brant, sebastian

extasiswings  asked:

Friend! Out of curiosity, as Resident Historian, do you have any thoughts on historical ableism and acceptance/non-acceptance of disability? (Ideally especially during the Golden Age of Piracy but I'm also generally fascinated)

Hehe. Of course I have Thoughts. When do I not have Thoughts.

Medieval disability studies have started to become a considerable trend in just the past 10 years or so, and that link above provides a brief overview and several selections for further reading. The medieval era is obviously the one I know most about, and there was – if no form of institutionalized or regularized medical care for the disabled and ill – not total ignorance of it either. Almshouses (essentially charity homes for the sick and disabled) and leper hospitals were increasingly common in Europe from the eleventh century on. Leprosy was associated with the crusades, and the founding of hospitals for them was viewed as both a social necessity, to segregate those with a highly visible, contagious, and debilitating disease from others, and as a charitable duty for the care of holy people (crusaders) who had achieved some virtue by their actions. There was considerable influence in ideas about the holiness of suffering, and that those who did so were closer to God. In fact, medieval care of the disabled was strongly influenced by classical Christian ideas of piety: care for the sick, feed the hungry, etc, and there were orders of monks and nuns dedicated to it. 

As ever, your class was the strongest determining factor of the care you received: if you were wealthy, you could pay for servants to tend your needs, and live fairly comfortably in your own home. Disability and illness was not a disqualifying factor from attaining high office (as you might expect in a world without modern medical care – everyone would be subject to the same things), and there are many representations of disability in medieval manuscripts. But if you were poor, you were reliant on whatever care your family could or wanted to provide for you, or had to hope you could get a place at an almshouse or similar institution. There were superstitions around disability, and if you had to work for your living in any way (aka everyone below the nobility), this seriously disadvantaged you. But the disabled lived fairly freely in their communities, including in positions of power, weren’t an uncommon or unexpected sight by any means, and had some basic (if doubtless not particularly comfortable) system set up for their care, based on religious charity and individual piety.

As leprosy, a visibly disfiguring physical disease, mostly disappeared from Western Europe around 1500, a new focus on mental disability appeared instead, centered especially on the imagery of the “Ship of Fools.” Michel Foucault talks about this in Madness and Civilization, but it was a particular theme in literature and art, based around the 1494 epic poem “Das Narrenschiff” by the humanist Sebastian Brant. It was, once again, a moral commentary on both humanity and, particularly, the corrupt Catholic Church. The “fools” were placed on a ship and ostracized (symbolically) from the body politic; madness was a concerning and troubling political feature among several monarchs (such as with Joanna “the Mad” of Castile and Charles VI of France, as well as Henry VI of England) and it began to be viewed more negatively than it necessarily had been in the medieval era. Aka: as ever, physical disability was easier to understand and to care for, but mental disabilities got the shaft.

In regard to the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1726, or thereabouts) pirates were, as ever, radical in their social organization and mores. We already know that they were hella queer, had their own form of gay marriage (often shared in a threesome with a woman) and in general were socially liberal, egalitarian, and democratic (honestly, Black Sails is incredibly accurate in capturing the spirit of the historical pirates’ republic and lifestyle, and it was conceived specifically in response to the brutality and oppression of the Navy, which many of them had fled). This extended to their treatment of disability, though medical care and disability had obviously been common to seamen long before pirates. However, while a debilitating injury often meant that a merchant or Navy sailor was turned out with not much option for future employment, pirates established basic workman’s comp and social insurance for everyone aboard a ship. Pirate articles often included specific provisions for disability and loss of limb; Henry Morgan’s in 1671 spell out various sums for the loss of a leg, arm, or eye. Furthermore, disability payments could sometimes continue indefinitely. So a pirate with a peg leg or a hook for a hand or an eyepatch (or all the other pirate trappings, many of which were popularized by Stevenson in Treasure Island) would actually be uncommon. If they got severely or traumatically injured in the line of duty, they could retire with enough money to support themselves, and not need to hazard the dangerous and difficult life of an amputee aboard a traditional sailing ship. (Incidentally, the popular image of a pirate is often how disability began to be represented in the media.)

The excavation and recovery of the Queen Anne’s Revenge has yielded nearly a full kit of medical supplies, and Blackbeard reportedly forced the three surgeons to stay aboard the ship when he captured it. There is some debate about how the image of the “disabled pirate” – Stevenson’s Long John Silver and Blind Pew, Barrie’s Captain Hook, etc – began to be common, and the answer is probably tied to the attitudes of the late 18th and overall 19th centuries, which were absolutely disastrous for disabled people. The rise of the asylums began around now, including the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital (from where we get the word “bedlam.”) Workhouses were built en masse, where the destitute poor and the actually disabled alike were shoved in indiscriminately and treated abominably, and “asylum tourism,” aka go to the madhouse to admire the architecture (and gape at the patients) was a real and horrifying thing. Thus, disability became tied to immorality, weakness, deficiency, and the need to be publically segregated from society (until then, the disabled had been cared for at home – there were a small number of patients in a few private charity hospitals in 1800, and by 1900, there were almost 100,000 in countless workhouses/asylums/general pits of misery). You have Capitalism! (take a shot) and the Industrial Revolution to thank for that. If you couldn’t work in a factory, and you couldn’t earn a wage, and you were a burden on your family who now would be expected to work for an income to support themselves, yep, it was the madhouse for you. And of course, plenty of totally non-mad people got shipped off as well. As I said. Disastrous.

In fact, we have Nellie Bly (aka Elizabeth Jane Cochran, a reporter at the New York World, who I wrote about in my first Timeless historical companion piece) to thank for starting a conversation around asylum reform. In 1887, in a groundbreaking piece of undercover journalism, she got herself committed to Blackwell’s Island asylum in New York and then wrote Ten Days in a Mad-House, revealing both the nightmarish conditions and how every doctor who examined her instantly declared her insane with no hope for recovery. It caused such an uproar that there finally started to be some attempt at oversight and reform for mental hospitals (although there is obviously still a long way to go, yeah – the nineteenth century was The Worst for this.)

So yes. As ever, that was probably more than anyone wanted to know, but the Golden Age of Piracy was particularly focused on social and financial care for members of its community who became disabled, paid pensions, and actually would not have needed to have too many walking wounded seamen/sailors, because there was no incentive to have to keep earning a wage by physical labor when you would be supported from the communal treasure chest. Aka yes, the pirates’ republic of the 17th and 18th centuries was light years more politically and culturally progressive than 21st century America (/stares at the latest Trumpcare bill/Obamacare repeal up in the Senate) and it ain’t close.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in my Culture studies course:

The ship of fools is an allegory that has long been a fixture in Western literature and art.

The allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious, passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction. This concept makes up the framework of the 15th century book Ship of Fools (1494) by Sebastian Brant, one of the first (and a very popular one) major critical publication against the 15th church.

In literary and artistic compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries, the cultural motif of the ship of fools also served to parody the ‘ark of salvation’ (as the Catholic Church was styled).

Michel Foucault, who wrote Madness and Civilization presented a brilliant insight on the matter:

“Renaissance men developed a delightful, yet horrible way of dealing with their mad denizens: they were put on a ship and entrusted to mariners because folly, water, and sea, as everyone then 'knew’, had an affinity for each other. Thus, 'Ship of Fools’ crisscrossed the sea and canals of Europe with their comic and pathetic cargo of souls. Some of them found pleasure and even a cure in the changing surroundings, in the isolation of being cast off, while others withdrew further, became worse, or died alone and away from their families. The cities and villages which had thus rid themselves of their crazed and crazy, could now take pleasure in watching the exciting sideshow when a ship full of foreign lunatics would dock at their harbors.”

I deeply recommend everyone to read that book.