A Preliminary Bibliography of Deaf History before 1600 CE.


Compiled by Ásfríðr Úlfvíðardóttir /Rebecca Lucas. Last Updated 27th July 2010.

The bibliography below is very broad, and mixes in numerous sub-topics, from the medieval medical 'cures' of deafness, to vague mentions in period diaries about what may have been interpreted by viewers as a sign language, to the differences in legal status of the pre- and post-lingually deaf. I hope that this modest list will be of use and helps with further research.

Note: In the modern-day Deaf community, 'Deaf' is capitalised to indicate that a cultural community of hearing impaired individuals is being discussed. In the late medieval/early modern period, there is no evidence of such a community existing, so people referred to on this page with hearing loss are described as 'deaf'. No offence is intended.

  • Bragg, Lois. 1997. “Visual-Kinetic Communication in Europe Before 1600: A Survey of Sign Lexicons and Finger Alphabets Prior to the Rise of Deaf Education” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 2(1) pp.1-25
    • Gives an extremely clear and understandable summary of the difficulties in researching pre-18th century Deaf history.
  • Bragg, Lois. 1994. “Disfigurement, Disability, and Dis-integration in Sturlunga saga” alvíssmál 4: 15-32
  • Branson, Jan and Miller, Don. 2002. Damned for their Difference (Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press)
    • Argues that the scientific revolution had a negative impact on the status of deaf people.
    • Briefly mentions general social perceptions of deaf-mutes in 15-16th centuries, but focus is on 17th century onwards.
  • Carew, Richard. 1596. The Survey of Cornwall. And an epistle concerning the excellencies of the English tongue.
    • Mentions two deaf men, Bone and Kempe, “which two, when they chaunced to meete, would vse such kinde embracements, such strange, often, and earnest tokenings, and such heartie laughters, and other passionate gestures, that their want of a tongue, seemed rather an hinderance to others conceiuing them, then to their conceiuing one another.”
    • 1769 edition is available online at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/9878 and GoogleBooks: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=8V0vAAAAMAAJ
  • Covey, Herbert C. 1998. Social Perceptions of People with Disabilities in History (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas)
    • Has an entire chapter devoted to the history of the deaf. Provides a very thorough survey of the literature.
    • Plenty of information on medieval medical cures for deafness.
  • Daniels, Marilyn. 1997. Benedictine Roots in the Development of Deaf Education (Westport, USA: Bergin & Garvney)
    • Discusses from biblical era onwards, the perceptions of deafness and legal rights of deaf individuals.
    • Argues that Pedro Ponce de Leon successfully taught deaf students to speak through the use of a monastic sign lexicon.
    • Chapter three describes how Juan Pablo Bonet taught students in the 17th century.
  • Dikici, Ayşe Ezgi. 2006. Imperfect bodies perfect companions? : dwarfs and mutes at the Ottoman court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [Masters Thesis: Sabanci University, Turkey]
  • Dimmock, A.F. 1993. Cruel Legacy: Introduction to the Record of Deaf People in History (Edinburgh: Scottish Workshop Publications) ISBN: 1873577303
    • This is a very common book in libraries.
    • Gives a very general overview for our time period.
  • Eriksson, Per 1998. The History of Deaf People: A Source Book (Örebro, Sweden: Daufr)
    • Gives a brief overview from ancient Egypt onwards, with a focus on Swedish history.
  • Grant, Brian. 1987. The Quiet Ear: Deafness in Literature (London: Andre Deutsch)
    • Quotes written sources, including pre-17th century documents and books, that mention deaf individuals, and some more 'medical' cures for deafness.
  • Groce, Nora Ellen, 1988. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language (Cambridge: Havard University Press) ISBN: 0-674-27040-1
    • Concentrates on the Deaf community of Martha’s Vineyard, but argues the sign language used was based on an earlier 16-17th century Kentish sign lexicon.
  • Johnston, T. and Schembri, A. 2007. Australian Sign Language: An Introduction to Australian Sign Language Linguistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) ISBN: 978-0-521-83297-7
    • Naturally, is focused on Auslan.
    • Gives some information about ‘sign languages’ in use in pre-17th century Britain. Is sceptical of claims that there was a universally recognised sign language being used in England at the time.
  • Kylie, JG and Woll, B. 1985. Sign Language: The Study of Deaf People and Their Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) ISBN: 0-521-26075-2
    • p.51 The finger spelling published in 1680, Digiti lingua, is very close to British (and associated languages') finger spelling.
  • Lee, Raymond [ed] 2004. A Beginner’s Guide to Deaf History (Doncaster, UK: British Deaf History Society) ISBN: 1-902-427-18-1
    • Lots of pictures, is a good general overview of history.
    • pp.1-8: general history
    • pp. 9-23: development of manual communication, including lots of pictures from manuscripts about manual alphabets.
  • Miles, M. 2000. “Signing in the Seraglio: mutes, dwarfs and jesters at the Ottoman Court 1500-1700.” Disability & Society 15: 115-134
  • Miles, M. 2001a. “Martin Luther and Childhood Disability in 16th Century Germany: What did he write? What did he say?“ Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 5(4): 5-36
  • Miles, M. 2001b. "Signs of Development in Deaf South & South-West Asia: histories, cultural identities, resistance to cultural imperialism" in Alison Callaway [ed] Deafness and Development (Bristol: University of Bristol, Centre for Deaf Studies)
  • Miles, M. 2004. “Locating deaf people, gesture and sign in African histories, 1450s - 1950s.” Disability & Society 19(5): 531-545
  • Padden, Carol and Gunsauls, Darlene Clark 2003. “How the Alphabet Came to be Used in a Sign Language” Sign Language Studies 4(1): 10-33
    • Focus of the article is on finger spelling, and its’ development through history.
    • Main interest is 19-20th centuries, but does mention up to 1600.
  • Plann, Susan. 1997. A Silent Minority: Deaf Education in Spain, 1550-1835. (Berkeley: University of California Press)
  • Plann, Susan 1993. “Pedro Ponce de Leon: Myth and Reality” in John Vickery Van Cleve [ed] Deaf History Unveiled (Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press) pp. 1-12
  • Radutsky, Elena 1993. “The Education of Deaf People in Italy” in John Vickery Van Cleve [ed] Deaf History Unveiled (Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press) pp. 237-251
    • History begins at Roman era, including legal codes.
    • Discusses medieval arguments about the intellectual capabilities of deaf people.
  • Rålamb, Claes. 1657-8. The Rålamb Costume Book
  • Saint-Loup, Aude de 1993. “Images of the Deaf in Medieval Western Europe” in Renate Fischer et.al. Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Languages (Signum Verlag) ISBN 3-927731-32-3
    • Lots of pictures and lots of information about medieval medical procedures to cure deafness.
    • More detailed information on medieval law codes than usual.
    • Discusses the links between the ear, Christian religion and deafness.
  • Scalenghe, Sara 2005. “The Deaf in Ottoman Syria, 16th - 18th centuries.” Arab Studies Journal 12(2) - 13(1): 10-25
  • Schein, Jerome D. 1984. Speaking the Language of Sign (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday)
    • Discusses Pedro Ponce de Leon
  • Schein, Jerome D. and Stewart, David A. 1995. Language in Motion (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press) ISBN: 1-56368-039-4
    • Argues that gestural communication evolved before verbal in humans.
  • Seidenspinner-Núñez, Dayle. 1998. The writings of Teresa de Cartagena: translated with introduction, notes and interpretive essay. (Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer)
    • Teresa de Cartagena (ca. 1425) was a Spanish nun who became deaf in the 1450s and wrote about her experience in Arboleda de los enfermos (Grove of the Infirm).
  • Skilliter, Susan. 1977. Life in Istanbul, 1588: Scenes from a Traveller's Picture Book (Oxford: Bodlein Library)
    • MS. Bodl. Or 430:1588
    • Image number 10 shows a palace Deaf-Mute (dilsiz).
    • See Scalenghe (2005), Miles (2000) and Rålamb (1657-8).
    • There is a scan online here: http://livingpast.com/turkp.html
    • Sutton-Spence, Rachel. 2003. “British Manual Alphabets in the Education of Deaf People since the 17th Century” in Leila Frances Monaghan [ed.] Many Ways to be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press)
      • Deals primarily with information after 1600, but is still an excellent overview of how the modern BANZSL two-handed finger alphabet originated.
      • Focuses on manual alphabets, used in early deaf education, that were recorded in the 17th century on.
    • de la Vega, Licenciado Lasso (1550) Tratado legal sobre los mudos (A Legal Treatise on Deaf-Mutes)
      • A Jurist from Madrid who travelled to witness Pedro Ponce de Leon's work in teaching the deaf to speak, Licenciado Lasso wrote about the legal and philosophical ramifications of muteness.
      • Available online at Biblioteca Digital Miguel de Cervantes
      • There is said to be a translation in Benjamin Fraser 2009 Deaf history and culture in Spain: a reader of primary documents (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press)
    • Vickrey van Cleve, John and Crouch, Barry A. 1989. A Place of their Own (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press)
      • Medieval medical ‘cures’ for deafness.
      • Perceptions of deafness prior to 1600.
    • Zwiebel, Avraham. 1993. “The Status of Deaf in the Light of Jewish Sources” in Renate Fischer et.al. Looking Back: A Reader on the History of Deaf Communities and their Sign Languages (Signum Verlag) ISBN 3-927731-32-3
      • Looks at the Mishnah and Talmud in regards to law codes governing the status of deaf individuals.