Deafness in Renaissance Europe

Roasmund Oats

In Cultures of Disability Videos|17 November 2023

Dr Rosamund Oates will give an online public lecture to celebrate UK Disability History Month.

A public online history lecture by Dr Rosamund Oates, Reader in Early Modern History, FRHistS. Manchester Metropolitan University.

Dr Oates is an expert in Early Modern England (c. 1450-1750), working on the cultural and religious history of the past. She is currently working on a history of deafness in Early Modern England, supported by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship and a Research Fellowship from Leverhulme. She has published on deafness in Past and Present, BBC History Magazine, and History Today and can be heard discussing deaf history on Radio 4.

Dr Oates also leads the Cultures of Disability Research Cluster at MMU exploring past and present experiences of disability with academics from English, History, Art, Philosophy and Politics. You can find out more about their work at

Offered by MCPHH (Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage) as their public lecture for UK Disability History Month. Funded by the British Academy.

DATE: 22 November 2023

A portrait image of Rosamund Oats

Series of old printed images of hands and gestures

Deafness in Tudor and Stuart England

Roasmund Oats

Series of old printed images of hands and gestures

Dr Rosamund Oates will be giving an online public lecture to celebrate UK Disability History Month

She explores the experiences of deaf men, women and children in early modern England, showing the long history of sign language.

This lecture will have BSL interpretation and captions.

DATE: 22 November

A portrait image of Rosamund Oats

An image of the painting Massys Susanna and the Elders

Touching Art: Multi-sensory Museums

Roasmund Oats

An image of the painting Massys Susanna and the Elders

Margaret Bell, Assistant Curator at the Norton Simon Museum, California explores how the experiences of disabled people offers a new perspective to art in a recent exhibition, The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire (1450 -1750).

My early art-historical training was grounded in “close looking,” or using one’s eyes to carefully observe composition, form, colour, and line. However, developing the exhibition The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire 1400-1750 at made me question the traditional primacy of vision in understanding art.

sighted people have much to learn about art from blind museumgoers and scholars

In early-modern Europe and the Americas, artwork wasn’t produced for museum spaces as we know them now, where multisensory engagement is largely forbidden. On the contrary, touch was integral to understanding these objects. Collectors used their hands to appreciate the texture, contours, and weight of sculptures, and devotees caressed and even kissed representations of holy figures, such as this New Mexican painted wood crucifix from the 18-19th century.

An image of Christ on the Cross
Christ on the Cross, New Mexico, 18th-19th c, Gift of Mr. W. Jarvis Barlow, © Norton Simon Museum

One of my favorite paintings from the Expressive Body exhibition  is The Sense of Touch by Jusepe de Ribera (c. 1615-16), which was part of his series depicting the five senses. In the period, touch was considered the “lowest” sense, in contrast to the “rational” sense of sight. Here, however, Ribera depicts touch as an intellectual enterprise. A blind man observes a carved head, running his fingers over smooth marble profile. While it may seem that he’s missing out on the painting laying on the table, his tactile understanding of the sculpture is equally beyond the viewer’s grasp.

Far from being a relic of the past, for many touch remains essential to understanding art. I was privileged to interview Georgina Kleege, Professor Emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written brilliantly about visiting museums as a blind person. Her recent essay, “The Art of Touch: lending a hand to the sighted majority”(Journal of Visual Culture, 2021), proposes a toolkit of strategies for touching art, observing the lack of such training in the traditional art history. Kleege offers a refined vocabulary of touch, arguing that sighted people have much to learn about art from blind museumgoers and scholars.

An painting of Jusepe de Ribera
Jusepe de Ribera (Spanish, 1591-1652), The Sense of Touch c. 1615-16 © The Norton Simon Foundation
An image of the painting Massys Susanna and the Elders
Jan Massys (Flemish, c. 1509–1575), Susanna and the Elders, 1564, Oil on panel ©Norton Simon Art Foundation

Professor Kleege’s writing, alongside conversations about disability and accessibility in museums, which since 2020 have become more mainstream, led me to rethink the public presentation of Expressive Body. For the first time, we produced an audiovisual online component, which offered recorded meditations based on works in the exhibition. Regrettably, we were unable to offer in-gallery tactile tours due to Covid concerns, though we suggested household objects that listeners could use to imaginatively access depicted materials like fabric and stone. This was a good step that set a precedent for such programming at our museum, but it is only the beginning.

even in the 19th century, there was this idea of allowing blind people to touch art

Georgina Kleege, University of California

I was pleased that for some visitors, Expressive Body offered a new framework for thinking about art through the body, which is by no means a novel consideration. It is my hope that continued exploration of the diverse modes of art engagement, historically and in the present, will push institutions towards sustained inclusivity in scholarship, programming, and infrastructure.

All images are reproduced with the kind permission of Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California, USA. You can read more about the exhibition The Expressive Body here.

International Day of Disabled People

Roasmund Oats

In Uncategorised|14 March 2023|By Roasmund Oats

Manchester celebrated IDDP21 at Manchester Central Library on Friday, 3rd December. A joint event between Manchester City Council, Manchester Libraries and Manchester Metropolitan University.

Participants explored past and present cultures of disability. A series of short talks prepared for UK Disability History Month (see here) was followed by a panel including Young Creatives and Hamied Haroom from the University of Manchester, who discussed their own experiences of disability and perceived impairments.

Linda Marsh discussed the GMCDP’s archive, part of the Disabled People’s Archive at Manchester Central Library. Recently awarded a major grant by the Wellcome Trust this important collection will soon be made available to anyone interested in the history of disability and disability activism.

Videos by the Young Creatives and Music by the Spotlighters provided entertainment.
We were also joined by Venture Arts, who ran a workshop on votives (see here); Seashell Trust; GMCDP; and the People’s History Museum.


This event includes videos prepared to celebrate UK Disability History Month, for more information on #UKDHM see here

Votives in Manchester: International Day of Disabled People 2021

Inspired by Emma-Jayne Graham’s lecture on votives in Ancient Rome, Venture Arts developed a workshop with Manchester Histories on votives which took place at Manchester’s celebration of IDDP21, Dr Graham’s work explores the experience of disability in Rome through the models of body parts which were left at shrines. These body parts often represented impairments that visitors wanted healing and included arms, legs, feet and ears. At Manchester Central Library, participants were able to create their own clay votives inspired by their experiences of perceived impairment and disability.

To find out more about votives in the Ancient world, you can watch Emma-Jayne’s lecture here. A shorter version is also available at Manchester Central Library with Archives+ on the listening pods.


Venture Arts is an award-winning charity, working with artists with learning disabilities. The workshop was funded by Manchester Metropolitan University.

A small model of a left arm made in bronze, it has aged and has some green marks on it. REL: Votives of body parts were left at temples as people prayed that those body parts would be cured.

Disability in Ancient Rome

Dr Emma-Jayne Graham examines the votives, or models of body parts, made by or for disabled people and explores the experience of disability in the classical world. You can watch her talk here (please note this version has captions only, a BSL-interpreted version will be uploaded shortly).

Dr Emma-Jayne Graham is a Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University with expertise in Ancient Rome. She uses archaeological remains to explore ideas about religion and disability in Roman Italy, her most recent book is Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy (2021). As well as exploring classical disability she runs The Votives Project.

A woman holding a hearing trumpet

Hearing Happiness

Our celebrations of UK Disability History Month started with an entertaining and informative talk by Professor Jaipreet Virdi, an award-winning activist, writer and historian. Professor Virdi presented compelling arguments about ideas of disability and views of deafness in 20th-century America and explored the evolution of hearing aids.

Dr. Jaipreet Virdi (University of Delaware) is an award-winning historian who explores how medicine and technology affect the lives of disabled people and recently published Hearing Happiness:  Deafness Cures in History  (2020)

In this talk she examines the cures for deafness and the development of hearing aids in 20th-century America.   She also discusses her own experience of hearing loss and deaf education.

Jaipreet Virdi’s talk launched Cultures of Disability’s celebration of UKDHM 2021, was a joint project with Manchester City Council , Manchester Met University and Manchester Libraries and is also available on Archives+.   It is available here with BSL interpretation and captions.

Cover of a book which is bright yellow, and title is in large red print. Black and white photograph of white woman wearing an old fashioned bonnet, and listening to a hearing tube. Writing reads: Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History by Jaipreet Virdi

If you missed the event, for a limited period you can watch the pre-recorded lecture here. This includes BSL interpretation and captions.

You can also find out more in Professor Verdi’s book, Hearing Happiness. Why not see what other events we are running to celebrate UKDHM?

M logo pink blue and purple
Manchester Centre for public history & Heritage logo on a white background
Manchester City Council black on white background Logo

An old image of man purging the soul

Perceptions of Madness

Roasmund Oats

An old image of man purging the soul

For many people with schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders, the people who initially identify something wrong are not medics but family members.[1] A quick internet search reveals numerous websites and fact sheets providing information and advice for family and friends concerned that a loved one has developed a serious mental illness.[2] We can trace the idea that human beings instinctively recognise the mental disorder in others back to the early modern period. In the seventeenth century, the perceptions of friends and family were as important in identifying mental illness as they are today. An excellent example of this can be found in the autobiographical writings of Oxfordshire gentlewoman Dionys Fitzherbert (c.1580 – c.1641)

Between 1608 and 1610, Dionys described an extended period of significant emotional and psychic distress.  She writes of an hallucination, imagining that ‘Charterhouse Yard … should flow with the matter that came out of my mouth, and did assuredly think all the bed and clothes were as wet with it as might be’.[4] She suffered delusions in which she believed that she was not her parents’ child, but was the long dead-sister of a friend.[5] She encountered suicidal thoughts and at the same time she feared that her family would have her put to death.[6]


Her thoughts were confused and fractured. Just like many people who suffer from severe mental illness today, Fitzherbert did not recognise that she was unwell. In fact, she believed that she was suffering from a spiritual affliction.[7] Her family and friends, however, were frightened by her behaviour, and believing her to be mentally ill placed her in the care of doctors.

But how did Fitzherbert’s family know she was mentally ill? After all, as Kate Hodgkin tells us, the seventeenth century was a time during which there was only a fine line between madness and religious despair.

human beings instinctively recognise mental disorder in others

It was the family’s perception of Fitzherbert’s behaviour that was key. Knowing her as well as they did, Fitzherbert’s relatives were able to identify her mental illness because they identified Dionys’s thoughts and behaviours as ‘bizarre’. In 1958 psychiatrist H. C. Rumke coined the phrase the ‘praecox feeling’, or the ‘praecox experience’, which referred to ‘a characteristic feeling of bizarreness experienced by a psychiatrist while encountering a person with schizophrenia’. [9] Although never formally made part of diagnosis, Rumke argued that the ‘praecox feeling’ was a central part of the diagnostic experience and this notion was echoed by psychiatrists throughout Europe during the twentieth century.[10] This feeling of bizarreness was also experienced by the non-medically trained. In the 1960’s psychiatrist Wilhelm Mayer-Gross said that the words ‘bizarre’, ‘queer’ and ‘absurd’ were often used to convey ‘the reaction of the non-schizophrenic towards the patient’.[11] Although use of the ‘praecox feeling’, has declined as a diagnostic element, it is still referred to by psychiatrists today, some of whom believe it to be ‘a real determinant of medical decision making in schizophrenia’.[12]


Is this the feeling that Dionys Fitzherbert’s relatives experienced? If so the idea that human beings instinctively know when a person is suffering severe psychic distress, and the way that it seemingly transcends space and time provides us with a clear link between perceptions of madness in the past and modern experiences of mental illness.


This research is part of a PhD funded by the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (NWCDTP) 

An old image of man purging the soul

[1] Kim Runkle, ‘Psychosis: Responding To A Loved One In The Face Of Uncertainty’, Nami.Org, 2019 <; [Accessed 12 October 2021].

[2] ‘Are You Worried About Someone’s Mental Health? Fact Sheet’, Mindcharity.Co.Uk, 2011 <; [Accessed 12 October 2021], ‘Living With – Schizophrenia’, Nhs.Uk, 2021 <; [Accessed 12 October 2021], ‘Mental Illness – Family And Friends – Better Health Channel, Betterhealth.Vic.Gov.Au, 2019 <; [Accessed 14 October 2021].

[3] Unknown author Le médecin guarissant Phantasie [digital image] <; [Accessed 12 October 2021].

[4] David Booy, Personal Disclosures: An Anthology Of Self-Writings From The Seventeenth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. 309.

[5] Booy, Personal Disclosures, p. 310.

[6] Booy, Personal Disclosures, pp. 311-312.

[7] Kate Hodgkin, ‘Fitzherbert, Dionys (C.1580-C.1641)’, ODNB, 2019 <; [Accessed 15 June 2021].

[8] Katharine Hodgkin, Women, Madness And Sin In Early Modern England: The Autobiographical Writings Of Dionys Fitzherbert (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), p. 58.

[9] Tudi Gozé and others, ‘Reassessing ‘Praecox Feeling’ In Diagnostic Decision Making In Schizophrenia: A Critical Review’, Schizophrenia Bulletin, 45.5 (2018), p. 966.

[10] J. Parnas, ‘A Disappearing Heritage: The Clinical Core Of Schizophrenia’, Schizophrenia Bulletin, 37.6 (2011), p. 1125.

[11] Wilhelm Mayer-Gross, Martin Roth and Eliot Slater, Clinical Psychiatry, 3rd edn (London: Baillière, Tindall & Cassell, 1969), p. 276.

[12] Gozé et al, ‘Reassessing’, p. 966.

an image of a Culture in Quarantine flyer

Culture in Quarantine: A Manifesto for 2050

Dr Kai Syng Tan, an artist based at MMU and a member of the ‘Cultures of Disability’ research group, was commissioned to produce a film for the BBC this summer as part of the BBC Arts’ Culture In Quarantine initiative, which has brought the arts into people’s homes during the lockdown.

Her film, How To Thrive In 2050! 8 Tentacular Workouts For A Tantalising Future! is available on the BBC i-player. It’s a call for action for a more creative, equitable and neuro-fantastic future by a ‘human-octopussy’, and is challenging, funny and inspiring.

Dr Kai Syng Tan is one of twelve D/deaf, neurodivergent and disabled professional artists based in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland who have been commissioned to produce new film and audio works for BBC platforms, many of which explore the experience of living through Covid-19.

Lamia Dabboussy, BBC Head of Arts says: “This batch of commissions from artists across the country showcases the breadth of inspiring work we’ve all missed experiencing over this past lockdown year”

How to Thrive in 2050! 8 Tentacular Workouts For A Tantalising Future! is a brilliant and creative film – congratulations to Dr Kai Syng Tan! For more of her work see her webpage.

An open book showing different gestures with his hands.

Deafness and Salvation in Early Modern Europe

Early Modern Europe was an aural world. Despite the invention of print and the rise in literacy, speech was still the main form of communication: it was at the heart of religious worship and legal practice. In a world based around the spoken word, what about those who struggled to hear or who couldn’t speak?

Early modern priests worried about whether prelingually deaf people could enter heaven. A stumbling block for many was the assertion by St Paul that ‘faith comes by hearing’ and ‘by the mouth, confession is made unto salvation’: how could deaf men and women either come to know God or perform the necessary sacraments?


It was a problem that troubled Catholics and Protestants: they worried about how to communicate with deaf and deafened people, and how to help those same people to take part in Church sacraments. Dominican Friars – who had a tradition of using their fingers to remember parts of their sermons – introduced finger spelling to help men and women make their confessions when speech was not possible. In the following centuries, a Benedictine monk, Pedro Ponce de Leon, taught deaf children to lip read and so to communicate by ‘speaking’ in Spanish. As a result, deaf children of Spanish noblemen were able to make wills, inherit their parents’ wealth, make confession and attend Church services. Pedro Ponce de Leon’s efforts were carried on in Spain by Juan Pablo Bonet, who published a guide to teaching deaf children to ‘speak’: Reduccion de Las Letras (1620).1

17th-century printed pictures in a grid of 24 squares showing different gestures with his hands.

These early efforts at Deaf Education prefigured the Oralist movement of the nineteenth century, when prelingually deaf children were encouraged to speak and lipread in their native languages rather than using sign language, but at the same time as Spanish children were being taught to speak vocally, elsewhere in Europe sign language was being recognised as a valid alternative to oral speech in Church ceremonies.

Catholics and Protestants ensured deaf signers could take part in Church ceremonies

— Marc Scott, Executive Officer

In seventeenth-century Geneva, the Catholic Bishop, Francis de Sales prepared a prelingually deaf boy, Martin, for communion using sign language. Martin ‘could express by signs good and evil thoughts of the mind, perfect and imperfect consent of the will, and the difference between mortal and venial sin’. In seventeenth-century Protestant England, it was reported that the ‘gestures and zealous signs’ of a prelingually deaf gentleman, Edward Gostwicke, ‘’procur’d and allow’d him admittance to sermons, to prayers [and] to the Lord’s supper’. Increase Mather recorded a prelingually deaf woman taking the Eucharist in colonial America, writing that those ‘born, or by any accident made Deaf and Dumb … [who are] able by signs (which are analogous to verbal expressions) to declare their knowledge and faith; may as freely be received to the Lords supper as any that shall orally make the like profession.’

17th-century printed pictures in a grid of 24 squares showing a man with long hair, a neat beard and dressed like a cavalier making different gestures with his hands.

Language, of course, relies on mutual understanding and so for the signs to have a legal status they needed to be agreed and accepted by all the parties involved – notably the hearing ministers. Two marriages in early modern England show the problems – and benefits – of using sign language as an alternative to oral speech. In 1618, a prelingually deaf man, Thomas Speller, married Sara Earle after getting permission from the chancellor of the diocese of London and the Lord Chief Justice, who agreed in advance the signs that Speller would use to show his consent. Fifty years earlier in Leicestershire, another prelingually deaf man, Thomas Tilsye, married using sign language. To show his willingness to marry his bride, Ursula Russell, he enacted elements of the wedding ceremony: ‘first, he embraced her with his arms, and took her by the hand, put a ring upon her finger, and laid his hand upon her heart, and held his hands towards heaven; and to show his continuance to dwell with her to his life’s end, he did it by closing of his eyes with his hands, and digging out of the earth with his foot, and pulling as though he would ring a bell’.