A Display for Disability History Month

Behind the enquiries desk at Christ Church library there is an array of board games that students can borrow. They used to perch at the bottom of the stairs to the Upper Library, among the various busts of ghosts of Christ Church alumni past. Among the busts that stared longingly at these board games are Richard Busby[1], a headmaster of Westminster school in the 17th century[2] and Richard Frewen, who actually studied at Westminster under Busby and later studied and taught at Christ Church where he became a physician, among other things[3].


Cut off just below the shoulders, these chalky figures are unlikely to ever get truly stuck into a game of Munchkin Deluxe to the degree of enthusiasm that it demands. So, in an effort to put these poor statues out of their misery, we have since moved the board games, but were then left with a spare display shelf. The sensible thing to do seemed to make use of it for a rotation of displays that would keep anyone entertained, even a figure as imposing as Dr Busby…

Over the past few months this shelf has variously been a display point for titles including Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell, Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality and Desire by James Najarian and People Person by Candice Carty Williams as part of ‘New Acquisition’ displays and a display for Black History Month in October.

The 16th of November saw us enter a new awareness period: Disability History Month. While far from an expert in this area, I volunteered to put together a display to mark the month. It has been a great experience in learning about a subject I knew little about and exploring what Christ Church library’s collections hold on the topic.


Using SOLO

I began my hunt for material for this display by jumping onto SOLO (which stands for Search Oxford Libraries Online). SOLO is the first port of call for all resource discovery at the University of Oxford – here you can find locations of physical resources, databases, links to online articles…the list goes on. Handily, you can filter searches on SOLO, so I made sure to select ‘Christ Church Library’ as opposed to ‘search everything’ in the drop-down list when looking up items. This made searching broad terms like the phrase ‘disability history’ a viable option! Such a search will produce 727 results as opposed to 1,097,223 (as of writing this post…) without filtering.

From an initial search I gathered together some promising titles that Christ Church already had as part of its collections:

  • Disability: the Basics, Tom Shakespeare[4]
  • The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, ed. Michael Rembis[5]
  • Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability, Genevieve Love[6]
  • The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability, Elizabeth Barnes[7]
  • The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability, Barker and Murray[8]
  • Illness and Authority: Disability in the Life and Lives of Francis of Assisi, Donna Trembinski[9]

Here already was a range of texts that covered quite literally ‘the basics’, but also historical approaches, literary lenses and theory, up to and including an indulgently specific look at Francis of Assisi.

My next task was to identify a theme – what could be drawn out from this array of titles to bring this display together? ‘Founders of religious orders’ seemed, while tempting, perhaps a shade too obscure. My eye was caught by Love’s text on Early Modern theatre and disability. The Early Modern period is a historical crush of mine, and one I studied during the latter part of my degree. I was really interested to learn about the period from a new angle, that of disability history. So, I continued my search beyond the realms of the Christ Church Library. Below are a few of the finds I made – some now feature on our display!


Taking to the stage with Recovering Disability in Early Modern England, Wood and Hobgood[10] 

Photograph of the front cover of a book, white with a blue and green cubist image of a face
Recovering Disability in Early Modern England, ed. Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood

One of the first books that caught my eye on this venture was this selection of essays. In a journey through representations and misrepresentations in Early modern texts, plays and prayer books, these essays touch on Renaissance jest books, revenge tragedies, and propaganda.

Among the essays that drew me in to this collection was ‘Richard Recast: Renaissance Disability in a Postcommunist Culture’. In this piece, Marcela Kostihová takes the reader on a journey to the postcommunist Czech Republic.

We are invited to examine ‘a wildly popular’ staging of Richard III produced by Divadelní Spolek Kašpar in 2000[11]. An injury sustained while protesting the communist regime by the lead,Jan Potměšil, becomes Richard’s “natural deformity” on stage. Kostihová draws out the political nuances of this decision, and it makes for a fascinating read.


Music > tarantulas in The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Body

While not a text dedicated solely to the topic of disability, this book appeared in my SOLO search. Upon examining the sections within the book, I saw that there was a selection of articles on the theme of ‘Music and the Disabled and Sexual Body’. In Howe’s chapter, ‘Musical Remediation of Disability’, Blake Howe discusses the ‘cure narrative’[12], traceable across many cultures in writings about music. This narrative casts music as something with the power to move bodies into states of so-called perfect health. ‘With energetic melodies instead of scalpels, and resonant harmonies instead of potions, the blind simply blink their eyes open, while the dumb simply open their mouths to speak.’[13] Howe warns against the ways this narrative often casts the disabled body as something that needs to be ‘cured’ rather than accepted.

In a slightly more frivolous moment, the article leads us down a delightfully bizarre path; to a case study in which music is elevated above even antivenins. In the introduction to a psalm book from the 1770s, the author (who has later been said to be a Dr Charles Stockbridge) provides a no-nonsense how-to guide for anyone facing the perils of a tarantula bite:

‘whoever is bit by them after some Time loses both Sense and Motion, and dies if destitute of Help. The most effectual Remedy is Music.’[14]

Astute readers might note some parallels from this tale with the tarantella – a folk dance originating in Italy[15]. Once again the story goes that victims of the tarantula bite can be cured with fevered dancing, inspired by the right music, of course. This cultural context would have been a much appreciated piece of the puzzle on all the Saturday mornings I spent confusedly prancing around a church hall with a tambourine as a child…


It’s not all books!

A photograph of the display. Books and posters rest on a wooden set of shelves in an orange hallway
The display in Christ Church library – featuring books, James’ write up and QR codes!

Once I’d learned how to successfully cure any friends of mine that may be struck down by a tarantula bite, I felt ready to venture into the world of online resources.

Historic England[16] have a fantastic page that provides an overview of disability throughout history for those looking to increase their awareness and knowledge. ‘A History of Disability: from 1050 to the Present Day’[17] tracks the changing and varied treatment, perception of and facilities for disabled people in England throughout history.

A feature that makes this page really great is its accessibility – users are able to learn about the different historic periods through audio format or British Sign Language. This inspired me to include some accessible elements in our display at Christ Church. We whipped up QR codes that would take viewers to the Historic England page, the Disability History Month website and also online books so there were multiple ways to access the resources on offer.


Team work makes the dream work

The pièce de résistance of this display was a wonderful contribution we had from a student at Christ Church. James is a PhD student studying the history of ideas, but very kindly took some time out of his schedule to create a piece relating to our display![18] It walks you through the texts available and really brings the display to life, putting the range of resources we selected in conversation with each other – all while inviting you to join in.

Resource discovery becomes a bit of a treasure hunt when you have SOLO and its filtering wonders at your fingertips, so I really enjoyed putting this display together. We were also able to purchase some titles to strengthen Christ Church’s collection in this area of study. Books including Literature and Intellectual Disability in Early Modern England: Folly, Law and Medicine, 1500-1640, by Alice Equestri and Intact by Clare Chambers have made their way onto the display, and soon on to the shelves of the library.

It’s been a great opportunity to learn about a subject I was not well versed on and to dust off my research skills. Here’s to hoping the statues in the stairwell (as well as the students of Christ Church!) were suitably informed by this display – we can but hope!



[1] The British Museum hold a selection of portraits of Busby – see them here! https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG131489

[2] A not very generous description of whom can be found in Pope’s Dunciad for those willing to put up with its infamously relentless referents.

[3] An interesting and varied character was Richard Frewen! Read more about him here: http://bathartandarchitecture.blogspot.com/2018/07/the-busts-of-richard-frewin-by.html

[4] Shakespeare, Tom. Disability : The Basics. London, 2018

[5] Rembis, Michael A., Catherine Jean Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen. The Oxford Handbook of Disability History. New York, NY, 2018. Oxford Handbooks.

[6] Love, Genevieve. Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability. London, 2020. Arden Studies in Early Modern Drama

[7] Barnes, Elizabeth. The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability. Oxford; New York, 2018. Studies in Feminist Philosophy

[8] Barker, Clare, and Stuart Murray. The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability. Cambridge, 2018. Cambridge Companions to Literature.

[9] Trembinski, Donna. Illness and Authority: Disability in the Life and Lives of Francis of Assisi. Toronto, 2020.

[10] Hobgood, Allison P., and David Houston Wood. Recovering Disability in Early Modern England. Columbus, 2013

[11] Ibid., p. 137

[12] Howe, Blake, ‘Musical Remediation of Disability’, in Youn Kim, and Sander L. Gilman (eds),

The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Body, Oxford Handbooks (2019; online edn, Oxford Academic, 10 July 2018), p. 259

[13] p. 260-61

[14] Dahlhaus, Carl. 1982. Esthetics of Music. Translated by William Austin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[15] https://www.britannica.com/art/tarantella

[16] https://historicengland.org.uk/

[17] https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/

[18] https://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/blog/disability-history-month-mini-display