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Symptom and Surface: Disruptive Deafness and Medieval Medical Authority


This essay examines constructions of deafness in medieval culture, exploring how deaf experience disrupts authoritative discourses in three textual genres: medical treatise, literary fiction, and autobiographical writing. Medical manuals often present deafness as a physical defect, yet they also suggest how social conditions for deaf people can be transformed in lieu of treatment protocols. Fictional narratives tend to associate deafness with sin or social stigma, but they can also imagine deaf experience with a remarkable degree of sympathy and nuance. Autobiographical writing by deaf authors most vividly challenges diagnostic models of disability, exploring generative forms of perception that deafness can foster. In tracing the disruptive force that deaf experience exerts on perceived notions of textual authority, this essay reveals how medieval culture critiqued the diagnostic power of medical practitioners. Deafness does not simply function as a symptom of an individual problem or a metaphor for a spiritual or social condition; rather, deafness is a transformative capacity affording new modes of knowing self and other.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    For a modern English translation see Power (1910, 1922); for an English translation with colour images and commentary, see Svenberg and Murray Jones (2014). High-resolution color images available at the World Digital Library and non-color images are accessible at the Wellcome Collection website:

  2. 2.

    Modern English translation is my own; original Middle English language (here in italics) follows the text as excerpted by Stephen Shepherd and printed in Wogan-Browne et al. (1999).

  3. 3.

    This phrasing is derived from literary historian Lee Patterson (Sayers 2010, 87).

  4. 4.

    This essay avoids conflating deafness and disability, even if its readings show how social circumstances disadvantage deaf people. The Middle Ages predated the invention of the term “disability” and its status as a cultural or political concept, so medievalists have engaged in critical discussions about the applicability of modern terms of analysis to the historical past. Medical models positing disability as a pathologized condition have increasingly given way to social models framing disability as a cultural construct; more recently, religious models stress that medieval people conceived themselves as psychosomatic wholes. For an overview of these successive models in medieval disability studies, see Godden and Hsy (2015).

  5. 5.

    English quotations follow the translation by Seidenspinner-Nuñez (1998). Original language is used only when crucial for the argument; any quoted Spanish text follows Castro Ponce (2001).


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Correspondence to Jonathan Hsy.

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Hsy, J. Symptom and Surface: Disruptive Deafness and Medieval Medical Authority. Bioethical Inquiry 13, 477–483 (2016).

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  • Deafness
  • Disability
  • Medieval
  • Medicine
  • Literary theory
  • Literary analysis