Research Programs: Fellowships for College Teachers and Independent Scholars

Period of Performance

7/1/2004 - 6/30/2005

Funding Totals

$40,000.00 (approved)
$40,000.00 (awarded)

Leading the Blind: The Medieval Construction of a Disability

FAIN: FB-50668-04

Thomas E. Wheatley
Hamilton College (Clinton, NY 13323-1295)

I am writing a book that will present the first comprehensive exploration of a disability in the Middle Ages, drawing upon literature, history, art history, and religious discourse. It will also be the first to relate current theories of disability to the cultural and institutional constructions of a disability in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. It will interrogate the surprising differences in the treatment of blind people and the construction of blindness in France and England. While France had better institutional care (including some royal protection) and rudimentary medical treatments for blind people, this empowerment came at the price of a noticeable strain of cruel satire against the blind in French literature. In England, blind people had neither separate institutions nor, generally, the medical treatments available in France, but their less prominent position in English society manifests itself in far fewer gratuitously cruel representations in literature. The book will begin with an examination and revision of disability theory to align it with medieval attitudes toward blindness. Four other chapters will follow. Chapter 2 deals with Louis IX's influential foundation of a hospice for the blind in Paris, and the very different institutional treatment of blind people in England. A chapter called "'Blind' Jews and Blind Christians: The Metaphorics of Marginalization" examines the trope of the blindness of the Jews in the context of the ways that blind people were sometimes marginalized. I have begun a chapter relating medieval medical treatises on blindness and sexuality to the literary subject of blinding as punishment for sexual sin, and in the final chapter I will compare and contrast medical and miraculous cures for blindness. My goal is to provide an overview of this disability during three centuries; the result will be valuable to anyone studying any medieval literary text, historical document, theological treatise, or work of art relating to blindness.