23 August, 2008

Language, Deafness, and Humanity

When we read medieval discussions on deafness, it's easy to judge. We are so used to knowing that deaf people are intelligent, rational human beings. We ask How could they have been so prejudiced?! How could they not realise people who can't hear are still people?!

Now imagine you're in a shop. In walks a tiny little Chinese woman (or a Filipino man, or a pair of Argentinian teenagers) and in broken English she asks you how much an item costs. You have a difficult time getting the answer through to her, and then she asks if you can hold it for her - but all you hear is accent and mumble. Your routine of ringing up items and moving the line along is broken. Be honest - what goes through your head?

If you're normal, you probably get kind of frustrated. And you wonder why she doesn't learn better English. You wish she'd just go away so you can handle the next customer. This person clearly wants something, but you have no idea what. You forget that back home, she was a trauma surgeon. How could she be, when she can't even make herself clear in a shop?

We all do it. All of us. It's a rare person who can endure a frustrating five minutes of garbled non-communication and at the end still have no pre-conceptions of the other person at all. Intellectually you know that the other person is a normal human being,* but the failure to communicate is so limiting that you forget.

Now imagine someone who cannot speak at all. Someone who has never spoken, and cannot hear you. Communication is made by awkward, goofy body language. To the best of your knowledge, no such person has ever learned language of any kind.

We take communication for granted these days. We have so many gadgets and resources, and we're used to the concept of sign language, at the least. Everyone can read and write, in a pinch. It's easy to forget the time when we had none of these modes of communication.

* And that if the situation was reversed, you'd look a right doofus, too. Probably worse.

22 August, 2008

The Move

Well, that was easy. Welcome to the new version, folks. I'm going to be updating some of the other stuff in the next little while, too.


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...

17 August, 2008


In roughly a week, on Friday, this blog will be moving to http://debilitasmentis.blogspot.com

I'll leave the link up here for a while, but I suggest updating your links.

08 August, 2008

News of Import

This is just to let all my readers know that this blog will be moving sometime in the near future. I.e., as soon as I get around to figuring out the process. I'll give you a bit of warning about the shift, and then I'm going to wipe this URL of the content and move it entirely to the new one. This is for some personal privacy/security reasons, and I'm sorry for the hassle but I feel it's necessary.

Updates to follow.

01 August, 2008

An Assortment of Odds and Ends

I think there's something of a shit-disturber in me. It's just a polite shit-disturber. I love the thought of publishing something that could get people all in a tizzy. I simply adore the fact that people have built a tenuous house of cards to house the history of disability in the Middle Ages, and we are taking it gingerly apart, card by card. Eventually someone will give a lecture or publish a paper and the whole thing will come tumbling down. And people will be aghast at what we've done.

Then - then - we can start building a new house in earnest. Those of us in the little niche understand each other, but until we can definitively enact a paradigm shift we will just be that group of weirdos in the corner.

We'll know the house is tumbling when people outside the community start getting disturbed by what we write. We'll know the cards are all on the floor when people stop asking us "Why bother?"

But I think that's enough of that particular metaphor. I just love the challenge. I love seeing it happen, helping make it happen.

The library at York has been helpful with this, especially the Minster Old Library (pre-1800 books). I'm surprised anew each time I go looking for an obscure fifteenth century text and it pops up in the catalogue system. I just wish I could get some photocopies or even digital pics. But the spines are sometimes delicate and the photos mean licencing issues, so I look forward to many days of transcribing. (One of my current projects has 11 folios dedicated to the topic! ELEVEN!)

In unrelated news, I booked my Christmas flights today. I found a very good price and good dates, and you just can't beat that!