Pub. Date:
University of Michigan Press
Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability

Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability

by Edward Wheatley
Current price is , Original price is $80.0. You

Temporarily Out of Stock Online

Please check back later for updated availability.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472117208
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 04/27/2010
Series: Corporealities: Discourses of Disability Series
Pages: 298
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Edward Wheatley is Surtz Professor of Medieval Literature at Loyola University, Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind

Medieval Constructions of a Disability

By Edward Wheatley

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12085-7


Cripping the Middle Ages, Medievalizing Disability Theory

In Paris in 1425, an anonymous bourgeois chronicler recorded the following "entertainment."

Item, le darrenier dimenche du moys d'aoust fut fait ung esbatement de l'ostel nommé d'Arminac, en la rue Sainct-Honoré, que on mist .IIII. aveugles, tous armez, en ung parc, chascun ung baston en sa main, et en ce lieu avoit ung fort pourcel, lequel ilz devoient avoir s'ilz le povoient tuer. Ainsi fut fait, et firent celle bataille si estrange, car ilz se donnerent tant de grans colz de ces bastons que de pis leur en fust, car, quant (le mieulx) cuidoient frapper le pourcel, ilz frappoient l'un sur l'autre, car, se ilz eussent esté armez pour vray, ilz s'eussent tué l'un l'autre. Item, le sabmedi vigille du dimenche devant dit, furent menez lesditz aveugles parmi Paris tous armez, une grant banniere devant, où il avoit ung pourcel pourtraict, et devant eulx ung homme jouant du bedon.

[Note, the last Sunday of the month of August there took place an amusement at the residence called d'Arminac in the Rue Saint Honoré, in which four blind people, all armed, each with a stick, were put in a park, and in that location there was a strong pig that they could have if they killed it. Thus it was done, and there was a very strange battle, because they gave themselves so many great blows with those sticks that it went worsse for them, because when the stronger ones believed that they hit the pig, they hit each other, and if they had really been armed, they would have killed each other. Note, the Saturday evening before the aforementioned Sunday, the said blind people were led through Paris all armed, a large banner in front, where there was a pig portrayed, and in front of them a man playing a bass drum.]

This event shocks modern readers with its calculated cruelty toward and humiliation of the four blind men, who are called upon to "perform" their blindness in a contest focused less on the killing of the pig than on the injuries that they will inflict on each other. And this was an expensive, carefully planned production, requiring not only a pig but a painted banner and a drum. The ritualistic procession, complete with percussion, evidently served as banns to advertise the next day's competition and draw a crowd. Equally shocking, however, is the chronicler's rather disengaged tone as he recounts the event. His strongest response to it is his implicit gratitude toward the sighted organizers for not giving the blind men more lethal weapons, because evidently he believes that the blind, being blind and not knowing any better, would have fought to the death.

Evidently such scenes had played themselves out in Europe before, because a visual representation of a nearly identical contest appears in the border of a fourteenth-century manuscript. Ms. Bodley 264, a product of Flanders, includes the Romance of Alexander, copied in 1339 and illuminated afterward by Jehan de Grise, who completed his work in 1344. Along with magnificent illuminations of the Alexander narrative, Jehan painted comic and genre scenes in many of the lower borders of the text pages. Among these are several of people with disabilities. On the verso of folio 74 Jehan painted a two-part illumination (fig. 1): to the left, a boy leads four blind men in broad-brimmed hats, each man with one hand upon the shoulder of the person in front of him and the other hand bearing a club. The boy does not appear in the right-hand scene; instead, the blind men are gathered around a pig. One man, his club raised vertically, falls backward over the animal as another man hits him on the head with his club. The appearance of this scene here takes on added significance when we consider it alongside analogous marginal illuminations. Several of the scenes present games that are still recognizable today such as checkers, chess, dicing, and blindman's buff, as well as a number of public spectacles, including a cockfight, a puppet show, and jugglers. Jehan de Grise expected his contemporaries to be able to recognize these games, so it is likely that the pig-beating game was equally recognizable, and perhaps even as unremarkable.

Another public spectacle based on the performance of blindness also enjoyed some popularity in medieval France, though in the short play Le Garçon et l'Aveugle (The Boy and the Blind Man), the blindness was performed by an actor. Written in the mid-thirteenth century (and generally thought to be the oldest surviving farce in French), the play presents a blind man whom one critic has rightly called drunk, gluttonous, coarse, cynical, and debauched. He is also a miser who has amassed a small fortune through his begging. The plot of the drama is simple: the blind man needs a guide, and he tries to persuade a boy to take the position. However, the boy, who states his dislike of blind people in an early aside, first disguises his voice in order to slap the blind man incognito and then later steals all of his money as well as his clothes. In short, the boy's goal is to humiliate the blind man physically and to strip him of all of his possessions, presumably to the delight of an audience.

This play will be discussed in some detail in chapter 4, but I have sketched its content here for two reasons. First, it seems to have drawn upon previously existing stereotypes of blind people, particularly drunken gluttony and avarice, because they appear as vices of the blind in other literature. Second, like the pig-beating game, it was performed repeatedly over a period of time, because even though it exists in only one manuscript, that manuscript has undergone considerable scribal emendation to make it easier to use as a script for performance. Carol Symes has identified at least four hands other than the original scribe's, and she dates their emendations from the thirteenth to the mid- to late fifteenth century. These scribal modifications, which cover a period of about two centuries, provide clear evidence of the play's ongoing popularity, and therefore it is highly likely that the play existed in other copies as well (and at only 265 lines, it would have been easy to copy). The performance of the blind man's humiliation at the hands of the boy obviously had a lengthy performance history.

This book examines cultural constructions of blindness in England and France in the later Middle Ages, constructions that gave rise to responses ranging from Christian charity to violent humiliation of the type represented by the pig-beating game and Le Garçon et l'Aveugle. Because historical texts describing how blind people lived are relatively rare, other types of representation — religious, literary, and artistic — will flesh out our understanding of history. Indeed, the question that gave rise to this study was basically a literary one: why was French medieval literature cruel toward and satirical about blind characters while English literature was much less so? I will examine the cultural forces that gave varied meanings to blindness in these two countries, both for blind people and for the societies in which they lived. The enormous differences between France's multivalent engagement with the disability and England's relatively benign neglect of it provide a remarkable variety of responses to the impairment. Furthermore, some of the English constructions of blindness are historically related to that country's intertwined but vexed historical connections to Normandy and France.

This work owes its nascence at least in part to the field of disability studies, which grew out of the political struggle for civil rights for people with disabilities that began in the 1960s. Like gay activists' adoption and ironic reinvention of the term queer as a sign of power, the term cripple, shortened to crip, has been adopted by people with disabilities (and those engaged in disability studies) to represent the inversion of earlier disempowerment as they engage in both political and scholarly activism. Thus the first half of the title of this chapter indicates my intention to look at the Middle Ages through the lens of disability theory, particularly as it relates to blindness, while the second half of the title acknowledges that I cannot do so without adapting that theory, which in the humanities has been overwhelmingly "presentist" in its focus. Because the civil rights movement for people with disabilities is ongoing, it is to some degree justifiable that disability studies has tended to focus on the present and relatively recent history. Even so, some scholars in the humanities have seen the value of extending the range of disability-related scholarship beyond the last two centuries.

In Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability, historian and activist Paul Longmore encourages the study of disability history by posing a list of significant questions.

As one would expect, many disabled activists have been asking about experiences of disability in earlier times. How did societies in previous eras regard and treat people with disabilities? What values underlay cultural constructions of disabled people's identities? What factors shaped their social careers? How did people with various disabilities view themselves? In what ways did disabled people embrace or resist reigning definitions of their identities? How did they attempt to influence or alter sociocultural beliefs and societal practices in order to manage their social identities and social careers? Were there communities and cultures of disability in the past? What are the connections between those many pasts and our present?

Helpful though these questions are to historians of modern disability, they present insuperable problems to scholars working in premodern periods. This study attempts to answer Longmore's first two questions in relation to blind people, and it will provide some information in response to the third. Sadly, almost no historical evidence exists to answer his questions about how blind people in the Middle Ages viewed not only themselves but also the beliefs and practices that determined their place in society. The only voices of blind writers whom I have found who mention their disability in the Middle Ages are John Audelay in England, who alludes to his impairment but provides little information about his lived experience as a blind man, and Gilles le Muisit in France, whose poetry includes encomia to the miraculous cure of cataract surgery that causes him to look back on his blindness with even greater loathing. Jean l'Aveugle (John the Blind) of Luxemburg is one of a very few blind people to appear in the annals of medieval history in these two countries, and although chroniclers wrote of him, he apparently left no writing of his own about his blindness.

Integral to my discussion of blindness in the Middle Ages is the distinction often made in disability studies between impairment and disability: impairment is the particular physical condition (in the case of my work, visual impairment), while disability is constituted by the restrictive social and political practices that construct the environment of a person with an impairment. Among some disability theorists this distinction has been criticized. Some scholars believe it is too essentialist, in that impairments can create discomforts or limitations that are not purely socially constructed. A Foucauldian scholar eschews the disability/impairment distinction because "the identity of the subject in the social model ('people with impairments') is actually formed in large measure by the political arrangements that the model was designed to contest," that is, in many instances the impairment is as socially constructed as the disability. However, in her book Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment during the High Middle Ages, c. 1100–1400, Irina Metzler offers a defense of these terms. She writes, "It is ... preferable to speak of 'impairment' during the medieval period rather than of 'disability,' which implies certain social and cultural connotations that medieval impaired persons may not have shared with modern impaired people." The distinction between disability and impairment is useful in the present work because of distinctly medieval constructions that did not grow out of the nature of the impairment but made it a disability in ways specific to that era. Our historical distance from the Middle Ages allows us to see these constructions of blindness with greater clarity because modern ones are so different.

Disability theorists most often divide types of impairment into three groups: sensory, for blindness, deafness, and other impairments of the senses; physical or somatic, for impairments of other parts of the body; and mental, for cognitive disability and mental illness. In most writing on sensory disability the focus is on deafness, partly due to the fact that with the invention of sign language, the lives of deaf people improved to the point that we can speak of deaf culture, inasmuch as language is a defining component of culture. Indeed, many writers capitalize the word Deaf when it is used in this context, claiming a group identity for people with the impairment. While many ameliorative technologies for blind people have been invented and refined in the past centuries — from braille to guide dogs to computerized optical character recognition systems — these do not necessarily bring blind people together as sign language does deaf people. Thus as issues of identity among people with disabilities (integral to Longmore's set of questions) have become central to disability studies, Deaf culture can lay claim to a uniqueness that blindness cannot, as those who use sign language will always have a sense of community that does not necessarily belong to blind people.

As in any field of theoretical inquiry, disagreements about fundamental issues in disability theory abound, but out of these, useful taxonomies have emerged. The two models of disability that dominated this theoretical field in its first two decades, perhaps too neatly constructed as binaries, are the medical model and the social model. The social model, which was and perhaps still is most popular in Britain, demands redefinition of able-bodied and disabled in such a way that society can acknowledge and include the full spectrum of physical types. Disability is no longer individualized as a condition "belonging" to a person but as one of a number of possible physical states in society, "reframing disability as a designation having primarily social and political significance." Carol Thomas has effectively described both the value of and challenges presented by the social model at the time of its inception as a theory in the mid-1970s.

Disability now resided in a nexus of social relationships connecting those socially identified as impaired and those deemed non-impaired or "normal," relationships that worked to exclude and disadvantage the former while promoting the relative inclusion and privileging of the latter. The new challenge was to: i) describe this nexus of social relationships, that is, to make clear the manifestations of disability in the social world (in organisations, systems, policies, practices, ideologies, and discourses), and ii) to explain it, by employing theoretical paradigms that generate ways of understanding what gives form to and sustains these relationships.

Disability theorist Lennard Davis has focused on a different aspect of the social model that he calls the "constructionist model," which highlights the artificiality of the process through which people with impairments become disabled. He writes, "The constructionist model sees disability as a social process in which no inherent meanings attach to physical difference other than those assigned by a community." The construction of disabilities and the social relations that define them must be recognized and rethought before society as a whole can begin to envision disability as something other than an individualized issue. In medieval France, as blind people became more socially visible, partly due to the foundation of a hospice for them by Louis IX, social anxieties also apparently emerged that made themselves felt in literature and law. In England, on the other hand, blindness remained relatively unmarked as a disability, and such anxieties about blind people are far less obvious.

Although Robert A. Scott wrote The Making of Blind Men: A Study of Adult Socialization in 1969, before disability studies grew into an academic field, he implicitly understood the constructionist model as it relates to blindness.

The disability of blindness is a learned social role. The various attitudes and patterns of behavior that characterize people who are blind are not inherent in their condition but, rather, are acquired through ordinary processes of social learning. Thus there is nothing inherent in the condition of blindness that requires a person to be docile, dependent, melancholy, or helpless; nor is there anything about it that should lead him to become independent or assertive. Blind men are made, and by the same processes of socialization that have made us all.


Excerpted from Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind by Edward Wheatley. Copyright © 2010 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1 - Cripping the Middle Ages, Medievalizing Disability Theory,
CHAPTER 2 - Leading the Blind: France versus England,
CHAPTER 3 - "Blind" Jews and Blind Christians: The Metaphorics of Marginalization,
CHAPTER 4 - Humoring the Sighted: The Comic Embodiment of Blindness,
CHAPTER 5 - Blinding, Blindness, and Sexual Transgression,
CHAPTER 6 - Instructive Interventions: Miraculous Chastisement and Cure,
CHAPTER 7 - Medieval Science and Blindness: Case Studies of Jean l'Aveugle, Gilles Le Muisit, and John Audelay,
AFTERWORD - The Visibility of the Blind in England and France,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews