Effaced is happy to welcome two guest bloggers, Hillary Burgardt and Geraldine Gnych, both PhD candidates at Swansea University, who offer their thoughts on the Wellcome seminar given by Professor Luke Demaitre on 25 October:
HB: Professor Luke Demaitre’s lecture reminded us that context is everything when reading about the disfigured population of the past or viewing pre-modern illustrations of disfigurement. Professor Demaitre outlined the differences between observation and reaction in varied texts and images of disfiguring diseases; the clinical, emotionless descriptions of physicians (which nevertheless become more ‘baroque’ toward the later middle ages), versus the more colorful (sometimes disgusted, sometimes charitable) descriptions in non-medical or -surgical texts. His exploration of the evolution of these perceptions of disfigurement spawned many questions about how historians can and should distinguish observation from reaction and how being aware of this spectrum of descriptions influenced or was influenced by popular opinion. The colorful, but imprecise nature of non-medical sources is at times delightful and disturbing. While the evolution of the term ‘lupus’ and its connections with both literal wolves and corrosive or degenerative diseases that ‘ate’ the lower body seems clever it also speaks to definitions derived from fear. Similarly, ‘disarray and disdain’ abound in definitions of diseases seemingly separated only by public perceptions of ugliness and what made a disease disgusting or worthy of charity. Professor Demaitre left off with a post script about how we have perhaps become too specific about interpreting illustrations of disease. The tendency to label all drawings of red-dotted skin as ‘leprosy’ when there is no clear indication in the text to support this assumption is anachronistic, reading our own modern perceptions of history onto a pre-modern image. He instead asks us to ponder the pre-modern idea of ‘disease’ and the possibility that skin disease may have simply been the best way to symbolize illness in general in a clear manner.
GG: Throughout this fascinating seminar, many thought-provoking questions were raised that are pertinent not only to the study of pre-modern medicine but to any historical, textual or visual analysis. First to be raised was the immediacy of perception, and how a personal reaction to a disfigurement differs from a medical perception of the same disfigurement. This point then followed through the remainder of the seminar, being applied to art and the visual imagery of disfiguring diseases such as scrofula depicted on a wound-man with no medical basis for the artistic depiction. In the discussion, a question was raised which I had failed to consider before about whether it is possible to tell if a description or image is showing a personal perception or a popular perception and, even more thoughtful, whether the image shows an observation or a judgement on the disfigurement. Certain disfiguring conditions, for example, were associated with an excessive lifestyle, the connection of dropsy with gluttony being but one such case. Some interesting points were examined on the use of language in both medical and non-medical literature; in particular was the use of the word turpis (‘foul’). The use of the word appears in relation to several conditions, including leprosy, and stimulated discussion concerning whether this was a physical description of the condition or perhaps again a moral description Turpis can, after all, also be translated as ‘shameful’. To finish the lively discussion was a question concerning whether any literature showed an aspect of the healing process attempting to make the disfigurement appear more ‘normal.’ It is interesting to consider the cosmetic element of ‘normalising’ a disfigurement but perhaps as well, how even those not medically considered as disfigured use cosmetics to appear more ‘normal’: covering a spot; making the face whiter? Perhaps this then leads away from disfigurement and into the world of what is considered beautiful. There is a fine – and shifting – dividing line that Effaced seeks to explore.