CfP: “Pre-modern Disabilities: Ambiguous Bodies, Texts, and Meanings” - Panel at SFS 2016

Panel title: “Pre-modern Disabilities: Ambiguous Bodies, Texts, and Meanings”

ConferenceSociety for French Studies 57th Annual Conference, University of Glasgow, 27-29 June 2016

Organiser: Alicia Spencer-Hall, French Dept., Queen Mary, University of London

In the last decade or so, pre-modern disability studies has emerged as a productive and important field of enquiry for scholars from a host of disciplines, including literary studies, history and sociology. The fallacy of any monolithic form of disability has been incisively critiqued by academics unpacking the specific historical context(s) of pre-modern narratives which feature disabled bodies. This represents a welcome dismantling of a paradigm of disability which continues to influence discussions of modern disability, whether these discussions take place in the academy or in the mass media and public consciousness. 

 Illustration of medieval sign language, from Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1449, 118v. Via  @KarlSteel  on  Twitter

Illustration of medieval sign language, from Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1449, 118v. Via @KarlSteel on Twitter

The meaning accorded to being disabled by dominant society, and by the individuals living with disabilities themselves, is not fixed. Rather, what a given impairment “says about” a subject shifts according to multiple factors: gender, ethnicity, socio-cultural situation, historical moment and so on. Narratives showing disabled bodies, the attitudes of others to such marked bodies, and the disabled subject’s own intellectual and affective stance to his/her body, are not inert or solely reflective of “real life”. Rather, such narratives work to shape identities of those to which they speak, giving the disabled and non-disabled alike ways in which they might formulate a response to impairment in their lives. 

Impairment demands a response, as disability demonstrates the precariousness of “whole” or “normal(ised)” bodies. The non-disabled must thus take a stance in relation to the destabilising potentiality that the impaired body represents to abled society and culture. Often times, though certainly not always, responses fall between othering of the disabled body, enacting distance, or a fetishisation of the disabled body, a closeness which titillates because it is transgressive.  Reactions to disability are ambiguous just as much as disability itself represents an ambiguous state, defined by a host of socio-cultural, ideological, and historical factors. 

 Disabled knight, from  Arthurian Romances , New Haven (CT), Beinecke MS 229 (ca. 1275-1300). Via  @DamienKempf  on  Twitter

Disabled knight, from Arthurian Romances, New Haven (CT), Beinecke MS 229 (ca. 1275-1300). Via @DamienKempf on Twitter

This panel brings methodological and theoretical approaches from pre-modern disability scholarship into the French context. “French”, in this case, refers to both geographical area (i.e. France as a region) and linguistic identity (i.e. francophone texts produced outside of France). How do French pre-modern texts deal with disability? Can we discern a specific approach to disability used by French authors, or in francophone texts? What kinds of meanings are given to disabled bodies? What kind of language is used to describe disabled bodies, and how does this language mould reader responses? What kind of narratives are offered to the disabled, and why? 

Relevant topics for this session include:
•    Differences between pre-modern and contemporary understanding of disabilities
•    Linguistic choices for denoting disabilities, and the ways in which such choices shape readers’ attitudes, in both modern and pre-modern periods
•    Reactions of readers to disabled characters in narratives, and reactions of those around a disabled character in the text
•    Social constructions of disability and their contexts, including permutations relating to specific locales, politics, ideologies
•    Differences between interpretations of disabilities in religious (e.g. saints) and more secular (e.g. wounded knights) frameworks
•    Differences in depictions of invisible and visible impairments
•    The ways in which French pre-modern texts can contribute to developing the field of pre-modern disability studies


If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit an abstract of roughly 250-300 words and a brief bio, containing your postal address. Deadline for submissions: 1 September 2015. Please email your abstract and bio to the panel organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at]