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Abstract

Toward the end of his life, medieval poet John Gower (d. 1408) composed Latin poetry about his own progressive blindness, and later nineteenth-century Blind readers appropriated Gower’s work as part of a platform to advocate for changed perceptions and opportunities for the blind and other people with disabilities. In this essay, I approach nineteenth-century narrative compilations of blind lives (which include Gower’s) as transformative acts of literary historiography. These compilers not only appropriate the medieval blind poet to advance their own social and political ends, but they also create a new disability-centered approach to the entire Western artistic tradition. I furthermore argue that Gower’s own poetry, when taken seriously as the writing of a self-identified blind poet, adopts highly innovative formal and rhetorical strategies for representing visual impairment, and his writing anticipates aspects of modern disability activism and critical theory. The essay ends by considering the discourses of present-day online venues that seek to make Gower’s work more accessible to blind and low vision readers. Such websites invite a more careful consideration of the activist-oriented mode of Gower’s blindness poetry and his work as a whole, and these online venues profoundly reorient how we think about the social construction of Blind identity and heterogeneous modes of access in our digital age.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Eve Salisbury, Georgiana Donavin, two anonymous readers, and members of The International John Gower Society and The Gower Project for their valuable feedback and comments on earlier versions of this essay (presented at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI, in May 2012, and the Modern Languages Association Conference in Boston, MA, in January 2013). For his helpful early suggestions regarding disability activism and crip theory, I thank Robert McRuer; I also thank graduate students in my Fall 2012 "Translating Medieval Disability" course, including Shyama Rajendran and M Bychowski, for their responses to some of this work.