Disability Studies Quarterly Blog

Book and Media


Reviewed by Julie Paulson, San Francisco State University, Email: jpaulson@sfsu.edu

In an intriguing moment in his Art of English Poesy (1589), George Puttenham wonders why a stanza of poetry is called a “staff.” A poetic staff is called as such, Puttenham speculates, because it serves as a “bearer or supporter of a song or ballad” much like a “weak body that is stayed up by his staff” that would “not otherwise able to walk or stand up right.” For Puttenham, poetic staffs, like walking sticks, provide “poesy” with material support. In his compelling new book, Writing Old Age, Will Rogers echoes Puttenham’s metaphor to illustrate the ways in which medieval and early modern authors put narratives of old age and impairment to rhetorical use. In medieval and early modern narratives of old age, Rogers argues, an aging speaker’s description of impairment can function like a staff, becoming a source of strength, authority, and even power. Such narratives of aging, he contends, are “prosthetic” (that is, additive and corrective) insofar as they help medieval writers and speakers in describing their own disabilities and impairments to establish their own power and authority. In doing so, they provide an important counter narrative to the pathologizing understandings of old age that are so often the norm today.

Rogers’s argument builds on Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell’s widely cited theory of disability as narrative prosthesis and responds to Jay Timothy Dolmage’s call to include disabled bodies in our understanding of the history of rhetoric. After an introduction considering classical depictions of old age (Aristotle, Cicero, Juvenal, and Maximianus), Rogers develops his account of the rhetorical functions of medieval and early modern narratives of elderly impairment across four chapters that focus on the fourteenth-century alliterative debate poem Parlement of The Ages; Chaucer’s depiction of the Reeve in The Canterbury Tales; the fifteenth-century poet Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes and the printer William Caxton’s paratexts; and Shakespeare’s Pericles. Each of these texts, Rogers argues, turn “impairments into a prosthetic that challenges the disabling notions of old age” (7). Thus, in Parlement, the character Elde uses his description of an old and decrepit body as a kind of a “crutch” (38) to help him establish the moral authority to talk about the inevitability of death and decay. Chaucer’s Reeve, in narrating his own decrepitude and sexual impotence, reminds his audience “whan we may nat doon, that wol we speke” (when we cannot do, then we speak). For the Reeve, narrative serves as a “weapon” (53) to wield against others, as the coarse and vindictive tale the Reeve tells, belittling his fellow pilgrim, aptly demonstrates. 

Scholars of disability studies more generally will take interest in the ways in which Rogers’ argument lends support to both Dolmage and Snyder and Mitchell’s claims about the importance of disabled bodies to rhetoric and the production of meaning in literary texts throughout history. The book is also of broad general interest due to its implications for our understanding of literary history. For instance, Rogers’s chapter on Hoccleve and Caxton presents a provocative account of how Caxton, who is generally thought to have introduced the printing press to England, uses descriptions of his own old age to explain why he turns from copying manuscripts by hand to printing. Critics have tended to take at face value Caxton’s remarks that he turns to printing because the ravages of old age using the pen and paper entails too much effort. However, we also know that early printing was in fact an enormously taxing endeavor. Rogers suggests instead that Caxton uses his descriptions of his failing body to introduce and authorize printing as new technology. His chapter on Pericles shows Shakespeare’s use of the medieval author John Gower as the “narrator” of the play to be indicative of “how early modern England often uses a broken, feeble, image of the Middle Ages to augment texts and authors” (127), suggesting the ways in which early modern writers used narratives of old age to divide themselves from a medieval past. These narratives suggest an alternative to traditional literary histories organized according to “a linear progression of fathers to sons,” suggesting instead “a narrative of literary relations” that takes note of “the repeated uses the old body [in late medieval writing] as an image both sterile and generative” (131). 

As Rogers acknowledges, the narratives he considers are all by and about old men, explicitly deferring extended treatment of late medieval narratives of feminine old age to a future project. Yet, this reader nonetheless questions the decision to keep the representation of old women in the margins of an argument about late medieval narrative uses of old age, especially given the habitual gendering of rhetorical and hermeneutic acts in medieval literary culture and the tradition of associating women with the “joly body” of the text, as Chaucer’s aging Wife of Bath is well aware. Nonetheless, this book stands as a noteworthy achievement and important contribution to our understanding of late medieval and early modern narratives of impairment.  

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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