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  • Deaf Men on Trial: Language and Deviancy in Late Eighteenth-Century France
  • Sophia Rosenfeld

What is a man who lacks the capacity to communicate through speech? In the second half of the eighteenth century, the standard answer to this perennial question about the moral, social, and psychological status of the deaf-mute individual underwent a transformation. For centuries, explained the Abbé Charles Michel de l’Epée in 1776, such people had been considered “comme les monstres”—normal in appearance perhaps, but incapable of exercising reason, memory, judgment, affection, or any of the mental activities generally thought to separate humans from animals. 1 However, during the last two decades of the Old Regime, in an effort to promote his own “natural” method for educating the deaf, this Jansenist priest repeatedly challenged the demonization of these unfortunate persons. 2 The deaf, he pointed out, might never hear or speak, but they instinctively made use of the “natural and primordial” gestural idiom that many philosophers—including Condillac, Diderot, and Rousseau—had recently argued was the common language of all humans before the invention of words. 3 Based on this hypothesis, Epée concluded that his silent pupils were actually hommes de la nature, beings extraordinarily similar to the men who first peopled the earth. Rather than placing the deaf and mute at the margins of humanity, Epée thus proposed that they were, in fact, representative of our primordial ancestors.

This analogy—between those individuals who were deaf and mute and the presocialized humans of the state of nature—spawned a new fascination with the hearing-disabled during the last decades of the eighteenth century. 4 Interviews with educated deaf people about their earliest memories promised to reveal the true essence of the “isolated savage” and the origin of his ideas. 5 Moreover, Epée and his student, the Abbé Sicard, assured the public that visits to their respective schools for the deaf in Paris and Bordeaux would allow outsiders unprecedented insight into the natural path of human mental and linguistic development. And not surprisingly, an Enlightenment audience responded with enthusiasm to these invitations. In the 1770s and 1780s, many of the great scientists and statesmen of Europe and the New World, including Court de Gébelin, Lord Monboddo, John Adams, Emperor Joseph II, William Jones, and Condillac himself, visited Epée’s school to observe his innovative pedagogical method rooted in sign language. His young deaf pupils were paraded as objects of [End Page 157] public scrutiny before members of learned societies, scientific commissions, and curious tourists; several of them even published philosophical articles on their condition. In effect, the very deformity that had once made the deaf so subject to denigration had, by the end of the Old Regime, given them a new status: as exemplars of natural virtue and pure thinkers untainted by the corrupted language of the present world.

This interest in the moral and intellectual example of the deaf only increased during the Revolution and in its immediate aftermath. Not only did deaf people continue to make public appearances, including visits to all three national assemblies; they also routinely figured in revolutionary discourse as models for the regenerated, “new men” of the future. For a range of revolutionary leaders, from Prieur de la Marne to the Abbé Grégoire, the students at the Paris school for the deaf offered evidence, at a time of reaction against an artificial and arbitrary regime, of what an ideal citizen might be: honest, virtuous, sincere, instinctively aware of his inherent rights, and completely lacking in any knowledge of the residual prejudices and biases encoded in ordinary conversation. 6 When, for example, the most well-known deaf person in revolutionary Paris, Jean Massieu, was forced to testify in 1792 against a man accused of stealing his wallet, he was lavishly praised in the press for having “asked [the judge] for justice with all the pride that comes from innocence and with all the ingenuity of a savage who, penetrated by the sacred laws of Nature, was asking for vengeance against a man who had violated them.” 7 A deputy commented to the Convention several years later about this display: “What could be...

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pp. 157-175
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