Speaking in Hands: Preaching, Sign Language and Deafness in Early Modern England 1550-1650
Dr Rosamund OatesZoom
Deaf men and women occupied an ambiguous place in Early Modern Europe. While some believed deaf people would not go to heaven, as this paper shows Lutheran, Catholic and Calvinist churches all devised ways for deaf men and women - including those without vocal speech - to participate in religious services. This paper will explore what these interventions reveal about contemporary views about disability, impairment and the role of the senses in religious knowledge. It will address the importance of sound and speech in legal definitions of selfhood, and distinguish between different forms of hearing in renaissance England.
This paper also examines the status of deaf people - particularly the pre-lingually deaf - in Early Modern England, using legal documents and parish records to explore their lived experiences. It also explores the codification of a language of hand gestures, or a sign language, as a way to speak to people who were deaf and hard of hearing. This grew out of a renewed interest in sermons and rhetoric and reflects the number of people who needed help to ‘hear’ in the largely oral world of Early Modern England.