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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf History and Culture in Spain: A Reader of Primary Documents
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Because the purpose of this volume is to present primary sources for their contemplation by the reader, in this introduction I will situate the readings by giving only those biographical details that are crucial to an initial encounter with the documents. The “Historical Introduction” by A. Farrar includes further details, as do a number of other selections included here, but those readers who are interested in gaining a full appreciation of the figures whose writings are presented here should refer to texts that discuss those figures in more depth, including, but not limited to, Susan Plann’s A Silent Minority (1997), Marilyn Daniels’s Benedictine Roots in the Development of Deaf Education: Listening with the Heart (1997), and Harlan Lane’s When the Mind Hears (1989). Readers who are able to read Spanish may consult two recently published encyclopedic works by Antonio Gascón Ricao and José Gabriel Storch de Gracia y Asensio: Historia de la educación de los sordos en España (2004) and Fray Pedro Ponce de León, el mito mediático (2006).

Onward, then, to the readings.

Part I: The Birth of Oralism and Deafness as Metaphor

The idea that deafness is an illness, a stigma rife with social consequences, has long been a part of the social imaginary of the hearing world. Nevertheless, this viewpoint stems from specific circumstances that are far from universal. It is undeniable that not all of us are born being able to hear. Some who are born able to hear become deaf quite early on, before acquiring oral language, whereas others become deaf later in life. The view that deafness is an illness, then, is necessarily culturally negotiated, arising in a specific social group that is in its majority hearing and that communicates orally. The judgments cast regarding the inherent characteristics of the deaf person, and what he or she can accomplish or not accomplish, are necessarily cultural, if not also political. In this way, the deaf person is relegated to the role of being a foil for the majority that now defines itself and identifies itself (negatively) in opposition to what it is not. Shaped by the particular social imaginary of this group, deafness comes to acquire a significance that transcends its mere physical aspect. Deafness acquires a metaphorical quality. It is now a symbol whose meaning is largely manipulated and controlled by the hearing majority. In fact, its symbolic expression, whatever form it may take, will now carry with it the norms of the (hearing) society in which it was produced. Although the society and its values may change, the symbol will still possess this meaning potential to the degree that these norms are maintained, renegotiated, and reshaped by the group as it evolves.

The key cultural meaning that is expressed through the idea of deafness in early modern Spain hinges on isolation. According to writers of the time, the deaf person is isolated and alone: unable to communicate with others and unable to hear them. In his Book of Consolations of Human Life [Libro de consolaciones de la vida humana], Pedro de Luna (Benedict XIII ; 1328–1423) refashioned the biblical consolation addressed to deaf people: “those who are physically deaf shall hear with the ears of their soul.” Later, Teresa de Cartagena, who was deafened at a young age after already having acquired written and spoken language, composed Grove of the Infirm (1455–60) based on Pedro de Luna’s writings. Here the narrative hinges on the elaborate metaphor of deafness as an island: “the cloud of temporal and human sadness covered the borders of my life and with a thick whirlwind of anguished sufferings carried me off to an island called ‘Oprobrium hominum et abiecio plebis [the Scorn of Mankind and Outcast of the People]’ where I have lived for so many years.” Because the people who wrote about deafness at the time were either themselves hearing or at least had access to spoken or written language before becoming deaf, it is safe to say that the early image of deafness as it appears in the written record is likely always one of lack, of illness, of infirmity. Unfortunately, this powerful metaphor of deafness as an isolated island tellingly lives on in the more recent writings of the postlingually deaf in Spain (for example, Inés Polo Merino’s Isle of Silence).

The rise of deaf education in sixteenth-century Spain did little to overturn this hearing-centered paradigm of deafness as infirmity. It is clear from what we know of the documented cases of deaf education that deaf people were largely valued by the hearing to the degree that they were able to communicate orally and that those deaf people who managed to receive such an education in articulation were initially of privileged families. While at the Monastery of San Salvador at Oña in Burgos, Pedro Ponce de León (1520–84), a Benedictine monk largely credited with the origins of deaf education in Europe, began teaching deaf people to speak. Undoubtedly, deaf people had been employing sign languages to communicate long before Ponce de León’s teachings,[1] and there is now substantial evidence to consider gesture and sign as predating spoken language in evolutionary terms, used by not only deaf but hearing people as well.[2] Nevertheless, the study of history in general has shown itself to be quite fond of origins, and the history of Spanish deaf education in particular, one largely written by hearing authors or deaf persons with access to spoken language, has more often than not assured that the values of an overwhelmingly hearing society have been reflected in the historical record. In this sense, Ponce de León’s students, Francisco and Pedro Fernández de Velasco y Tovar, have been afforded a special place in the history of deaf education precisely because they came from one of the most privileged families of the society of their day and, moreover, because in learning to speak they came to embody the values of the colonizing hearing society in which they found themselves.

1. Plann takes up the issue of the teacher of El Mudo in the first chapter of her book.
2. See Armstrong 1999, 2008; Armstrong and Wilcox 2007; and Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox 1995.
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