Karl Steel, Animals and Disability: Cuthbert's Ravens, Gesture, and Misfit Environments

  • Graduate lounge, Fisher Bennett Hall

Penn's Medieval and Renaissance reading group and Disability Studies present a lecture by Karl Steel (CUNY Brooklyn) "Animals and Disability: Cuthbert's Ravens, Gesture, and Misfit Environments": 

"My paper is an experiment in the utility of considering disability studies, critical animal studies, and ecocriticism together.

Medieval textuality tended to animalize people with impairments, and to disable animality, for example, proverbs like “blind as a beetle.” Medieval texts also tend to present impairment as a social inconvenience or narrative problem that awaits resolution, often through healing miracles. Rather than decrying these comparisons and narrative trends, my work draws on existing disability and critical animal studies to rethink problems of normative bodies, community, and responsibility.

I focus on the encounter between Saint Cuthbert and the penitent ravens. This story is notable for the gestural communication used by these “mute” beasts to effect a community; for the fact that the birds are not made to talk, although birds, particularly corvids, were a paradigmatic talking animal; and finally for where it takes place (the island of Farne, rendered hospitable to both saint and birds only by continuous effort). Unlike other British avian miracles, this encounter affirm no bodily or environmental norms. Instead, it emphasizes the work communication and community require in an environment perilously inhabited by vulnerable bodies that can never be quite at home in it."

Location: graduate lounge, Fisher Bennett Hall