I am of the firm belief that it is never the wrong season to watch the Bette Midler's Halloween classic Hocus Pocus (1993). One of the film's most iconic scenes is the musical number "I Put A Spell On You," in which the Sanderson Sisters cast a spell on the entire adult population of Salem. As Midler warbles, "My whammy fell on you and it was strong;" she and her sisters seduce the community members into reciting the exact words needed to cast such an insidious spell that parents unknowingly put their children at risk. Ultimately, the witches' spell is thwarted; however, spells and enchantments have an entirely different result in Tory V. Pearman's book that takes up lovesickness, love-madness, and the trickery (or cure) medieval enchantresses bring to Malory's Morte Darthur.

Consisting of an introduction, five body chapters, an afterword, extensive notes and a bibliography, Pearman asserts from the opening paragraph that "disability bookends [this] text, appearing first in the form of Uther's debilitating lovesickness…and ending with Arthur's purported 'healing' in Avalon" (1). In the introduction, Pearman carefully lays out what previous scholars bring to a study of the Morte Darthur, highlighting the absence of a critical disability lens, before delving into the different approaches to disability (social, medical, cultural, religious). Notably, Pearman's study includes physical and sensory impairment, as well as mental health and chronic disease (1), making it progressive even in disability studies. Because she is a medievalist as well, Pearman succinctly outlines historical and traditional concepts of knighthood, including "worship" (7), "hardinesse" (9), and the "body chivalric" (11), as they relate to the ambiguity of the knight's "wholeness and fragmentation of [their] physical and social bodies" (1).

Chapters one and two focus on the intersection of lovesickness, love-madness, the Chivalric Code, and the role of women in the (dis)abling or curing of the knights of the tale. As Pearman points out, there is an "ambiguous relationship between women and disabled knights in the Morte" (36) and indicates that, historically, a wounded knight is equivalent to a feminized (passive) body. Through female enchantresses like Nyneve who, Pearman claims, uphold chivalric values while "redefining them to allow for the expression of female desire like her own" (35), and sisters Lyonet and Lyonesse, Pearman analyzes how great knights such as Pelleas and Gareth succumb to lovesickness, which affects not only their masculinity, but also their ability to participate in the Chivalric Code. This lovesickness can devolve into love-madness, according to Pearman, and devastates (and rebuilds) knights such as Tristram and Lancelot.

In chapter three, Pearman claims that "knighthood is organized by a scheme of compulsory able-bodiedness and compulsory able-mindedness that is implicit in its system of compulsory heterosexuality" (64), utilizing queer theorists Robert McRuer and Alison Kafer to analyze literal and metaphorical castration through figures such as the giant of Mount St. Michel and the thigh wound motif. Chapter four focuses on the liminality of the Grail Quest, the wounding (and healing) of Balin, Lancelot, and Galahad's permanent disablement. Interestingly, Pearman posits that The Grail itself "emblematizes the liminality of disability [that] is so integral to the text" (97). In chapter five, Pearman posits that "sequences of disabling and healing…occur at an almost frantic pace…result[ing] in the final collapse of the Round Table" (121), focusing on Lancelot's injured hand and thighs (related to his presumed sinfulness) and Lancelot's curing of Sir Urry. Ultimately, Pearman claims, "the wounds within the Round Table community…continue to fester" and, finally, never heal.

Pearman's study is detailed, fully supported, and, for the most part, presents a unique and enjoyable journey into the medieval world as it relates to disability. There are three areas of concern directly tied to the "ability/disability system" (6) as Pearman utilizes it. As she notes, "the Morte establishes knighthood as an ability/disability system wherein knights must move from one state of ability to the other. This is not to suggest that (dis)ability is a binary; if we imagine disability as a spectrum…" (6; emphasis mine). Although Pearman's use of the system is specific to knighthood, it is disconcerting that she does not connect this system to another term well-known in disability studies: temporarily able-bodied[ness] (TAB). Cecelia Capuzzi Simon writes that this label is applied to "those who are not physically or mentally impaired. And [disability activists] like to remind them that disability is a porous state; anyone can enter or leave at any time. Live long enough and you will almost certainly enter it" (301). Simon's last comment here is especially interesting as it relates to Carol Gill's critique of those TABs who "justify their position of profit or leadership in a disability organization" by asking, "'Actually, we're all disabled in some way, aren't we?'" (46). Pearman responds in a similar manner in a footnote found in chapter four: "The label is not without controversy, however, for it simplistically casts disability as inevitable instead of possible" (185). A thorough discussion about TAB, especially for a reader not learned in disability studies, might provide a teaching moment early in the book.

A second reservation involves the phrase "This is not to say that (dis)ability is a binary" and imagining disability as a "spectrum"; in theory, these statements make a lot of sense, especially when put into context with TAB. Conversely, there are several times throughout the book when Pearman herself approaches disability as a binary. For example, in the discussion about Lancelot's love-madness in chapter two, Pearman's first footnote states, "In the Prose Lancelot, Lancelot goes mad a total of three times" (169). If readers are to consider disability as nonbinary and also on a spectrum, perhaps adding that Lancelot's experience with love-madness is a good example of how this spectrum works might be useful to readers who are unfamiliar with mental health. Also, it is surprising that Pearman does not invoke or utilize the concept of bodyminds, which Margaret Price reveals is a useful term because "mental processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each other" (269). A sure example of how Pearman might incorporate this concept into her analysis concerns Lancelot's love-madness in which she posits, "a man must be of sound mind and body in order to participate in the chivalric order" (58-59). A final hesitation I have is Pearman's fluid use of the term disability and (dis)ability, not only in the above quote, but also throughout the book. A reader familiar with disability studies and Sami Schalk's work might assume that Pearman is adopting Schalk's distinguishment between disability (or ability) as "specific parts of the (dis)ability system," that Schalk defines as "the overarching social system of bodily and mental norms that includes ability and disability" (6). However, for a medievalist that is more interested in the Morte Darthur, this differentiation would have little effect. In all, these hesitancies do not diminish the meticulous research or the undeniable importance of Pearman's book to the intersectional scholarship of disability and medieval studies.

Overall, the book covers a wide variety of intersections that include ability, gender, and sexuality. Pearman masterfully presents her claims, buttresses them with leading scholars of medieval, disability, and feminist studies, and thoroughly walks the reader through examples spread throughout Malory's Morte Darthur. Her extensive and well-researched notes and bibliography provide the reader with not only Pearman's own asides about the given topic, but also a broad array of scholarship that they can then apply to their own research. In short, even if one is not interested in disability studies per se, one can still find areas of research that stand apart from Pearman's primary objective of marrying disability and medieval studies, which makes this book valuable on many levels. Pearman's treatment of Disability and Knighthood in Malory's Morte Darthur certainly "puts a spell on" a variety of audiences, including medieval and classical studies scholars, feminists, and masculinity studies scholars, and those interested in queer studies, medical humanities, and disability studies.

Works Cited

  • Gill, Carol J. "Questioning Continuum." The Ragged Edge: The Disability Experience From the Pages of the First Fifteen Years of The Disability Rag, edited by Barrett Shaw. The Advocado Press, 1994.
  • Price, Margaret. "The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain." Hypatia, vol. 30, no. 1 (2015): 268-284. https://doi.org/10.1111/hypa.12127
  • Schalk, Sami. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)Ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women's Speculative Fiction. Duke UP, 2018.
  • Simon, Cecilia Capuzzi. "Disability Studies: A New Normal." Beginning with Disability: A Primer, edited by Lennard J. Davis. Routledge, 2018. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315453217-37
Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2021 Brenda Tyrrell

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)