In summer 2012, I will be conducting research in the burgeoning field of early modern disability studies. While contemporary disability studies has thrived over the past twenty years, disability as a conceptual category of difference in pre-modern contexts has gone relatively unexplored. Many scholars have suggested, mistakenly, that the systems of categorization and stigmatization that inform our contemporary ideas about disability appeared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Recent scholarship has demonstrated, however, that “disabled” was indeed an operational identity category in both the medieval and Renaissance eras. In so doing, this new work in pre- and early modern disability studies attempts to rescue non-normative narratives out of critical conversations that have often overlooked or misidentified disability in its important historical contexts. Exploring disability through a focus on medieval and early modern representations of non-standard bodies and minds, this new field asks: how were disabled individuals represented in their respective cultures, both real and fictional? How did medieval and early modern investments in the “able” body construct the “disabled” body as their oppositional term? What traditions relating to disability did pre-modern writers inherit from the various theological, political, medical, and legal injunctions of the classical period? Finally, what medieval and early modern views on disability inform our contemporary moment?
Working to further solidify early modern disability studies as a vital field of inquiry, I will spend the summer on a project that applies contemporary disability theory to the work of Renaissance poet John Milton; I plan to research and write a journal article that focuses on his epic poem, Paradise Lost, in order to rethink the poem as a narrative about the construction of “normal” in the late seventeenth century. More specifically, I hope to re-envision Paradise Lost as a radical critique of an early modern cultural imagination that increasingly mandated ability as it conceived of disability as imperfection from which individuals needed salvation. I am interested in working with collaborators who might participate in the project in these—amongst other—ways: archival work in medieval and Renaissance literature, history, and/or culture (either online or at a relevant institution/library); theoretical reading and conversation in modern and postmodern disability studies; general research on John Milton or on literary representations of non-standard bodies and minds in pre- or postmodern periods; general theoretical work in pre- and postmodern identity histories, especially those deemed “non-normative,” “non-standard,” “abnormal,” or just plain “different.”