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Speaking in hands : early modern preaching and signed languages for the deaf

Oates, Rosamund ORCID logoORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5726-3720 (2021) Speaking in hands : early modern preaching and signed languages for the deaf. Past and Present. ISSN 0031-2746

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Abstract

This article demonstrates that deaf men and women were integrated into early modern communities through use of sign language, and that Protestant concerns about preaching and hearing promoted sign language as a legitimate form of communication. Historians have believed that the Protestant emphasis on preaching excluded deaf people from heaven, however not only did contemporaries believe that deaf people could be saved but debates on this topic prompted a wider assessment of the nature of hearing loss and sensory knowledge. Discussions about deafness therefore had implications for all congregations, as English preachers used well-known manual gestures from rhetorical texts to make their sermons accessible for both the ‘spiritually’ and the ‘physically’ deaf. The experiences of deaf people in early modern England demonstrate the importance of religious practices in shaping perceptions of disability and impairment. By focussing on deaf parishioners, it is possible to explore some of the impacts of the reformation on ideas of embodiment while modifying literary accounts of the representation of disability in the period. A little-known part of early modern history, the role of preachers in the evolution of signed languages for the deaf offers new perspectives on reformation history and the growing field of disability history.

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