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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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Introduction: Speaking Forwards in History

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In the introduction to my first collection of essays on disability, The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century,1 I explored the output of academic studies of disability in history until 2013, and in the interim I am happy to find over a hundred new publications in the field of disability studies. The same introduction also argued that it was now time for detailed studies of particular impairments and particular impaired people within their historical contexts, and that the time for general statements and theories was past. I was therefore a little saddened when researching for this new introduction that less than a tenth of the hundred outputs of the last two years concerned disability in history. Even David Bolt’s excellent Changing Social Attitudes to Disability,2 which is subtitled ‘Perspectives from historical, cultural, and educational studies’, gives us very little and a very short history. Although the first part of the book is intended to illustrate ‘the fact that, though often neglected, an historical analysis of changing social attitudes toward disability is an important area of study’,3 history is reduced to an account of Darwinism, the changing nineteenth-century attitudes toward tuberculosis, and the Nazi extermination programme.

A more substantial contribution to a longer history of impairment has come from Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood in Recovering Disability in Early Modern England.4 The collection explores representations of disabilities in the early modern period in the same way my own The Idea of...

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