The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille

The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille

The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille

The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille


The integration of the blind into society has always meant taking on prejudices and inaccurate representations. Weygand's highly accessible anthropological and cultural history introduces us to both real and imaginary figures from the past, uncovering French attitudes towards the blind from the Middle Ages through the first half of the nineteenth century. Much of the book, however, centers on the eighteenth century, the enlightened age of Diderot's emblematic blind man and of the Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, founded by Valentin Haüy, the great benefactor of blind people.

Weygand paints a moving picture of the blind admitted to the institutions created for them and of the conditions under which they lived, from the officially-sanctioned beggars of the medieval Quinze-Vingts to the cloth makers of the Institute for Blind Workers. She has also uncovered their fictional counterparts in an impressive array of poems, plays, and novels. The book concludes with Braille, whose invention of writing with raised dots gave blind people around the world definitive access to silent reading and to written communication.


By Catherine Kudlick

In this erudite, sensitive, witty, and impeccably documented book, Zina Weygand draws from the rich tradition of the French Annales school, while also offering something completely new. Thanks to her energy and creativity as a researcher, we meet scores of people who might otherwise be “victims of the vagaries of existence,” from the first troupe of blind actors to the “individualist, dirty, noisy, and quarrelsome” residents of the Quinze-Vingts hospice, not all of whom were—to invoke her phrase—choirboys. Weygand uses these stories and better-known figures such as Denis Diderot and Louis Braille to offer a new understanding of the Enlightenment and its legacy. This is not a case of overcompensating for the seeming marginality of her subject by making a bold claim. Rather, Weygand's in-depth study of the reciprocal relationship between the social treatment and representations of blind people from the Middle Ages to the middle of the nineteenth century invites readers to reconsider the ocularcentric roots of modernity.

After all, what better place to think about the perverted power of the visual and visual culture than in an institution for the blind?

Until just a few years ago, historians wouldn't have had the gumption or the analytic tools to pose such a question. and even today a wary few might still find the history of blind people a useless, if quaint, undertaking. But thanks to the emerging field of disability history to which Weygand has been a tireless and highly original contributor, scholars will find questions and resources that breathe new life into the study of the French past. Influenced by work in gender, sexuality, and race, this critical approach to disability invites us to rethink everything from ideas about physical and cognitive normality to the role of the senses in shaping . . .

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