- Disability before Disability:Mapping the Uncharted in the Medieval Sagas
How to Talk about Medieval Disability
To the medievalist, the field of disability studies offers unique challenges. In short, disability studies is a critical, interdisciplinary field designed to investigate the interaction between bodies and minds perceived as disabled and various aspects of culture and society. Disability studies counters the traditional biomedical understanding of disability as an individual deficit. Instead, disability is seen as a social phenomenon embedded in social arrangements and cultural conventions. Yet scholars have not yet come to a consensus on how to conceptualize disability, not least as a historical phenomenon. Recent years have seen the development of a variety of conceptual models and other critical approaches in an effort to replace earlier approaches to the subject that have been perceived as ineffectual, including the traditional "medical model" but also the highly influential "social model" of disability, which developed as a response to the prevalence—or at least perceived prevalence—of the former (Shakespeare 2017). [End Page 440]
However, rather than an impenetrable cacophony, disability scholars have continued to offer new avenues of scholarly inquiry even if they have not come to a complete consensus on whether, or to what degree, focus should be placed on either the material or social or even other aspects of disability. The ongoing maturation of disability studies has indeed brought about a wider recognition of the multifaceted and complex nature of disability as something embedded in the embodied experiences of physical reality as well as in culture and social relations of power that must be examined through "diverse strands of enquiry" (Meekosha and Shuttleworth 2017, 190). Disability studies as an academic discipline nonetheless emerged and continues to be rooted in the struggle against the prevalent oppression and exclusion faced by people with disabilities. This kind of political engagement cannot be separated from disability studies research if the latter is to be meaningful. Another ongoing challenge is that the very notion of disability is modern, and disability discourse is constantly transforming and evolving. This clear engagement with the contemporary means that inquiries toward historical disability run the risk of being defined merely as the "other," as part of a prehistory mainly mentioned in relation to the proper, much more recent history of disability.
If medieval discourse of disability did exist and can be confidently identified, it was likely dramatically different from the corresponding modern discourse owing to several factors, including the absence of the whole modern ideology of welfare. However, when it comes to different social groups or conditions, the Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur), composed from c. 1250 to c. 1450, are particularly rich sources, as they are full of details that, to traditional history, might have seemed of minor significance. They are, furthermore, generally closer to the common experience of daily life or, in W. P. Ker's terms, the "meanness of reality" (1908, 201), and its normative social codes than many other medieval narratives, even if their focus is mostly restricted to the struggles among early Iceland's upper classes. On the other hand, the sagas are not without problems as historical sources since they relate events from a period—c. 850 to c. 1050—very distant from the period of their composition and thus cannot be relied upon when it comes to the particular. As literary sources of ideas and ideologies, however, their value remains enormous.
The purpose of the project "Disability before Disability," initiated in 2017 and located at the University of Iceland, is to shed light on what constituted disability in Icelandic society, culture, and history before [End Page 441] the establishment of disability as a modern legal, bureaucratic, and administrative concept.1 Depending upon historical literary sources, the project is preoccupied with definitions and categories by necessity. In modern society, a category of disabled people, though far from free of ambiguity, has been established, mainly for the purpose of distributing benefits and services. In the society depicted in the medieval sagas, no such category exists. Thus, the title of the project echoes the Wittgensteinian conundrum in which such...