Book Review:

Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space, and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability, by Elizabeth B. Bearden

Reviewed by Emily Price

CUNY Graduate Center

Review of Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space, and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability, by Elizabeth B. Bearden, University of Michigan Press, 2019. Hardcover. 270pp. ISBN 9780472131129.

Since the publication of Lennard Davis’s seminal work Enforcing Normalcy, the tendency in the field of Disability Studies has been to treat disability as a phenomenon born out of the nineteenth-century idea of the “normal.” Within the social model of disability, societal expectations and interpersonal relations turn impairment, the state of having a loss or change in some aspect of functioning, into disability, the consequences visited on impaired bodyminds by surroundings and attitudes that deny them access. “Premodern disability” is thus a misnomer: impairment is possible, but without societal ideas of a normative body, how can a society imagine disability?

In her recent book Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space, and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability, Elizabeth B. Bearden argues for the presence of nuanced systems of premodern disability, arranged around not the normal but the natural. She cites classical scientists, including Aristotle and Pliny, as well as early modern narrative forms like wonder books and generic kinds, all of which offer examples of “norming” influences at play. Simultaneously, she argues against viewing disability strictly as a reaction to what it is not, instead highlighting the importance of embodiment, subjectivity, and community to premodern and early modern ideas of what it means to be disabled. Using the early modern concept of passibility, meaning susceptibility to one’s surroundings and derived from the Latin to suffer, Bearden reveals that illness and health in the early modern mind were profoundly social concepts, understood as being affected by environmental and interpersonal factors as well as strictly medical ones. She builds on this understanding to argue that early modern monstrosity produces disability through embodiment, susceptibility, and change seen in bodies, spaces, and narrative forms.

In the first half of this book, Bearden is primarily interested in tracking the development of early modern expectations about how bodies should act and how these expectations produced disability through the twin concepts of the ideal and the natural. In Chapter 1, she explicitly focuses on complicating Lennard Davis’s construction of normalcy through an examination of conduct manuals designed to help readers achieve mediocrita, or moderation, while also making their attempts to do so seem natural, a process referred to as sprezzatura (nonchalance). This desire for standardization and awareness that difference is inevitable show the existence of a norming effect that, while it may not literally be called normalcy, achieves a similar categorizing function—even as conduct manuals themselves retain an interest in disabled peoples’ lives and how difference should be navigated in polite society. Chapter 2 expands on the practice of standardization to include the natural, focusing on the case of a physician named John Bulwer, who theorized deafness as a linguistic gain rather than a deviation from what it was “natural” for a body to be able to do. Bulwer’s work serves as an example of early modern pushback to the exclusion of “unnatural” bodies by imagining nature as capacious enough to include disability, privileging diverse experiences as not only a fact of life but as potentially advantageous.

Chapter 3, “Moctezuma’s Zoo or Cortés’s Courtiers: Geographies of Disability in Mexica and European Courts,” extends Bearden’s initial analysis of disability in early modern England onto a global scale by looking at Herman Cortés’s accounts of disabled subjects on his visits to courts in Tenochtitlán. Like European travel narratives, his Cartas present monstrosity in travel as not only an external danger but an internal one: travelers could become monstrous through cultural exchange, especially if they were disabled already (111). The passibility of Cortés and his simultaneous interest and disdain for disabled members of the court once again reveal a sophisticated understanding of the potential for all bodies to become monstrous. At the same time, they clarify deep biases about the threat of those of other races, nationalities, and abilities as porous actors capable of corrupting the able-bodied European traveler. Indeed, Bearden concludes that these biases are ultimately unable to confine the narrative’s disabled subjects, who “resist the hegemonic political and spatial confines of Cortés’s Cartas” and remind nondisabled European readers of their own place in the imperial project and of the presence of disabled individuals in their own courts (139). In a similar vein, Chapter 4 focuses on European travel accounts of the Ottoman empire and the disabled individuals who served in their courts. Those with sensory impairments were often viewed as having alternative capacities that made them especially suited to courtly life, providing a challenge to European travelers’ conflations of disability and monstrosity. These texts track that unsettlement as their disabled subjects force European narrators to reexamine their own ideas about disability, as Bearden encourages her readers to examine their ideas about how premodern, non-western civilizations viewed disability and impairment.

The book’s final chapter, “‘Unnaturall Order’: Conjoined Twins and Monstrous Narration in the Wonder Book,” considers how narrative molds disability and vice versa in wonder books, a genre composed of collections of much older material bound together with commentaries and woodcuts. Blending old and new sources, these fantastic collections of monstrosity broke conventions of linear narrative, visual form, and physical appearance to fascinate and excite their readers. As the genre became more popular, however, this breaking of conventions became a convention itself, contributing to a naturalization of monstrosity as an accepted feature of narrative. This concluding discussion of naturalization demonstrates how, in the early modern imagination, monstrosity, and by extension disability, shapes and organizes social, political, and narrative forms, even when disability itself appears ubiquitous or even invisible.

This assertion that disabled bodies shape individual and collective narratives about what is ideal, natural, or normal is the heart of what Monstrous Kinds attests. While disrupting the Euro-centrality of early modern writing about monstrosity and disability, by including case studies from around the sixteenth-century world, Bearden also performs an intervention in the organizing principles of the social model of disability and thereby stakes the promise of premodern and early modern Disability Studies. In arguing for the presence of sophisticated, complicated ideas about disability, impairment, and social power in the early modern period, Bearden shows that disability need not be a purely modern concept: the vibrancy of disability history is there, if we look for it.

-5 Feb. 2021