Disability in the Middle Ages

or December 19, 2018        
Hi WN@TL Fans,
It’s a long, long way from the 5th Century to the 15th. Entire centuries can stretch between milestone years in western European history: 410, 732, 1066, 1215, 1347, 1453. 
When I was a kid the era was routinely called The Dark Ages. The moniker still lurks in titles of books such as “A World Lit Only by Fire” by William Manchester, and “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” by Carl Sagan.
Manchester’s book actually was about the Middle Ages.  Sagan’s was in part about some mindsets of the Middle Ages that linger with us, dwelling in various parts of our modern brains
By today’s standards, the Middle Ages was an era of mysticism and magic, of spirits and devils, of talismans and hexes, of Heaven and Hell.  But it’s also an era of opportunity for insights and analysis in to how our ancestors spoke of, dealt with, and resolved issues such as disability—physical, mental, emotional—that we wrangle with today. 
This week (December 19) Leah Parker of English speaks on “Disability in the Middle Ages: Five Brief Histories.”   Here’s how Leah describes her talk:
We will survey the study of disability in the Middle Ages, touring through five perspectives on medieval disability history: politics, medicine, religion, art, and poetry. 
For each of these, a case study will model the extent of what historians of disability know and how we approach the study of disability in ways that are both responsive to contemporary disability communities and historically and culturally situated in the medieval past. Each of these five brief histories takes up aspects of Leah Pope Parker’s ongoing research in disability history, in order to survey and explore the medieval histories that undergird experiences, institutions, and treatments of disability today.

The first brief history will temporarily adopt a “great man” approach to history, by narrating the massive political and intellectual impacts of King Alfred the Great of England in light of the surviving records of his lived experience of chronic illness.
The second brief history will address medieval medicine, through the example of surviving records of medical technologies and treatments, as well as the effectiveness such treatments may have held for medieval individuals with disabilities. 
In the realm of religion, a case study of the legends surrounding Saint Margaret of Antioch—who as patron saint of childbirth allegedly promised that no mother who invoked her name would give birth to a disabled child—demonstrates the prominence of anxieties about disability not only in parenthood, but also in medieval Christian faith. 
In visual art, recurrent representations of Saints Cosmas and Damian miraculously transplanting a recently deceased black man’s leg onto a white European, suggest ways in which disability intersected with race in the Middle Ages. 
And finally, in poetry, the close analysis of prosody and form offer models for accessing medieval modes of cognition, and in particular, medieval forms of neurodiversity, as both quite familiar and yet utterly distinct from modern-day approaches to neurodivergence.

Links: www.leahpopeparker.com and  https://medievaldisabilityglossary.hcommons.org/

About the Speaker: 
Leah Pope Parker recently defended her dissertation on “Embodied Lives and Afterlives: Disability and the Eschatological Imaginary in Early Medieval England,” and will receive a PhD in English from UW-Madison in May 2019. Parker studies disability, gender, and race in the early Middle Ages (i.e., broadly speaking, 500–1100 CE), and has essays forthcoming in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology and a volume on Monstrosity, Disability, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World. Parker’s work also encompasses the digital humanities, and has included projects such as the Library of Stains, which she and a colleague shared with Wednesday Nite @ the Lab on April 25, 2018.
By the way, at ~25 years per human generation, the 1000 years of the Middle Ages spans 40 generations. For perspective:  I can name of just one of my 8 great-grandparents, and I know none of their stories.  No wonder the Middle Ages still beckon and beguile.
Next week (December 26) Wednesday Nite @ The Lab goes dark.  Merry Christmas!  
We’ll also go dark on January 2.  Happy New Year!
Hope to see you on January 9 back at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.
Thanks again!
Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Cooperative Extension