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22.02.16 Trembinski, Illness and Authority

22.02.16 Trembinski, Illness and Authority


Readers will likely be familiar with Donna Trembinski’s work on historical depictions of mental illness or her tracing of trauma in historically- and culturally specific contexts in the Middle Ages--and will, therefore, expect rigorous research and original and well-supported claims from her most recent monograph Illness and Authority. Readers will not be disappointed. Trembinski’s work uncovering and tracing illness and disability in the life of St. Francis and his textual afterlives focuses on unexplored terrain (at least by historians). In documenting the saint’s life, illness, and death, Illness and Authority reframes and reengages with Francis’s disability and illness, detailing how historians and Francis’s own biographers have given too little attention to his body and its impairments and sicknesses. In an introduction, six chapters, postscript, and appendix listing specifics of Francis’s life, Trembinski argues

“that Francis suffered from various illnesses and infirmities throughout his converted life…that those illnesses and impairments limited the secular power Francis was able to command over the early Franciscan Order and within the medieval church, and helped to create an environment in which he had to seek alternative ways to establish and retain authority in his order” (12-13).

In making these arguments, Trembinski further contends that the saint’s “early biographers” saw the impact that these impairments had in his lifetime on his “secular authority” and used “different narrative strategies to demonstrate the saint’s moral authority” (13). Through examination of these strategies and reflective of the book’s investments in medieval disability studies, Trembinski emphasizes the centrality of Francis’s impairments and infirmities, speculating, especially in the epilogue, that his avenues toward authority might be read as feminine.

Throughout Illness and Authority, Trembinski contextualizes these explorations of impairment and illness by addressing the specific historical context of Francis and the resulting tradition of scholarship, including dealing with the so-called “Franciscan Question,” which addresses the sheer number of early sources and their accuracy in depicting Francis’s life. To this reviewer, Trembinski’s deft handling of this question, especially as it intersects with the frequent depiction of disease and disability in Francis’s life, alone makes the book an important contribution to studies of Francis, in general, and medieval disability studies, in general. But her careful treatment of this question is central to another intersection that she ably manages in the introduction, in particular. Noting that the historiographical tradition of Francis is mostly silent on these depictions of impairment and infirmity, Trembinski shows how previous investigations of Francis’s disability were largely undertaken by physicians. As she does in previous work on mental illness and/or trauma, Trembinski brings together medical investigations and the existing historiography centered on Francis, striking a balance between diagnosis of Francis’s infirmities, which she does not attempt, and the absence of an engagement with Francis’s disability by historians.

While the introduction is, as the above description makes clear, rich and detailed, the six chapters that follow are equally so, and this is, above all, a book that creates a narrative about Francis and his narratives that is a pleasure to read. In Chapter One, Trembinski treats the contradiction that has characterized the depiction of disability in Francis’s life and Lives. Centered on his many diagnoses, particularly by medical doctors, and his underdiagnosis, particularly by historians, this chapter suggests how historians might reexamine Francis and overcome an understandable skepticism about the medical conditions of past figures. Indeed, Trembinski contends that “By minimizing the impact of Francis’ illness, historians limit their understanding of him because this perspective does not allow scholars to see beyond the regularized, aestheticized saint to the man beneath the narrative” (34).

Chapter Two begins the process to reach this man beneath the narrative, by examining the hagiographic context surrounding discussions of Francis’s infirmities. Throughout, Trembinski shows how “it is possible to peel back the layers of religious and redemptive meaning the hagiographers assigned to discussions of Francis’ suffering to recognize the saint’s many illnesses and infirmities” (37). Recovering and emphasizing these illnesses, Trembinski shows how anxiety about these bodily conditions haunted not only the saint but also his guardians and early biographers. Francis’s own writings and Brother Leo’s testimony are centered in this chapter and demonstrate how Trembinski interprets not only the specifics from texts but also how these specifics appear--the narrative strategies of these texts--to show the value of recentering Francis’s infirmities.

This strategy continues in Chapter Three, as the focus shifts from Francis’s own texts to those of his early biographers. Affirming that Francis dealt with bodily pains and illnesses over a longer period than the last two years of his life, Chapter Three maps the trajectory of Francis’s infirmities over the course of his life, organizing them into five different categories, from right before his initiation into religious life to his death in 1226. In her handling of these texts, Trembinski contends that the anxieties similar to those outlined in Chapter Two also characterized the saint’s early biographers, “as they grappled with making sense of the saint’s suffering, of making his suffering a meaningful experience for the saint and a teachable example of faith and patience for the faithful” (84).

Chapter Four examines how these infirmities and illnesses guided Francis’s actions in his religious life and how these conditions complicated his authority and the responses of the other leaders of the order and Francis’s guardians. Concentrating on Francis’s asceticism and obedience, along with his blindness, Trembinski explores how disability can help explain these tensions between Francis’s suffering body and his authority and resignation. The importance of this chapter, for Francis, and for medieval disability studies, is clear--highlighting the value of Francis’s suffering and, simultaneously, the responses to that sick body demonstrate how disability might continue to be centered in historical texts and figures.

If these disabilities affected Francis and his role in the order, then, as Chapter Five shows, they also affected how the hagiographers narrated these infirmities. In this chapter, Trembinski traces how several important facets of Francis’s infirmities are erased or changed, including his blindness, doctors, and the role of his guardians. As Trembinski notes, these changes are themselves perhaps not noteworthy for hagiographic texts, but “Francis’ vitae are unusual, however, in how quickly the pattern of eliding certain behaviours and events developed” (130). Concluding with Chapter Six and a short postscript which follows, Trembinski highlights the challenges that Francis’s body presented to his authority and the recording of that authority and sanctity by early biographers and hagiographers. Placing these challenges and his disabled body in the context of “a more experiential, more femininized Christianity in the High Middle Ages,” Trembinski offers that Francis’s authority might be read as femininized piety and power (143). Together with a postscript that argues for the importance of disability in reading the vitae and life of Francis, this chapter demonstrates how Francis’s infirmities offered individual challenges and implicit power by recentering the significance of his physical body.

Following the chapters and postscript, there is a helpful appendix listing and detailing the chronology of Francis’s life; called “Recentering Illness: A Revised Chronology of Francis’ Life,” this section offers numerous biographical facts emphasizing the specifics of Francis’s infirmities. This section encapsulates what is so valuable about this book. It demonstrates how the rest of the book reads Francis’s life and integrates what has been obscured or unvoiced previously. It is not hyperbole to suggest that this book will have an immediate and long-last effect both on scholarship on the Franciscans and on medieval disability studies. It is a welcome addition to both.