Accessibility features: The EPUB version includes textual description of images to make visual content accessible to readers with disabilities that affect reading.

Elizabeth Bearden's book, which won the Tobin Siebers Prize for Disability Studies in the Humanities in 2017, is the first monograph to look at global representations of disability in the early modern period. In her introduction she offers a compelling rationale for her study: that the premodern period has been understudied by disability scholars, and that disability theory has been underutilized by scholars of the early modern period. Notable exceptions include Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood's edited collection Recovering Disability in Early Modern England (2013), and several books published recently including Lindsey Row-Heyveld's Dissembling Disability in Early Modern English Drama (2018), Genevieve Love's Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability (2018), and Chloe Porter, Katie L. Walter, Margaret Healy's edited collection Prosthesis in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (2017). The publication of these books clearly shows momentum and interest in a turn toward disability's distant past. In Monstrous Kinds Bearden contributes to this critical intervention, making a strong case for what disability theorists can learn from a deeper understanding of premodern constructions of disability, and what scholars of early modern monstrosity can learn from disability studies.

In her introduction Bearden explains in detail the three intersecting concepts that inform her theory of early modern disability: embodiment, space, and form. In her discussion of each of these concepts Bearden brings together premodern theories about monstrosity and contemporary theories about disability. This weaving together of ontologies in/and/of the past and present is a strength of the book, and demonstrates the depth and breadth of Bearden's knowledge and thinking. Because Bearden deftly links together discussions of early modern discourses of monstrosity with work from contemporary disability studies, readers interested in disability, early modern literature and culture, monster studies, critical race and ethnicity studies, and women's, gender, and sexuality studies would find this innovative study valuable to their research and teaching.

Bearden's three foundational concepts—embodiment, space, and form—are essential in understanding the chapters that follow, and in her introduction Bearden takes ample time to unpack each. In her explanation of embodiment she links Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological concept of "incarnate subjectivity," or mind-body connection, with her own previous work on passibility, a term used in early modern theology and humoral theory to mean the human body's capacity for suffering and change. Bearden sees incarnate subjectivity and passibility as corresponding concepts especially in the interdependent and interrelational nature of mind-body experiences of being—variations and changes are shaped by the social structures that act upon the human body in which it is embedded.

Bearden then moves to early modern conceptions of geographic mapping, built upon ancient and medieval traditions of describing not only the physical attributes of a space, but also its inhabitants, some of which were monstrous races. In developing her discussion of the early modern spatial orientation of monsters and the co-development of cartographic technologies, she brings in Brendon Gleeson's theory of "geographies of disability," which she glosses as "social geographies [that] can be enabling or disabling depending on their historical-geographical particulars" to emphasize the socio-spatial link between monstrosity and disability in the early modern era (25).

In her discussion of narrative form, Bearden explains that in ancient formal poetics, narrative technique and content were regulated through similes of the natural human body. A text was valued and assessed by its mimetic representation, and if it broke narrative rules it risked the creation of a monster. Nevertheless, premodern experimental narrative strategies and forms did develop—for example, the wonder book and the narrative "interlace" (various times and spaces interwoven together into multiple imaginative storylines)—and Bearden compares these premodern monstrous productions with theories of unnatural or antimimetic forms within the contemporary field of narratology. And she brings both premodern and contemporary theories of experimental forms into conversation with disability studies concepts such as crip time, space, and the meme to argue that disability was made central and pervasive, and thus "an organizing principle of cosmology" (28).

In the book's first two chapters, Bearden focuses on embodiment, arguing that early modern conceptions of the ideal and the natural shaped and were shaped by disability. In chapter 1 Bearden looks at the role of popular early modern conduct manuals in presenting not only ideal models of bodies and behaviors for readers to approximate but also the systems and strategies for ranking variations from ideals that formed boundaries to bodily and behavioral standards. Discussing Baldassare Castioglione's The Courtier (1528), Bearden identifies a norming effect deployed through the concept of mediocrita, or moderation, that used disabled types as a metric against which courtly men and women could adjust and assess bodies and behaviors that make up civil society. She compares this text with Giovanni Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio's Tre Dialogi (1565) and its English translation, Lodowick Bryskett's A Discourse of Civill Life (1606), which rejects ancient discrimination against disability, advocating instead for "human rights and the social value of people living with impairments" as virtuous members of society (61). Bearden sees both Castioglione and Giraldi as drawing upon passable views of the body as changeable and vulnerable, and argues that early modern people interacted with bodily variations as a way of demonstrating civility. Bearden argues that both texts exert disciplinary and occasionally ethical norming effects on bodies, and draws connections between norming as theorized in these premodern texts and as theorized in contemporary studies by disability studies scholars Lennard Davis and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson.

In chapter 2 Bearden discusses the work of English physician John Bulwer (1606-1656), an early advocate of Deaf culture and author of texts that theorized deafness as a natural variation of the human body that offers specific advantages, which Bearden compares to the contemporary concept of Deaf-gain. Bearden explains how at its core Bulwer's theories reject the view of deafness "as a privational defect of nature" and attempt to counter the social and legal discrimination Deaf people faced in a speech-biased world (80). In his theory of ocular audition, a hearing method in which the ear is supported by the eye as in lipreading and signing, Bulwer presents the senses as interrelated and compensatory, and specifically visual and verbal communication as interdependent. Bearden's discussion of Bulwer's inclusive theories of deafness as natural and as having the potential to enrich the lives of all people, especially in contrast with the norming and "idealizing" texts discussed in chapter 1, clearly demonstrates that different perceptions of and attitudes toward disability co-existed and co-mingled in the early modern period.

Chapters 3 and 4 move from embodiment to space in an analysis of how early modern disability was constructed and circulated globally through European travel accounts describing the Mexica and Ottoman courts, and in particular the presence there of people with disabilities. In chapter 3 Bearden focuses on Hernán Cortés's travel account Cartas de relación (1520-1525), which includes descriptions of the albinos, hunchbacks, and dwarfs that comprised the court household of Moctezuma II. Beardon uses Brendon Gleeson's social model of geographies of disability to tease out the dialectic interdependence of the people and spaces in Cortés's account: specifically how the monstrous bodies in Moctezuma's court were confined and served as a sign of his power while also holding places of importance within privileged court spaces, a dynamic that continued and even expanded to underscore the universality of disability as they become transatlantic members of Cortés's traveling imperialist entourage. In chapter 4 Bearden examines a range of European travel narratives that describe dwarfs, mutes, and eunuchs in Ottoman courts who, like the Mexica courtiers with physical impairments, had favored access to rulers and served as emissaries, confidantes, guards, and assassins. Bearden notes European interest in the practice of Ottoman sign language as having significant "linguistic, statecraft, and educational" advantages, and identifies a number of European writers who cited examples from the early modern Ottoman context to draw transnational connections between people with physical impairments in a global frame (164-165). Through detailed, theoretically-informed readings of multiple early modern texts, both chapters astutely argue that "[t]hough it is certainly true that the foreign is often imagined through the lens of disability—the foreign being demoted intersectionally with the tropes of monstrosity—the universality of disability ultimately trumps cultural difference" (178).

In chapter 5 Bearden turns her analysis to monstrous narrative forms, specifically wonder books that depict conjoined twins, noting multiple and complex ways these representations disrupt temporal, spatial, and media norms while at the same time "naturaliz[ing] the prevalence of monstrosity as the human experience of disability" (182). Bearden's careful comparative readings of multiple examples demonstrate how schematic patterns related to time, space, and media within and across texts interlace or "weave these supposedly singular monsters into a potentially transgressive community of intertextual discourse" (181). Scholars of visual rhetoric such as memes and comics will especially find that this chapter offers a deep and rich historical perspective on contemporary concepts such as replication, mimicking, and repackaging.

The book's coda encourages scholars to look for genealogies of disability across time and space with both rigor and "an ethics of care and interdependent relationality" (233). Bearden also offers a preview of her next groundbreaking book project: a study of early modern disabled writers who wrote about their experiences with mental and physical disabilities. Bearden's Monstrous Kinds is required reading for scholars interested in disability's past, present, and futures.

Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2020 Kristina Lucenko

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)