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Di-jonne der Kinderen 0245992

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Di-jonne der Kinderen 0245992 ...

    Disability in the Middle Ages: Representations of Physical Impairment in

    Medieval English Romances

    Di-jonne der Kinderen

    Research Master Medieval Studies

    University of Utrecht

    Supervisors

    Dr. Erik Kooper, University of Utrecht

    Dr. Ad Putter, University of Bristol

     2 Table of Contents

Chapter One: Introduction ...……………………………………… 3

Chapter Two: Previous Research ...……………………………………… 8

     Research in Disability Studies ………………………………………... 8

     Research in Medieval Studies ………………………………………... 14

Chapter Three: Impairment in Medieval England ………………………….. 19

     Impairments: the perceptions of medieval medicine ………………….. 19

     Medieval Causes of Disability: Views of Physicians,

    Theologians and Philosophers ………………………………… 24

    Congenital Impairments ………………………………………. 25

    Acquired Impairments ………………………………………. 29

     The Handicapped Body in the Bible,

    Theological Works and Other Sources ………………………… 31

Chapter Four: The Medieval Leper ………………………………………….. 39

     Modern Medical Insights into Leprosy ………………………………… 39

     Biblical Sources and Commentaries on Leprosy:

    Sin, Redemption and Blessing ………………………………….. 42

     Medieval Medical Perceptions and Aetiologies of Leprosy ……………. 47

     After the Diagnosis: Life of the Medieval English Leper ………………. 50

Chapter Five: Impairment in Medieval Romances …………………………… 54

     The Wife of Bath’s Deafness ……………………………………………. 56

     The Summoner’s Affliction ……………………………………………. 62

     Januarie’s Blindness in Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale ........................ 67

     The Monster Child in Emaré and Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale ….. 73

     Cresseid the Leper in Robert Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid …. 81

     Leprosy in the Tristan legend in Sir Tristrem and

    Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur …………………………… 85

    The Leprosy of Amylion ………………………………………………… 89

    Some Conclusions ………………………………………………………. 94

Chapter Six: Conclusion ………………………………………………………. 96

    Bibliography ……………………………………………………………………. 101

    Front page image: detail from Last Judgement and the Seven Acts of Mercy by Bernard van Orley.

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    Chapter One: Introduction

    On December 2, 2006 I attended the conference Historicising Disability: The Middle

    Ages and After, organised by the Centre of Medieval Studies of York University. I was staying in the United Kingdom at the University of Bristol as a foreign exchange student, which was a part of my Master degree. I wanted to visit a friend who was staying in York at the time, and attending this conference seemed a good way to justify the expensive train ticket. During one of the talks I began to consider physical disability in the Middle Ages as a suitable subject for my Master thesis. At this point, the thought was quite vague, and no farther developed than „do something with physically impaired people in the Middle Ages‟. This, obviously, is far too broad a topic to be addressed in a single thesis. Almost two months after I had visited the conference, I read Beowulf. During his fight with Beowulf, Grendel loses his

    left arm, and quickly leaves the fight. This seemed significant to me: an incapacitated warrior who flees a battle. Shortly afterwards, a group of students, including me, was asked to translate The Battle of Maldon. In this text, the warrior Byrhtnoþ displays confidence and a

    fighting spirit, until his right arm, his sword arm, is gravely injured. From that moment on, the battle turns ill for Byrhtnoþ and his men. These two instances made me think of a more specific subject for my thesis. I decided not to focus on real medieval people that had a disability, but on the representation and function of disabled characters in medieval literature. Since this is a subject too extensive to be researched in a single Master thesis, I narrowed my subject down even further, to the representation of physically handicapped characters in romance in Late Medieval England. I chose Late Medieval England rather than Anglo-Saxon England for two quite simple reasons. One, because there is more late medieval material to be found. Secondly, I have less experience in reading Old English than Middle English. For Old

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    English texts I would be largely dependant on translations, and therefore on the interpretation of the translator.

    Before continuing, it is important to answer a question that is vital to this paper, namely, what exactly is impairment and disability? Most scholars that are active in the field of Disability Studies differentiate between impairment on the one hand and disability on the other. In their definition, impairment is strictly a medical indication. People are impaired if one or more parts of their body function differently from what might be expected or if certain body parts are not present at all. An example of this is deafness: (parts of) the ears are not functioning as they should. According to many people in Disability Studies, disability is not a medical condition, but a social and economical one. A person is considered to be disabled when he or she is not allowed to make decisions regarding his or her own life. Medieval peasants, and especially female ones, would fall into this category. Although these definitions are technically correct, they seem to be inspired not by a concern for scholarly clarity, but by a modern-day fear of being politically incorrect. In my opinion, this strict differentiation between „disability‟ and „impairment‟ is too rigorous. There are many grey areas that this model does not adequately consider. Since it is also quite clear that this thesis will focus only on the medical definition of being handicapped, i.e. characters‟ physical states and not their social or economical positions, I have decided to use the terms impairment, impaired, disability, disabled and handicapped interchangeably.

    In this thesis, a handicap can be defined as follows: a handicap is a visible physical abnormality that will in all likelihood hinder a person in his or her mobility and or daily life, such as a deformed limb or leprosy in an advanced stage, or it is an invisible but otherwise noticeable hindering defect, such as deafness or dumbness. An important part of this definition is „hinder‟. This word is essential because if an aberration is not a hindrance, it

    would probably not even be recognised as a disability. For example, a modern-day student

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    with dyslexia would with this definition be disabled, but a medieval shepherd would not. The shepherd would in all likelihood never find out, since being able to read and write is not part of his job description. Obviously, this is a working definition, and may have to be adjusted in the course of this paper.

    The second chapter will be concerned with research that has already been done on this topic. Unfortunately, very few scholars have written articles or books about the medieval physically impaired. The research that has been done can roughly be divided into two groups: works written by scholars of Social and Disability Studies, and works by historians and medievalists. Articles and books by researchers in the field of Social and Disability Studies tend to be sensitive to political correctness, although some works have this far more than others. Also, very few of these scholars concern themselves specifically with the handicapped in the past, and even fewer of them focus on the Middle Ages. Sadly, work done by medievalists and historians is often not very helpful either. This research usually falls under the umbrella of Historical Medicine, and, as will be explained in the chapter on impairment in medieval England, there is very little information on medieval disability in the sources the researchers tend to use.

    The third chapter will deal with impairment in medieval England. It will look at the actual situation in which the handicapped lived. This chapter will serve as a source of comparison for later chapters, in which the literary representation is examined. It will mainly focus on two aspects of the medieval disabled: their theological and philosophical position and the medical view. The theological and philosophical part will not only focus on works of a „high‟ standard, such as the Bible, biblical commentaries, papal decrees and philosophical tracts, but it will also take into consideration „lower‟, more practical theories, for example evidence gathered from monastic administration and vernacular writings. Unlike what may be expected, medieval medical documents often have little to say about the physically impaired.

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    However, even silence can provide us with hints on how a medieval physician would deal with a handicapped patient. There will also be attention for some non-medical and non-theological sources, such as Sidrak and Bokkus, that say a word or two on the subject.

     The central figure of the fourth chapter is the medieval leper. Some questions may arise as to why lepers are given a chapter separate from other handicaps, since lepers can be clearly put into the category of „impaired‟. Many of them were crippled or otherwise maimed by their disease, and nearly all of them had become blind in the final stages of their lives. The main reason for this distinction is the religious and social stigma attached to leprosy in the Middle Ages. The way society treated them differed from the treatment that other disabled people received. Their special position in, and often on the fringes of, society warrants a separate chapter.

     Chapter number five is concerned with the main part of this thesis: the representation of impaired characters in medieval literature. This chapter will focus on medieval English romance. There will be attention for a variety of romances, ranging from Arthurian tales, such as Sir Tristrem and Le Mort d’Arthur, knightly romances, such as Amys and Amylion, to

    narratives of the Constance type, for example Emaré. Obviously, the greatest writer of

    medieval England, Geoffrey Chaucer, will not be forgotten. Like the romances, the characters themselves do not fall into the same category either. Characters that will be examined include characters that are presented by the author as real, such as the Wife of Bath from Geoffrey Chaucer‟s Canterbury Tales, and characters that are not described as anything but characters in a story, such as Amys and Amylion from the eponymous romance. This chapter will also concern itself with characters that are not actually handicapped, but that are allegedly disabled, for example the „monster child‟ motif in narratives such as Emaré and Geoffrey Chaucer‟s

    Man of Law’s Tale.

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     By examining these texts, I hope to come to a conclusion about the role that disabled characters play in medieval romances. My aim is to answer the question of how a physical impairment functions in medieval romance. Is an impairment‟s main raison d‟être to provide the audience with a symbolic clue to the moral values and personality of a character, or are there other roles that can be discerned?

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    Chapter Two: Previous Research

    The research into historical disability, and medieval disability in particular, can usually be placed in one or two of the following fields: History, or more specifically, Medieval Studies, and Disability Studies, a branch of the Social Sciences. These two fields normally do not overlap, but scholars might find it productive to explore the largely unknown field of the other discipline and find new insights into their own research subjects. This applies both to medievalists studying works by disability scholars and vice versa. Therefore I consider it useful to start this paper with a short overview of both fields.

    Research in Disability Studies

    A first difficulty for medievalists in using theories from the social sciences is that these theories are often based on modern society, and Disability Studies is no exception. Even when scholars take this fact into account, and critically apply modern theories to a past society, medievalists face other challenges. These challenges have their roots in the very nature and history of Disability Studies. To gain a fuller understanding of these characteristics, it is necessary to first examine the history and development of Disability Studies.

    1Disability Studies can be discerned as an identifiable discourse since the 1950s.

    Obviously, studies had been conducted on the topic of mental and physical impairment long before this time, but it is not until the 1950s that a coherent (sub)field emerges. The 1960s saw the rise of the civil rights movements, and with it the popularity of Disability Studies

    2grew. The emphasis in the 1950s and 1960s lay heavily on subjects of policy. Books and articles concentrated on issues such as physical access for impaired people, employment

     1 Gleeson, p. 180. 2 Gleeson, p. 180.

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    3issues, de-institutionalisation and benefit rights. It was not until the 1970s that attention was

    paid to conducting studies based on empirical analysis. These studies dealt mainly with

    4subjects common in the Social Sciences, such as class and gender. There were also quite a

    few studies that explored the position of impaired people in education. The focus on policy was not forgotten in the 1970s and 1980s, but slowly Disability Studies changed from a largely policy-based field into a full-fledged branch of the Social Sciences with a much more

    5sociological approach. This development continued in the 1980s.

    One of the first problems medievalists encounter when looking for suitable articles in the field of Disability Studies is that many scholars in this field do not concern themselves with history. Of the few that do, many do not see the past for what it is. Often, historical events, cultures and people are trivialised, and the past becomes little more than a negative

    6example for the present. One disability scholar, Paul Abberley, gives the following comment:

    A key defect of most accounts of handicap is their blind disregard for the accretions of

    history. Insofar as such elements do enter into accounts of handicap, they generally

    consist of a ragbag of examples from Leviticus via Richard III to Frankenstein, all

    serving to indicate the supposed perennial, „natural‟ character of discrimination

    against the handicapped. Such „histories‟ serve paradoxically to produce an

    7understanding of the handicapped which is ... an ahistorical one.

    This of course does not mean that the past did not have a perennial, „natural‟ character of discrimination against the handicapped; that remains to be seen, and hopefully this essay will provide some clues. The „ragbag of examples‟, however, is not a representative cross-section

    of history, and its validity can be questioned, as can any conclusions drawn from it. Those

     3 Gleeson, p. 180. 4 Gleeson, p. 181. 5 Gleeson, p. 181. 6 Gleeson, p. 185. 7 Abberley, “Policing Cripples: social theory and physical handicap”, Unpublished Paper, Bristol Polythechnic,

    page 9, quoted in Gleeson, p. 185

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    conclusions can usually be divided into two groups. The first is a progressionist view, which uses history to prove that disabled people were treated badly in the past and that their situation improved on par with the advances of medicine. The second is a pessimistic view, and it tries to show through historical examples that the handicapped have been treated badly throughout

    8history. Some go as far as to say that this is part of human nature.

     A second problem medievalists face is that many, though thankfully not all, disability scholars tend to pay too much attention to political correctness. The amount of attention varies. At one end of the scale there is an inclination to reappraise terms and definitions, such as discussions about whether the term „disabled people‟ or „people with disabilities‟ is preferable. Unfortunately, this can lead to an endless discussion about definitions, instead of debates on the social, political, historical or economical position of the disabled. As Brendan J. Gleeson puts it:

    A pathology of the atheoretical cast of disability studies is the tendency of

    commentators to mire themselves in a definitional bog. The seemingly endless

    iterations of definitional orthodoxies concerning the meaning of terms such as

    9„disability‟, „impairment‟ and „handicap‟ are a problematic feature of the discourse.

    Continuously changing terms and definitions, fuelled by a fear of offending anyone involved, is one aspect of political correctness in Disability Studies, but there are some scholars who have taken „not offending anyone‟ several steps too far. An example of this is the article “What Am I Doing Here? „Non-disabled‟ people and the Disability Movement” by Robert F.

    Drake. In this article, he theorises about the role that non-disabled people may play in the Disability Movement. At first sight, it may seem that such a contemporary issue has little value for a researcher interested in the distant past. However, the article clearly shows the extent to which some people in Disability Studies take political correctness. Firstly,

     8 Metzler, p. 12. 9 Gleeson, p.182

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