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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Forging Deaf Education in Nineteenth-Century France: Biographical Sketches of Bébian, Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc

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One can only shrug one’s shoulders in disgust at the utterly ridiculous idea that the illiterate deaf should be placed below the most beastly of animals and be cursed with the stigma of being treated as a machine with a human face. But that such an assertion should flow from the pen of an instructor of the deaf is inconceivable! What an unparalleled paradox for us, as deaf children! What indignation we felt! As a consequence, we would have liked nothing better than to rip to shreds every copy of that text we could get our hands on.
Even though Sicard “made amends” in later publications, atonement was not forthcoming in Berthier’s eyes. There remained the matter of the methodical signs. In the same chapter Berthier discusses in detail “the very important distinction between methodical signs and natural signs.” There follows an assessment of the most convincing sort. Whereas dictating the word instructor in methodical signs requires three separate sets of movements representing compositely school or institution, subject, and classroom setting, Berthier explains, “today we need only one sign to convey as clearly and completely all those ideas.”

At this point, it is clear, biography has given way to a treatise on deaf education in which the biographer’s subject serves as his antagonist. The following chapter continues in that vein; this time Berthier takes on the famous demonstrations that were so well received by the public and the press. Their success—and Sicard’s notoriety, Berthier does not hesitate to add—were owed to Massieu’s “theatrical performances” and the public’s compassion for the afflicted.

It is only with chapter 10 that a balanced image begins to emerge. In it Berthier records in near-idyllic terms the papal visit of 1805. He cites in its entirety the Abbé Sicard’s welcoming address, an eloquent and moving tribute to Pope Pius VII, the Abbé de l’Epée, and the deaf community. From there the reader is treated to a wonderful tour of the facility and introduced to students and faculty. A demonstration involving numerous students and featuring poems composed for the pope in several languages is followed by visits to the various workshops where students produce items of high quality under the guidance of accomplished artisans.

Chapters 11 and 12 build largely on that image with only minor exceptions. Sicard is shown helping law enforcement officials unravel the case of a man who had fraudulently assumed the identity of a person born deaf; he is touted as a member of the French Academy and a recipient of the medal of the Legion of Honor; he is shown welcoming a bevy of dignitaries to the Paris Institute, including Francis II of Austria and the Duchess of Angoulême, and dining with the czar of Russia. For his efforts he was recognized abroad by Sweden (the medal of the Order of Wasa) and Russia (the medal of the Order of Saint Vladimir). Chapter 13 deals with Sicard’s decision to travel to England in 1815 at the very moment Napoleon was leading his hapless army back from the Russian campaign. He dared to take both Massieu and Clerc with him, thus defying his government’s orders. Chapter 14 tells of the aforementioned fire, and Chapter 15 details Sicard’s death, funeral, and the competition to fill the position left vacant at the Paris Institute.

Jean Massieu (1772–1846) and Laurent Clerc (1785–1869)

After following a circuitous path, Berthier’s biography of the Abbé Sicard ends in eulogistic tribute. In the final chapters he is able to put aside his need to promote his personal views in the interest of bringing to the public an account of the prelate’s many accomplishments. He could hardly do otherwise in good conscience, it can be argued, given the respect Sicard had generated inside and outside the deaf community. His many awards, the several works of art paying him homage, and the annual student pilgrimage to his Père Lachaise gravesite all remained as symbols of esteem that could not easily be ignored. But Berthier was not quite finished. His ideological investment could be made more lucrative still by adding contrasting biographical sketches of Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc.

In participating in Sicard’s early attempts to build support for his version of sign language as the universal language sought by the Revolution, Massieu is said to have presented himself as having been “worse off than even the animals around him” before being taught to communicate by his mentor. Berthier, it is clear, found that notion repulsive. His account of Massieu’s early life contradicts such thinking. Massieu is shown to have mastered basic arithmetic on his own and to have demonstrated an unflinching determination to learn to read and write before being placed in Sicard’s school in Bordeaux. In order to authenticate his portrayal, Berthier calls on Massieu himself. Massieu had written an autobiographical sketch of his early years, which is quoted over several pages. It documents the home life of a family of six children, all of them deaf but capable of communicating by means of their “natural language”: “I expressed my thoughts,” one reads, “by means of manual signs or gestures that I used to communicate with my parents and my brothers and sisters.” The intelligence behind that communication comes to light in the boy’s efforts, naïve as they must have been, to puzzle out the mysteries of life: God, the universe, the seasons and growth cycles, and appropriate social conduct, along with the mystery of sound, speech, and reading. Lack of intelligence is not to blame for the difficulties he experiences; it is rather the lack of opportunity and the lack of understanding within the community that he laments: “At the time the neighboring children wouldn’t play with me. They despised me. I was treated like a dog.”


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