A Cultural History of Disability in the Renaissance


Dr Susan Anderson, Sheffield Hallam University

In around 1490, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a figure in one of his notebooks that has become known as the Vitruvian Man. As Leonardo’s notes record in his characteristic mirror-writing, the sketch is drawn according to the ideal proportions of the human body, as described by the Roman author and architect, Vitruvius.

The nude figure stares sternly out from the yellowed paper at the viewer. He is lean and muscular, pale-skinned and clean-shaven. In fact, he sports remarkably little body hair except for the thick curly locks framing his face. He stretches his arms out, middle fingers reaching to touch the edges of a circle and a square that are also carefully traced onto the paper. Most notably, he is multi-limbed, with four arms and four legs drawn overlaid on top of each other, extending out towards the edges of the frame.

This iconic image is at once a surreal impossibility and a standard of normality. It envisages the human body as a microcosm of the entire universe constructed by the same mathematical ratios that structure all creation. But as an emblem of Renaissance humanism, the image also sets the parameters for the development of liberal humanism, defining the archetype for what “the human” is and can be. Whether the person depicted in the image is purely imaginary or a self-portrait, the Vitruvian Man has functioned for centuries as a symbol of both an idealised form (and thus one which is de facto unattainable) and of standard assumptions about actual human forms and what can be considered ‘normal’.

The social model of disability has, over the last few decades, revealed that such assumptions themselves give rise to disability in large part. While impairment will in and of itself shape a person’s experience of life, it is the barriers created by surrounding attitudes, built environment, and social expectations which turn the experience of impairment into disability. The origins of disability are often located in the 19th century, seen as the age of taxonomisation and categorisation, of the formalisation of the relationship between social and medical research and government policy, the era of the establishment of many philanthropic organisations, plenty of which continue to provide services, representation and identification today. These structures make possible the medical and social models of disability, so it is unsurprising that some scholars might find it difficult to name or conceptualise disability before it is named or conceptualised in these terms.

However, alterations over time in what we might consider to be part of disability do not inevitably mean that disability as a category did not exist before modernity. Rather, such alterations show that current modes of understanding disability are not inevitable by revealing alternative modes of understanding, speaking of, and living in different kinds of bodies and minds. Renaissance representations of the body and the mind were foundational for the making of modern identities, and the assumptions found in sources like Leonardo’s sketch speak to a neglected pre-history of the medicalization and pathologisation of whole categories of bodies deemed deviant.

A Cultural History of Disability in the Renaissance explores configurations of bodies and minds that do not match Leonardo’s pattern, surveying the complexities of the ways disability was understood and experienced in the Renaissance, and its relationship to identity, physical labour, ageing, spirituality, justice, and sexuality. From accommodations made for atypical bodies, to depictions of stammering on stage, to the compensation offered to injured workers by Renaissance institutions and corporations, to pain inflicted and experienced, to what it might have meant to be blind or deaf in the period, and from religious approaches to learning difficulties to the elusive and contradictory ways of categorising and understanding madness, the period offers evidence of a huge range of ways of being different and of ways of understanding difference. Through its collection of perspectives on an array of aspects of disability, this volume demonstrates some of the possible ways of thinking, living and being in the Renaissance which have relevance for our understanding of disability today.


A Cultural History of Disability in the Renaissance 
is published by Bloomsbury


About the Author: Susan Anderson is Reader in English and Head of English at Sheffield Hallam University, where she specialises in early modern literature and drama. She has published widely on interdisciplinary approaches to a range of early modern performance genres and is the author of Echo and Meaning on Early Modern English Stages (Palgrave Macmillan 2018). She also curated an ‘Issues in Review’ section on Disability in Early Modern Theatre for the journal Early Theatre (22.2, December 2019).

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