The Autumn 2012 meeting of the Northern Renaissance Seminar was held at Leeds Trinity University College on 8 September 2012, with the theme of Disability and the Renaissance. The theme was intended to address a perceived lack of engagement thus far with critical disability theory by scholars of Renaissance literature and culture.
The conference organizer, Dr Susan Anderson of Leeds Trinity, welcomed the delegates and introduced the keynote speaker, Dr Allison Hobgood from Willamette University, Oregon. Hobgood’s talk, “Early Modern Disability Studies: Beholding Milton,” started with a discussion of “ethical beholding” as a way of avoiding excluding disabled people from critical discourse, and as a way of combating the normative encouragement to ignore difference. Hobgood argued that “disabled” was an operational identity category in the English Renaissance and that representations of disability in the period are not always merely metaphorical, but can also tell us something of the lived experience of disabled people. Indeed, she asserted that the material conditions of illness, injury, and childbirth would have made impairment more rather than less visible than it is now.
The second part of the keynote speech was a round-up of the state of the field in the USA, detailing current research on aspects of disability as diverse as dwarf aesthetics in The Faerie Queene, and autism and theory of mind in connection with the Book of Common Prayer. Hobgood’s vision for the future of disability studies in the early modern period necessitates resisting charges of anachronism in order to “enable socially responsible dialogue about anti-ableist politics and disability advocacy in scholarship and teaching.”
The final part of the keynote speech was a Miltonic case study, critiquing traditional scholarly discourses surrounding Milton’s blindness and instead positioning Paradise Lost as part of a “disability aesthetic.” In this paradigm [End Page 231] Milton’s God is “the ultimate normate” and his angels are ableist superhumans, while Satan stands against their definitions of what it means to be “fit.”
Following the keynote speech, the first panel, chaired by Dr Liz Oakley-Brown (Lancaster University) was on “Sexuality.” Dr Amritesh Singh, from the University of York, spoke on “Disabled Masculinities in Mary Sidney’s The Tragedie of Antonie,” looking at the links between compulsory able-bodiedness and compulsory (marital) heterosexuality. The paper examined the “crisis” that occurs when a body becomes disabled by age or injury and how this impacts on gender. The other paper in this panel was my bisexual approach to examining the liminality of gender and psyche in Spenser and Shakespeare, an argument that these texts offer ways to present positive, festive outcomes for madness. This reading was welcomed as being particularly important to a presentist approach to early modern texts, taking into account the impact of exclusionary readings for present-day queer and disabled spectators and readers.
The next panel was devoted to Milton and was chaired by keynote speaker Allison Hobgood. Dr Liam Haydon, from Manchester University, spoke on “Milton and Universal Blindness,” arguing that Paradise Lost is not an account of an individual’s blindness but rather taps into an early modern metaphorical understanding of blindness as denoting a loss of virtue. Haydon compared quotations from Paradise Lost with King James and Geneva Bible verses from the Psalms, describing being “compassed about” by enemies and calling for help. Haydon argued that Milton doubly reconfigures his own disability and challenges his audience to “see right.” Then Adleen Crapo from Toronto presented her paper “Staging Disabled Authorship in Early Modern Literature: The Cases of Paul Scarron and John Milton,” focusing on two writers with acquired disabilities. Crapo outlined how their enemies and detractors used Milton’s blindness and Scarron’s physical deformities (probably caused by rheumatic fever) to call their morality into question, and how both men used rhetoric and self-publicity to counter these accusations. Hobgood concluded at the end of the session that Milton scholarship has just been waiting for disability studies to happen to it.
The first session after lunch was a panel on Art and History, chaired by Dr Susan Anderson. Helen Davies, who is about to embark on...