Erasing History

[A version of this post appeared at my personal blog.]

I’m reading The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, by Robert Darnton. I’ve just finished the first chapter, which makes some interesting arguments about folk tales and their use in determining what non-elites/peasants thought about… well, anything in a time period where most of them lived nasty, brutish and short, unrecorded lives.

His argument is basically that one cannot just look at folktales – whether raw, or prettied up for modern audiences, or in translation or whatever – and determine much of anything. Instead, one needs to do two things: First, one needs to look at all the surviving folktales, all the variations, and pick up the themes. Second, one needs to compare those themes to the themes one gets from folktales in other regions. It’s only in the comparison of themes that one can sort anything, and even then it’s feeling around in the dark and hoping you can sort out the elephant from the cake.

ANYWAY, what I find very interesting (as an historian who looks for hints and tips of history of disability) is where people are totally talking about disability while at the same time dismissing it or not even acknowledging it.

It’s problematic, of course, to try and apply our modern notions of disability to the past and call it good. Even the concept of disability didn’t really exist the way it does now until sometime around the industrial revolution, and there are tons of examples of people being described by contemporaries in ways that modern audiences would consider “disabled”, but that’s never anyone’s concern. So, you’ll read in the past people described as taking to their beds for months at a time, having tics and the like, but no one remarks on it as anything other than just how that particular person is.

So, in a more formal review of A Midwife’s Tale, I wrote this:

There are ten references that could be read as an opportunity to discuss mental health in A Midwife’s Tale. Ulrich mentions four people who are considered insane by the people around them – John Howard is described on page 67 as having “sank into hopeless insanity”; Rebecca Foster is “mentis inops” according to a letter outlined on page 127; and both Tabitha and Mary Sewall are described by Ulrich as suffering from “mental illness” or derangement on page 260. Three people commit suicide, including James Purrington. One of Ballard’s patients seems to suffer from post-partum depression, while Ballard herself describes her mental state as one that reads as familiar to many people with depression on page 226.

There are a variety of reasons the author might not have gone into that discussion – the one I think is going on is that the book was published in 1990 and there was even less discussion of disability in history then than there is now – but it did stand out to me.

The Great Cat Massacre does something a bit different though, at least in the first chapter.

In describing what French peasant did when hard times were really hard, Darnton writes:

…life on the road meant ceaseless scavenging for food. The drifters raided chicken coops, milked untended cows, stole laundry drying on hedges, snipped of horses’ tails (good for selling to upholsterers), and lacerated and disguised their bodies in order to pass as invalids wherever alms were being given out. … They became smugglers, highwaymen, pickpockets, prostitutes. And in the end they surrendered in hopitaux, pestilential poor houses, or else crawled under a bush or a hay loft and died…

(pg 26)

Yes, of course Darnton. You describe a life of abject misery and back-breaking labour, so obviously people faked being disabled all the time.

Throughout this first chapter he says things like (in describing a folktale) “…two discharged soldiers draw lots to see which shall have his eyes put out. Desperate for food, they can think of no way to survive except by operating as a team of beggars, the blind man and his keeper” (pg 38), describes Simple Simon as “the harmless village idiot” (pg 40), talks about Rapunzel’s lover being blinded (pg 52), and witches adding additional hunches to hunchbacked beggars just because (pg 53).

And yet, obviously people faked being disabled all the time. Because there was nothing going on that might lead to actual disabilities.

I know, it’s a throw-away comment in a book originally published in 1984 (disability-focused history is more accepted now – we even have an association), but it bugs me. It’s not a unique occurrence, and it’s difficult to know quite how to respond.

For me, of course, the thing it does most is highlight people’s biases. When I previously tried to discuss this in a class, I could not actually get the professor to understand my complaint. “But people do fake disabilities all the time!” was her response, and there are only so many hours in a day one can give towards advocacy work.

But people with disabilities are quite common in the literature, if you actually pay attention to it.


Disability Social History Project
Disability Studies, Temple U Blog
Greg Carrier on Medieval Disability
Debilitas Mentis

By 26 February, 2010.    anna history rants, history   


  1. you’ll read in the past people described as taking to their beds for months at a time
    I read this as “talking to their beds” and was rather amused at the mental image.

    Excellent post Anna! The (oh for the love of pete I lost the word. Focus? Concept? Idea? Point? Augh! WHAT IS THE WORD I MEAN.) of the book sounds very interesting, but the execution sounds like it leaves a bit of something to be desired there. (And so does the title. Yeeurgh. Dnw dead cats.)
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Fuck Yeah Bernadette Peters =-.

  2. Really good post which expresses my own frustration at the historical profession. Being a graduate student I read a lot of academic history books, and it seems to me as though most of them contain some kind of reference to disabled people–often, unfortunately, denoted in the ableist language of “the crippled,” “the insane,” “the feeble-minded.” But apparently, these people aren’t worth more than a passing mention; historians take their “defectiveness” and thus irrelevance as a given. This is true even of writers who use the less-offensive term of “the handicapped.”

    I focus on women’s history, and it bugs the heck out of me that many of the “heroines” of women’s history (such as Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton) basically get a pass for their ableist views, though the racism and classism of white women figures is coming under increasing scrutiny. I think this is incomplete and possibly flawed history in addition to being very normative-abled-centric (if that’s a word).

    I’ve heard good things about “The Great Cat Massacre,” but I’m really not sure that I could emotionally handle reading all about dead cats. It’s just too upsetting for me. I know it’s somewhat odd coming from someone who reads plenty of books about dead people, but there you have it.

  3. Sarah & Shiyaya, I’ve been reviewing it (sort of…) chapter by chapter at my dreamwidth if you want to know its general arguments. I found the chapter on cat massacres pretty darn disturbing myself, because he does go into details about what people did to cats, and then discusses their reasoning.

    I think he makes a very good argument in the first chapter, and just keeps applying it in later chapters. But I need to finish it today or I won’t get back to it until Summer.
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..Edward Ross is a Rake! =-.

  4. I have rather been following it there, from tumblr links!

    The idea of detailed descriptions of cat massacres rather makes me want to go hide in a hole. And watch My Neighbor Totoro or something similarly soothing and fluffy.

  5. Blech, I had to read that cat massacre chapter for a class I took a few years ago. It was useful for the purpose we were using it for, and important work, yadda yadda, but did you notice that the author explicitly assumed that any reader of the chapter must be male? That offended me beyond the cat massacre itself (on the basis that the author was not himself complicit in cat-killings).

  6. Thanks for this post. When confronted with people who say things along the lines of “but cfs was made up in the 1980s” I have often wondered what, in contemporary terms, we might say had been going on with the really quite numerous historical persons who went through periods of their life where they couldn’t get out of bed.

  7. “we even have an association”

    Yes we do–and the current president is a huge fan of FWD. Thanks for the links! 😉

  8. Gwyn, I wonder about that all the time. When the fibro came about for me, I often thought about myself as one of those “sickly” people talked about in historical fiction and biographies of historical figures who stay in bed a lot and can’t do active things but who didn’t have any good solid diagnosis. Then when we finally come up with diagnoses for these types of things, everyone goes “oh those are clearly made up because they didn’t exist before!” Mrggllfpgh.

  9. Thank you Rosemary, very glad to hear I’m not the only one with this thought! 🙂
    Also, I love “Mrggllfpgh” – it perfectly expresses my reaction to so many of the things I encounter!

  10. Rosemary – it didn’t exist because they didn’t have it, and clearly if I don’t have personal experience with it, it must be in your head! /sarcasm, but most likely a realistic thought process now.

    But when those diagnoses* came down, it must have been such a relief for families – “So that’s why Aunt Margaret …” “That explains his childhood.” (Maternal grandfather died from heart attack after thyroid removal in early ’70s and was most likely undiagnosed for a long time – and it showed in some pictures.)

    *Mental ones, physical ones, ones that can’t be seen easily. I mean those of us losing weight didn’t all have TB. (100 odd years ago, I’d be dead from undiagnosed thyroid issues, and I would have been a gorgeous waif thanks to the weight loss, with none of the contagiousness of TB! Untapped illness to romanticize folks! TB, how pedestrian. I get royalties!)

  11. “It must be made up because it was announced only 20-30 years ago!”


    “It (fibro) can’t be a *real* illness, it must be in your head, the numbers have skyrocketed!”

    Because we can better diagnose illnesses than we could even 10 years ago!

    I’m also thinking of the anti-vax groups, which assume that vaccinations are the reason for increased autism diagnoses. How about we’ve expanded our definition of it, so kids that would be shoved off can now get help? (Of course, I don’t know much about it, but the leaps and bounds made in mental health over the last 20 years must have something to do with it.)