“Körperzeichen/Imagery” as a field of research is dedicated to the study of images and symbols of the human body, focusing on notions of physical appearance and bodily marks, from artistic representation to physical marking (stigmatisation), e.g. caused by corporeal punishment. Special attention is applied to “body” as a category of difference and of perception, also in its complex interrelation with “soul”. Furthermore we take into account the gap between, on the one hand, cultural codes applied to the body, on the other hand, the realm of corporeality as well as the human psyche in their own right.
„Körperzeichen“ are to be understood as cultural representations of the interrelationship between disabilities and abilities. Literary texts are particularly important in this context, as they enable us to access issues beyond the realm of reality by providing a glimpse at the imaginary, at desires, fears, possibilities and impossibilities. As such, literature offers its audience recourse to explanations and mechanisms for coping with life that transcend the restraints of everyday life.
Literature visualises corporeal differences and explores ways of expressing them, furthermore it can discuss potential reactions to such differences that range from open discrimination to diligent care in a way not possible in other discourses, be it of authority, law, or medicine. However, it is also necessary to enquire to what degree various imageries may have had a “disabling” effect or may even have created specific social groupings, e.g. peasants, artisans, merchants, clerics, knights, soldiers, erudites, and rulers. Within this context further sources beyond literary texts become relevant.
The research project “Screaming Wounds of War – Trauma in Pre-Modern Literature” (Sonja Kerth) aims to link current strands of disability history with elements of historical research on emotions, psychology, semantics, and gender studies. Trauma here is understood quite broadly. It includes persistent mental scarring caused by violence as well as bodily impairment resulting e.g. from war. Medieval authors did not know about trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, nor did they possess a specific terminology for such phenomena. Still, they produced texts not only depicting but also debating the effects of debilitating violence both with regard to bodily harm and mental shock. The project looks at German literature of medieval and early modern times. Besides traumatised warriors, it will also focus on women, both as traumatised victims (suffering e.g. sexual violence, loss of liberty, loss of husband due to violence and war), but occasionally also as perpetrators. These narratives of trauma do not reflect any real-life experience of the authors, nor do they result from psychological depiction of characters. Instead they allow to cast a glimpse at a cultural trauma. By depicting and interpreting the consequences of violence (not only in war), the narratives invite their audience to rethink their own reality.
In general, trauma presents itself in form of narratives, and it is only as narratives that it can be articulated. Within a narrative, fragments of directly or indirectly experienced events may be reassembled and given order. It is the very act of articulating that initiates an understanding and allocates significance and meaning to the depicted events. Trauma may thus become a universally accepted „master narrative“, while not being based on actual experience. Instead, trauma has to be considered as resulting from a process of interpretations, destined for an audience of warrior aristocrats and city dwellers. It also needs to be regarded on the background of an intensified debate on gender relations and emotions in secular poetry. This raises the question of where to locate narratives of trauma methodologically: Are they being coded via emotions (sorrow, anger, fear)? Can they be tackled via literary psychology? Or do they exclusively serve narrative purposes in the context of depicting characters and furthering the plot?
Medieval and early modern German narrative poetry will be the primary object of research in this project. This includes in particular heroic epics (“Nibelungenlied”, „Nibelungenklage“, Dietrichepics, Waltherepics, „Wolfdietrich“) and German chansons de geste (“Willehalm“, “Rolandslied”; further Karls- and Wilhelmsepics); courtly novels (e.g. “Erec”, “Iwein”, “Parzival”, “Krone”); Märendichtung (e.g. Werner der Gärtner, Herrand von Wildonie, Heinrich Kaufringer, Hans Rosenplüt, Hans Folz); possibly legends and autobiographic texts.
Thus, „Körperzeichen“ as a field of reaseach is also dedicated to the problems of access to and limitations of corporeality, for example with regard to describing and depicting the aching body. Still, pre-modern imagery, including religious texts and rituals as well as Christian iconography, refer persistently and in many different ways to the lived experience of pain. The aim of the post-doctoral research project “Experiences of Pain in the Middle Ages” (Bianca Frohne) is to develop the methodological framework for a cultural history of pain, focusing on the cultural significance of pain, its various meanings, and specific discourses within the contexts of long-term disease, chronic illness, infirmity and impairment. The temporal focus is the Early and High Middle Ages.
Alexandra Tacke’s post-doctoral research project “’Blindgänger’. The Aesthetics of Blindness from the Early Modern Age to the Present” analyses the narrative significance of blindness in literature, film, and paintings. Medical researchers, theologians, pedagogues, natural scientists, theoreticians on perception, and philosophers have been investigating the phenomenon of blindness (including colorblindness, cataract, blind spot, hysterical blindness) across many centuries. But also in the aesthetic realm a discourse on blindness is visible: literary authors, artists, and film makers negotiated the theme of blindness in their respective works. The occurrence of blindness raises a plethora of questions: In which ways do various aesthetic media (text, film, photography, audio plays, and art) represent “blind” perception? What kind of irritations evokes the “empty” gaze of a blind person? How can this gaze destabilize a hierarchical gaze of power? What kind of anxieties, projections, and conceptions are connected to the figure of the blind? Why and when is blindness either concerned as “abnormal” or an “extraordinary” gift? What role does gender play? How come that the figure of the blind women does not really occur before the (post-)modern era (apart from allegorical representations of Fortuna, Justitia und Synagoga)? Why are the allegorical traditions of blindness in the antique and Christian tradition most frequently configured as male (Teiresias, Oedipus, Samson etc.)? This study aims to find answers to these questions by exploring the realm of aesthetics, the history of science, media- and cultural history, gender discourses, as well as disability studies for different figurations of blindness.
The project “Dis/ability According to Late Medieval Sermons and Exempla” (Christoph Wieselhuber) takes as a starting point a new type of preaching that arose with the founding of the mendicant orders, the Franciscan minorites and the Dominicans, in the 13th century. Since then, more and more itinerant preachers had taken up travelling through European cities in order to spread their teachings. These teaching friars adapted their phrasing as well as the content of their sermons to the everyday worries and problems of the auditory in order to attract as many listeners as possible. This also included, of course, the experience of sickness and frailty. Most insightful, in this regard, is also the genre of the exemplum, in which some forms of impairment are a recurring theme. Bringing together the supposedly lived experience of a lay audience as well as theological doctrine, these texts allow us to access another promising perspective on medieval dis/ability.
Out soon: Dis/ability History der Vormoderne. Ein Handbuch / Premodern Dis/ability History. A Companion, eds. Cordula Nolte, Bianca Frohne, Uta Halle, Sonja Kerth (Affalterbach: Didymos, 2017).
Workshop “Perspectives of Dis/ability History in an Interdisciplinary and International Context”, 6th – 7th February 2016 (Delmenhorst, Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg) More
Workshop “Images of Dis/ability”. Disease, Disability & Medicine in Medieval Europe, 9th Annual Meeting, Bremen, 4th-6th Dec. 2015. More
New article: Swantje Köbsell: LeibEigenschaften - eine barrierefreie Ausstellung über den Umgang mit Beeinträchtigungen in der Vormoderne, in: Handbuch Behindertenrechtskonvention (2015). About our barrier-free exhibition on dis/ability history in Bremen, 2012.
New book: Bianca Frohne: Leben mit »kranckhait« Der gebrechliche Körper in der häuslichen Überlieferung des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts Überlegungen zu einer Disability History der Vormoderne (Studien und Texte zur Geistes- und Sozialgeschichte des Mittelalters 9), Affalterbach 2014. More
Interdisziplinäres Ringseminar an der Universität Bremen: “Dis/ability History. Ein neuer Blick auf die Geschichte”. Wintersemester 2014/15, Freitags von 10 – 12 Uhr, GW2, Raum B 2880. More
2014 Conference on Disease, Disability and Medicine in Medieval Europe: Infection and Long-Term Sickness. University of Nottingham, 6th/7th December 2014. More
Graduate Workshop on Medieval Disability, University of Nottingham, 5th December 2014. More
Workshop: “Dis/ability History in Dialogue with Literary Studies and Language History” hosted by PD Dr. Sonja Kerth and Dr. Heiko Hiltmann (University of Bremen). Gästehaus am Teerhof, October 10th/11th 2014. More
Workshop:„Dis/ability: Archaeology & Anthropology - Finds and Contexts“
hosted by Prof. Dr. Uta Halle (University of Bremen), Dr. Christina Lee (University of Nottingham), PD Dr. habil. Wolf-Rüdiger Teegen (LMU Munich). Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg Delmenhorst, June 13th/14th, 2014. More
New: Phänomene der “Behinderung” im Alltag. Bausteine zu einer Disability History der Vormoderne, ed. Cordula Nolte (Studien und Texte zur Geistes- und Sozialgeschichte des Mittelalters 8) (Affalterbach: Didymos, 2013). More
Workshop „Dis/ability and Law in Pre-Modern Societies.
Intersections of Legal History and Dis/ability History“ hosted by Prof. Dr. Cordula Nolte (University of Bremen) and Prof. Dr. Wendy Turner (Georgia Regents University, Augusta). University of Bremen, January 31st/February 1st, 2014. More
Workshop „Dis/ability History and Medicine. Terminology – Concepts – Models” hosted by Prof. Dr. Cordula Nolte (University of Bremen) and Prof. Dr. Dr. Ortrun Riha (University of Leipzig). Gästehaus Teerhof, September 16th/17th, 2013. More