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 I am hampered by the fact that the only published versions of these fascinating historical documents are calendars.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.


Greg Carrier said...

Our brave blogger hath returned! Where's St Brendan, though?* I thought he went with you wherever you ended up going?....

As for Derrida, I'd throw Foucault in there.

*I suspect only Ali and two other people will get this laaaaaaaaaaaame quasi-Canadian medieval-ish reference, but we shall see!

Ceirseach said...

As a follower who lives in Australia and therefore doesn't know you irl: hi! I dropped by one day via some other mediaevalist's blog list and said "oo, history of mental impairment, hooray!" It was a very easy decision, intermittent updates notwithstanding. :)

Good luck with your applications! I've been doing a little of that myself lately, so wishing you luck comes both of sympathy and potential for good karma.

And I quite agree about the necessity of knowing Latin, or any language, really, particularly when the source is of a genre that is rather particular to that language. I decided this when I was about 15 and busily falling in love with Italian opera becasue it was more interesting than school - some things just didn't work if you translated them, partly because you have to maul the original rhythm to approximate the sense, but mostly because the Italian opera vocabulary is made for opera, in a way that English just can't get.

Similarly, so much scholarly, theological, intellectual and medical material was only ever written in Latin throughout the middle ages that, even where there is a vernacular equivalent, it has a very different feel to it, and is often misleading anyway.

Apologies for typos - I mauled my hand at work today, and am too lazy to correct mistakes when typing only with the other!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.