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  • Medieval Vulnerabilities:An Introduction
  • Andreea Marculescu

By approaching history "from below," the Annales school of the 1970s brought critical attention to the notion of precarity. Equating it to socioeconomic marginality, Michel Mollat and Bronislaw Geremek analyzed the systemic social, economic, biological, and environmental factors that reduced different segments of the medieval population to a precarious state. More recent studies have continued and nuanced such approaches. For instance, Sharon Farmer examines socioeconomic and bodily precarity in its intersectional aspects, pointing out that attitudes toward the poor and toward disabled subjects varied according to gender, religion, and social status (Surviving Poverty 1–10).1 Other historians have focused on how medieval institutions or organizations such as hospitals (Rubin; Mollat 135–157; Davis), almonries (Mollat 148–151), and béguinages (larger congregations where women could lead domestic lives outside of family) took care of subjects in precarious conditions (Farmer, Surviving Poverty 143). Finally, scholars have also studied different types of feelings and emotions, among them compassion, which precarity triggered at a societal level (Davis; McNamer).

Within this body of largely historiographical scholarship, precarious subjects encompass individuals stranded in economically or socially difficult circumstances as well as those suffering from some form of bodily or cognitive impairment. Their physical, economic, and mental condition is largely explained in "objective" terms, taking into account the systemic factors that generated precarity and the institutional care that such subjects received from individuals or communities endowed with certain forms of authority. These readings place the notion of precarity within a binomial consisting of "them"—those living on the "margins," to use Geremek's term—and a majority on which the "them" depends. This understanding of precarity is largely faithful to its etymological roots. The word precarious deriving from the Latin word precarius [End Page 1] designates something obtained through asking or praying. As McKenzie Wark puts it, the word refers to being "dependent on the whim or the favor of another" (191). Dependency is therefore conceptualized in a unilateral direction, binding self-dependent subjects in positions of power to precarious ones.2

Recent scholarship in the field of feminist studies has shifted our understanding of precarity; it is not simply dependency to vulnerability but interdependency. Judith Butler points out that we are not self-sufficient subjects but are dependent on others in a host of circumstances (19–49). As bodies, we enter a sensorial set of relationships that exposes us to the gaze of the other while also putting us at risk of violence (26). At an interpersonal level, we are constituted by our affective relations with others. In the case of grief and mourning, for instance, Butler argues that loss pertains to a matter of self-reflexivity, to apprehending how one's identity is reshaped (22), and ultimately to the realization that one is "undone" (23–24) by the relationship with another. Finally, as members of a political community, imagined or real, we are constantly bound to take a series of ethical stances in the form of recognizing and accounting for difference within this community (27). Butler argues that these forms of relationality with others render us vulnerable: "Loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure" (20).

Adriana Cavarero, Butler's immediate interlocutor on the theme of vulnerability, explains this notion through the lens of etymology, noting that, in Latin, vulnus designates both wounding and care. Like Butler, she acknowledges that exposure to others triggers a certain sense of violence but argues that the same opening requires care. The vulnerable person is therefore the "absolutely exposed and helpless one who is awaiting care and has no means to defend itself against wounding" (21). From this perspective, when referring to vulnerability, one has to talk about interdependency rather than dependency because as vulnerable bodies we enter a host of relations of interrelatedness in terms of either care or violence.3

This issue of Digital Philology proposes to analyze different types of medieval vulnerable subjects and scenarios by bridging the historicist approach of mapping the systemic factors that generate precarity and the feminist relational trajectory...


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