changeling Myth." Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences. Vol. 37, 2001.
** I'm trying to vary the metaphors here, but I fear we are all going to be sick of them before the end.
*** Not in the modern sense, but simply that any abnormality requires special attention to ensure the smooth operation of a community.
**** I got tired of the visual metaphors and switched to aural.

08 November, 2008

Will our brave blogger commit to a series of posts?

Important matters first. I see that I have actually accumulated a small number of followers. Two of you I don't even know in real life! Hi! Thanks for tagging along on this intermittently-updated adventure!

There are two reasons I haven't been posting a lot of late. One, I've been kept quite busy with research and grant application writing (wish me luck). Two, I'm finding it hard to come up with witty and/or insightful things to say here that don't run me the risk of getting scooped. I can't afford that right now.

However, I still want to keep updating this thing, and I'm trying to work out a balance. So let's talk medieval disability.

Here I make the case for knowing Latin. If you want to study the Middle Ages, regardless of subject, I suggest you know Latin. I have been sufficiently indoctrinated by my time at Toronto that I believe this with my whole heart. And I would insist on it even more strongly for those studying disability.

Most of the published histories of mental abnormality have failed to accurately or even adequately represent the Middle Ages, and in no small part is this due to linguistic ignorance. (Another contributing factor is a complete unfamiliarity with the era in question, but that is a matter for another post.) These medical pseudo-historians and philosophical theorists simply did not have the skills to examine primary sources.

Part of what I've been exploring recently are the Close and Patent Rolls (private and public royal correspondence on various matters the king was interested in). I am hampered by the fact that the only published versions of these fascinating historical documents are calendars. Not the day/month/year sort: these calendars are edited translations of the original rolls. First (and this is something I will discuss in more detail), it forces scholars to rely on an interpretation. What any given word actually meant to the author of a medieval document is still a matter of some confusion. Second, they are edited versions - the editors only included what they thought was of import or interest. Both of these issues are compounded by the date the calendars were edited: the Victorian period.

The Victorian understanding of mental impairment was, to be blunt, childish. It was paternalistic and lacked nuance. There are scores of references in the calendars to "idiots." Which is helpful for identifying relevant cases, but tells us nothing of the medieval wording. All it tells a reader is that this case dealt with a person some Victorian editor thought fit his contemporary definition of "idiot." And it could mean anything. The other issue is that Victorian editors didn't blush at bowdlerising the text. Since I have not yet been able to visit the original manuscripts, I have no idea of knowing what scandalous, shameful, fascinating details were omitted from the calendars.

Now, I do not know of any text which discusses mental impairment and the Close and Patent Rolls (if you do, please tell me!), but the issue remains the same for nearly all histories of disability: reliance on translations. Previous attempts display only a rudimentary understanding of Latin, and to someone who is more capable, it is glaring and it can throw an entire book's scholarship into doubt.

Latin is important for this work. You can't assume that medievals used different words for different etiologies: they didn't medicalise disability in the modern way. Equally important, you can't assume that they used different signifiers indiscriminately, with no sense of differentiation between signifieds.* The only way to tease out some sense of meaning is to read it in its original language. There's simply no substitute.

And while we're at it, my life would be easier and my papers neater if I didn't have to translate every small passage.

I hope this short post has been informative, or at least thought-provoking. I have further issues with the state of disability scholarship in the twentieth century that I'd like to discuss, and perhaps I will. So if you don't see a post in the next week or so on seen and unseen disabilities and the primary sources employed, please do give me a poke and leave a comment to remind me.

* I better watch it, that is sounding dangerously deconstructionist. Kids, if someone offers you some Derrida, JUST SAY NO.