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The Variable Body in History


Edited By Chris Mounsey and Stan Booth

The essays in this book explore the different ways the body has been experienced and interpreted in history, from the medieval to the modern period. Challenging the negative perceptions that the term ‘disability’ suggests, the essays together present a mosaic of literary representations of bodies and accounts of real lives lived in their particularity and peculiarity. The book does not attempt to be exhaustive, but rather it celebrates the fact that it is not. By presenting a group of individual cases from different periods in history, the collection demonstrates that any overarching way of describing bodies, or unifying description of the experience of the myriad ways of being in a body, is reductive and unhelpful. The variability of each body in its context is our subject.
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In/Dis-Ability: A Medievalist’s Perspective



This essay discusses medieval and modern concepts of disability and how they might differ. One may note the medieval variability of labelling for ‘disability’ and the disabled. The conversation may highlight key concerns of today, by concentrating on two main themes: mobility and work (also working ability). The changing notions of poverty from the early to the later Middle Ages, from involuntary to voluntary poverty, demonstrate that inability to work becomes a key indicator of both poverty and disability. Personal mobility is a further key indicator, with differing types of mobility experienced by medieval disabled people. While mobility today is individualized and technologized, in contrast mobility in the past relied more on people than animals.

A beautifully executed fresco of St Lawrence distributing alms to the needy, made around 1449 by Fra Angelico for the Cappella Niccolina in the Vatican, depicts the classic stereotypical images of ‘the disabled’ as a group. However, this includes people who according to modern definitions are not physically impaired: widows and orphans; as well as those who are: the blind and crippled. Interpreting the representation of these figures from left to right, we find

All are shown with dignity and respect, they are certainly not caricatures. In fact, if any group label may be attached, ‘the needy’ may be more appropriate. To be classed as poor, or rather as ‘needy’, gave one the right to receive alms. In encompassing the sick, the disabled, the economically poor,...

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