Academic journal article Arthuriana

Sitting on the Sidelines: Disability in Malory

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Sitting on the Sidelines: Disability in Malory

Article excerpt

The presence of a small number of disabled characters in Malory's text points to the normalization of ability: disability is outside the norm. This article argues that disability is marginalized to the point of invisibility in the text because it is a site of anxiety for the intended audience. (KH)

In Malory's Le Morte Darthur, we find a sword that 'never man drew hit but he were dede or maymed.'1 This clearly represents the dangers of chivalric endeavor: violence done to the body, resulting in death or impairment. One might imagine that death, especially in one's sins, would be the more serious outcome, yet here there is an equivalence produced by the sentence structure, 'dede or maymed'-and indeed impairment, to a man of arms, is presented as a fate to be dreaded like death. The chivalric body, constantly endangered by violence, is yet always an active body, unimpaired and capable of committing violence, and this ability is essential to the knight's inclusion in the chivalric community.

In this essay, I will discuss the fictional representation of impairment and disability in the Morte, asking how Malory's work-the longest chivalric text in English-portrays the post-traumatic impairment and disability of knights and noblemen. I am here following historian Irina Metzler in using the term 'impairment' to refer to the physical condition and 'disability' to refer to 'the social construction of an impairment.'2 Impairment in Malory is not, as we shall see, always a disability. I will draw on texts discussing the views of impairment and disability in the late Middle Ages, setting Malory's text in a contemporary context.

The varying medieval views of impairment have been the subject of much excellent scholarly work. However, the texts discussing medieval views of disability and impairment, such as Metzler's Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about Physical Impairment during the High Middle Ages c. 1100-1400 and A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages: Cultural Consideration of Physical Impairment, and Henri-Jacques Stiker's A History of Disability are primarily written by historians, and texts on disability in fiction such as Ato Quayson, Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis ofRepresentation and David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse deal primarily with modern, not medieval, fiction. Furthermore, much of this work focuses on inborn-rather than acquired- impairment. The exception to this rule is Tory Vandeventer Pearman, Women and Disability in Medieval Literature, which, however, focuses on women, who are generally non-combatant and thus not entirely relevant to the subject I wish to focus on here: the impairment, through martial violence, of a previously able-bodied knight. Moreover, Christine Marie Neufield's article 'A Dwarf in King Arthur's Court: Perceiving Disability in Arthurian Romance' also focuses on inborn impairment, rather than that resulting from battle injuries. There is, however, one recent article by Pearman, 'Disability, Blood, and Liminality in Malory's "Tale of the Sankgreal,"'3 that attends to acquired impairment in Malory. However, while Pearman's piece focuses on Lancelot, Galahad, and Percival's sister-who are temporarily impaired-my focus will be on the two explicitly and (semi-)permanently disabled characters of Malory's text: Sir Urré and King Pellam.

To the medieval knight, impairment due to injury must have been a constant danger. Late medieval tournaments were not a safe sport, and medieval battles even less so. Deaths and injuries at tournaments are mentioned by contemporary chroniclers, the most famous case being the death of Henry II of France in 1559. While mortality of course was higher than it would be today, clearly some of these injuries (where the knight escaped death), led to long-lasting or permanent impairment; yet such impairments are rarely mentioned-descriptions of tournaments do not generally dwell on the later fate of any unlucky participants. …

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