Imagine the following scenario (Goodey, 1): time travel is possible nowadays. A person labelled as disabled in today’s society has access to a time machine and travels some centuries back in time. Would this person be considered disabled in other times as well? Depending on the era and the culture this person would encounter, the answer might differ significantly. Hence, we start from the basic assumption that disability is subject to both cultural and historical change. It is therefore the result of constructions and attributions embedded in a specific historical period and culture.
In addition, being able or disabled always depends on other social categories and dynamics: Is the time traveller male or female, what is his/her social position and familial ties in the society he/she travels to, to which ethnic or religious community would the person belong, etc.? An axiom of DisAbility History stresses that “[l]ike gender, like race, disability must become a standard analytical tool in the historian’s tool chest” (Longmore/Umansky, 15). Methodologically, DisAbility History benefits from looking at intersections of analytical categories. This means that disability can only be understood in relation to ability. Therefore, it is also crucial to ask who is regarded to be able or unable to do something in certain contexts.
Continuities as well as ruptures shape our understanding of the early modern period. On the one hand, early modern times might retrospectively appear to be the incubation period of modernity (“Inkubationszeit der Moderne”, Paul Münch). In DisAbility History, we can assume that the emergence of the Cartesian mind-body dualism, of secularisation, medicalisation, or the long-standing scholarly trend to categorise phenomena, to name only a few examples, affected and changed the ways of understanding diseases and health until today. On the other hand, as researchers, we are constantly addressing early modern otherness in terminologies, experiences and conceptualisations of DisAbility. In addition, we notice some astonishingly persistent continuities from the medieval to early modern period when it comes to treating illness and disease.
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This article explores the intersection of medicine, religion and gender within the context of miracle narratives compiled in England and France in the High Middle Ages. Women in miracle accounts have much to tell us about medieval ideas of gendered sickness and health, yet this is an area which has received little scholarly attention. Focusing on stories of female deformity and disfigurement, it is argued that sickness has a feminising effect on women’s bodies in these sources, but proposed that symptoms of excess femininity were not always seen as the spiritual hindrance that might be expected.
First published: 19 February 2021 https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0424.12519
[Correction added on 20th April 2021, after first online publication: Amendments have been made throughout the text for clarity.]
Mirator is a multilingual peer-reviewed electronic journal devoted to medieval studies. It is published by Glossa, the Society for Medieval Studies in Finland.
Volume 30, 2016
Issue 7: Prosthesis in Medieval and Early Modern Culture
Grammar. The addition of a letter or syllable to the beginning of a word. […] 1553 T. Wilson Arte of Rhetorique iii. f. 94, Prosthesis. Of Addition. As thus. ‘He did all to berattle hym. Wherein appereth that a sillable is added to this vorde’ (rattle) […]
a. The replacement of defective or absent parts of the body by artificial substitutes […] 1706 Phillips’s New World of Words […] In Surgery Prosthesis is taken for that which fills up what is wanting, as is to be seen in fistulous and hollow Ulcers, filled up with Flesh by that Art: Also the making of artificial Legs and Arms, when the natural ones are lost.
(OED, s. v. ‘prosthesis’)
If we go back far enough, we find that the first acts of civilization were the use of tools […]. With every tool man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory, or is removing the limits to their functioning […]. By means of spectacles he corrects defects in the lens of his own eye […]. Writing was in its origin the voice of an absent person […]. Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.11. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (London: The Hogarth Press, 1963), pp. 27–9.
(Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents)
A rhetorical ‘addition’ to a pre-existing ‘beginning’, a ‘replacement’ for that which is ‘defective or absent’, a technological, aesthetic mode of ‘correction’ that reveals a history of corporeal and psychic discontent: definitions and accounts of prosthesis turn repeatedly on the absences signalled by these ‘auxiliary organs’. Figured in prosthetic terms, the study of pre-modern prosthesis registers as an absence to which contemporary critical discourse gestures. In his seminal, cross-period study, Prosthesis, David Wills locates the Reformation as a moment of prosthetic ‘reformation’ that creates the technological, rhetorical and philosophical conditions for one type of beginning for prosthesis, marked also by the appearance of the word in Thomas Wilson’s 1553 text The Arte of Rhetorique.22. David Wills, Prosthesis (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), pp. 219–20.View all notes And yet, as Freud’s allusion to ‘the first tools of civilization’ as prostheses suggests, this figure has a much deeper, further reaching history. This special issue brings together scholars working on medieval and early modern literature and culture in order to reconsider that history and its implications for contemporary critical responses to prosthesis.Recent scholarship across a number of disciplines has given weight to the term ‘prosthesis’ as a tool of analysis with a variety of applications: it can characterise the act of literary and cultural criticism, or the effects of literature and the reading process, and it provides a means to articulate histories and experiences of disability.
3. For example, Wills, Prosthesis; David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000); Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra (eds.), The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006). Prosthesis is productive for literary and disability studies in particular because it invites us to explore the intersection between language and material, embodied and imagined worlds. These explorations, however, often consider prosthesis from the perspective of (technological, rhetorical and philosophical) conditions – heart transplants, bionic limbs, the novel, cyborgs, the virtual reality of a digital age – understood to be unavailable to the pre-modern. Essays in this volume seek to redress this imbalance in our critical discourse by examining prosthesis in its pre-modern contexts and showing that the significance of this figure for medieval and early modern writers extends far beyond its reach as a grammatical term.44. More work still needs to be done on the history of the word ‘prosthesis’. We are grateful to Rick Godden for bringing to our attention the forthcoming contribution to this history by Brandon Hawk, ‘Prosthesis: From Grammar to Medicine in the Earliest History of the Word’. We ask how medieval and early modern examples can challenge our assumptions about what prosthesis is and does. Can we consider prosthesis as ‘process’, always acting, always becoming? What literary, linguistic, technological or performative practices constitute prosthetic action? How do prostheses act on and orient or construct bodies, selves and communities? Does prosthesis heal, protect, reconstruct and connect, or does it expose corporeal vulnerability and the limits of language and embodied experience? How, in turn, do medieval and early modern representations of prosthesis shape or challenge assumptions about normative bodies and bodily integrity? Does pre-modern prosthesis, in all its iterations, figure sameness or difference? Asking these questions in historical context, we show that medieval and early modern prosthesis offers to speak to – and maybe even re-assemble – our present-day discourse on this subject.
Wearing powerful words and objects: healing prosthetics, Margaret Healy, Pages: 1233-1251