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The Variable Body in History

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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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The Possibility of an Island: Colonialism, Embodiment and Utopia in Pre-Modern Literature

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This essay considers the implications of disabled bodies in colonized spaces by juxtaposing the work of Teresa of Cartagena with Shakespeare’s Tempest. The essay demonstrates that the disabled body insistently gestures to the need for utopian spaces. In her treatises The Grove of the Infirm and Admiración Operum Dei, Teresa of Cartagena, a disabled nun, created a discursive space for herself, a cloister within a cloister. Though her identity as a conversa posed a threat to nascent ideas of Spanishness, or Hispanitas, her allegorical grove enabled artistic creation for those left out of the body politic. In contrast, the character of Caliban in The Tempest reminds readers of the utopia which the island was before contact. It is only to Europeans that Caliban is a monster, the product of an insalubrious island. Although colonialism can prove a disabling force, the response of disabled people can also underline the utopias possible in both memory and creation.

The pre-modern depictions of disability discussed in this essay involve a utopian space, one that only comes into existence in response to both able-ist and colonial discourses. In the Grove of the Infirm and the subsequent Admiration of the Works of God, works of life-writing by the deaf medieval nun Teresa de Cartagena, she devises a utopian island or ínsula for her and other disabled thinkers, rendering it a locus amoenus for disabled female creativity.1 As Cartagena was a conversa, or descendant of Jewish converts to Christianity,...

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