Theses Doctoral

Blameless Defect: A Dantean Model of Disability

Bloomer, Catherine Shepard

This dissertation examines the literary depiction of physical disability in Dante’s Commedia, Convivio, and his other works using a two-pronged approach: answering Barolini’s call to historicize and incorporating disability theorists’ models of and approach to investigating medieval disability. Blameless Defect: A Dantean Model of Disability thus follows the theological, philosophical, medical, and legal aspects of disability in Duecento and Trecento Florence and within the broader context of Europe and the Mediterranean.

This broad historical context, as well as contemporaneous writers’ treatment of disability, is used to contextualize Dante’s own attitude and representation of physical disabilities, specifically deafness, blindness, and mobility disabilities. Dante’s representation reflects and engages with the medieval concept of virtue or vice that can be read on the body; specifically, Dante’s engagement with deafness in the Convivio reveals a Dantean category of blameless physical defect that indicates separation between disability and sin and exonerates those who have impediments that limit their knowledge, such as those with lived experience of disability. This treatment of blameless deafness is contextualized through its philosophical sources.

The dissertation considers whether blindness and mobility disabilities fit into what I term the Dantean category of “blameless defect.” Mobility disabilities are represented throughout the Commedia; their presence is tied to sin largely within metaphorical contexts or as the lesser of a hierarchy of sins. Similarly, blindness is present throughout the Commedia and is even included among the divine punishments, albeit in a temporary manner. Further, Dante, often using simile or metaphor, represents blindness in the Commedia to illustrate both spiritual and human understanding.

Finally, Dante’s own blindness is read within the theoretical framework of “disability gain” as an approach which sees the author’s text open to greater possibilities. Blameless Defect, on the whole, demonstrates a sympathetic and non-normative Dantean attitude to the physically disabled, whom Dante represents vividly and with great accuracy. Dante’s portrait of the physically disabled thus stands in contrast to the attitudes, practices, and laws of his times.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Barolini, Teodolinda
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 19, 2023