Reading Notes: the History of Blind People in France

This post is a summary of a book by Zina Weygand, The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille, with notes from Mark Peterson’s book Seeing with the hands.

Why focus on this history? 
There are many laws for the inclusion of disabled (or more specifically, blind and Deaf people), but they have not achieved their aims. Pierre Henri and Pierre Villey, both XXth century scholars, explain it by prejudice against blindness. This book explores how individual and collective perceptions of blindness shaped state actions and the social organisations supporting and teaching blind people, to understand contemporary treatment of blind subjects (p.6). So the book covers shifts in these representations over a lengthy period of time, the XIIIth century to XIXth century, citing Le Goff as the inspiration for covering an extended period of time.

Chapter 1 discusses the available sources to study and understand the lives of blind people in the Middle Ages? 1) Archives from hospitals and other charitable organisations (so religious sources) and 2) literary representations, especially theater (p.11-17). Whereas 1) often does not pass judgement on the blind and the reason of their blindness, 2) describe them as gluttons and drunks, afflicted because of a sin (theirs, or their parents). Cruelty was in order.

There are other available sources about that time: blindness can also be a punishment, and the exploits of some blind noble persons were chronicled. In the XIIIth century, hospitals and hospices open across France, and around 1260 Louis XI establishes a hospice dedicated to blind people (and their spouses) in Paris: the Quinze-Vingts was born, and will benefit from such royal charity for several centuries.

People living at the Quinze-Vingts – as well as comparable hospices founded later – partly supported themselves through begging and were expected to pray for the souls of those who had been charitable to them.

Drawing of an old building, in black and white. It represents the Quinze-Vingts in 1567.

This institution still marked blind people as others, and there was no attempt at supporting, for instance, the learning of a trade, to enable autonomy. Yet this is the first example of the monarchy taking responsibility to support disabled people, which eventually 
paved the way for the state to take on a social problem previously abandoned to the church or individual responsibility” (p.23).

In Chapter 2, we’re at the beginning of the modern era (1500s). On the one hand, blind communities such as the Quinze-Vingt largely lose the control they previously had over their own lives. On the other, treaties on poverty and the education for the blind opens new paths to participation. In literature, they are still largely represented as duplicitous beggars.

Chapter 3: The XVIIth century. We have fairly extensive sources of the lives of mystic or aristocratic blind people from this century (François Malaval, Jean de Saint-Samson, Blaise François de Sagan, Elizabeth von Waldkirch). In contrast with a ‘group identity’ previously attributed to the blind, associated with the religious structures they lived in and the begging they undertook, individual blind subjects were associated with greater interiority or connection to the divine – or at best…… with their ability to overcome challenges, in the case of those who became blind later in life. At this period, education was primarily accessed orally, with few recounted writing tools. 

Then came Locke.

We’re Chapter 4 and early XVIIIth century. Various philosophers (the list is long) debate of the nature of the senses and how blind people learn. Can touch replace sight? This was especially investigated in discussion of the Molyneux philosophical problem: if a man is born blind and recovers sight, would he be able to recognise by sight what he only knew through touch or verbal descriptions?

While seemingly innocuous, Molyneux’s question soon unleashed a whole nested series of concerns within philosophy about innate knowledge and the value of experience, and, through Voltaire, helped overturn the established philosophical doctrine in France of rationalism, exemplified in the writing of Descartes. over successive decades, Molyneux’s provocative question encouraged a turn to empiricism

Seeing with the hands, p.7

Cheselden surgery of the cataract of a young man in 1728, which enabled him to recover sight, provided some new empirical insights. Diderot’s Letter on the blind is also on this topic and let us know about Mélanie de Salignac, a blind, French, and highly educated young woman. Her impact on Diderot’s scholarship is well discussed by Kleege.

Diderot’s Lettre sur les aveugles, encourages an alternative approach to Locke: not to make the philosopher-reader take the place of the blind subject, but rather the promise of enabling the blind to articulate the truth of their experience, effectively turning them into philosophers, that is, ‘thoroughly aware of the gaps in [their] experience and master of [their] language’ (Grosrichard 2012: 218). Reversing Molyneux’s imperative to philosophers to make themselves blind, to hypothesise an empty form of the aveugle-né, then, the multiple subjects of Diderot’s ‘experiment’ in the Lettre are a series of actual, living, blind men, with the suggestion of direct contact and interaction with them.

Seeing with the hands, p.11

It supports education using touch – the question being what are the most effective techniques and tools to do so.It is two other blind people who impacted Valentin Haüy and the pedagogy of the first school for the blind: Maria-Theresia von Paradis and Johann-Ludwig Weissenburg.

the calculation system developed by Saunderson, a British blind mathematician.

Old page of a book describing where a tactile language for mathematics.
Statue of valentin Hauy with a student sitting at his feet.
The statue of Valentin Haüy at the National School for the Blind

Chapter 5, we’re in the second half of the 18th century. A century later, primary school education will become public and mandatory. For now, few are those wishing education for the masses (even within Enlightenment philosophers). As for the education of deaf or blind children, it can be a fairly lucrative endeavour, when you are a tutor taking only few privileged students. So the sharing of methods wasn’t always in order. As alm-seeking, which the blind were allowed to do, is getting out of fashion because it is increasingly perceived simply as idleness, a different project for the blind and structure to support their lives is put in place: this is the beginning of philanthropic organisations.There was the religious charity, and this is now the charity of the good man redressing the wrongs of nature. This is going to enable Valentin Haüy to open a school for blind children in Paris, the first of its kind. Haüy develops new artifacts for writing and printing tactile letters and publishes his method (as other tutor, such as Niesen, had done).

Examples of tablets to enable tactile writing.

He also demonstrates his students’ ability in salons to further fund his school. Both his and l’abbé de l’Épée’s (for deaf children) will be placed under royal patronage, and later be nationalised during the revolution. Haüy establishes two curriculum: one that is what we’d now call general education, one teaching a trade. He is really aiming at making blind people self-sufficient and independent in whichever best way he can find.

Chapter 6: return to the Quinze-Vingts. Which is moving to its new (and current) location. The year is 1779. The project of a self-governing community is pretty much over. Many residents are asked to leave because they are not fully blind.Those who stay are those reputed unable to work, needing to stay in a hospice. As they stop alm-seeking, there’s not much to do.

“On the eve of the Revolution, then, there existed two representations of blindness and the blind and two conceptions of what kind of help should be given to thee poorest among them. Assistance or education?”

Something I haven’t been good at conveying about these last few chapters is how Weygand ties the emergence of these schools to the emotions of the protagonists. Haüy recounts seeing blind people being exhibited as freaks as a main factor of his will to build a school. We would probably now call this ‘inspiration porn’. It has been instrumental for the creation of the first schools for blind and deaf children, which in turn enabled the emergence of sign language and braille – it shouldn’t be today.

 Chapter 7 discusses the years 1791-1794, during which the schools for blind and deaf children were placed under the same roof and organisational structure. There is actually another book also examining this history & how the category of ‘sensory impairments’ developed.

If I am not mistaking, this is what the said building (Couvent des Célestins de Paris) looked like.

This chapter dives into accounts of “the society of deaf and blind people.” This was presented at the time as enabling sensorially impaired people to do what all other citizens do, through interdependence. But there was rivalry between Sicard (who had succeeded Abbé de l’Épée) and Haüy.

During the revolutionary period, sign language was greatly admired but there were many doubts as to the possibility of educating blind children. This had a detrimental impact on their education. A crucial change during this period is the turn from a ‘playful’ and liberal approach to learning, to what is described as a panopticon (constant surveillance, constant light, strict separation of genders).

“It can be said that the authors of the 1792 regulations fully realized the ideal of panopticism without having had to spend money on a particular architectural layout.”

We could assume that the nationalisation of special education schools is a good thing, as it protects them from the fluctuation of money from charitable donor, and shows the state taking responsibility for disabled people. However, they still greatly suffered from the fluctuation of public finances. In fact, this is still true today: some special education schools turned service providers still have a charitable foundation to fund themselves.

The Sainte-Catherine Hospital in 1734.

In 1794, the two schools were separated, with the school for the blind transferred to the ‘Catherinettes.’ The government sees this more as a project of public assistance (sheltered work program) than for education however – the school is renamed Institute for Blind Workers.

The financial difficulties led Haüy to develop many activities exhibiting the work of his students to raise money. One such activity was theater, with a short drama by Fabre d’Olivet offering a new vision of blind people.The text opposed the notion of cure, instead arguing for the benefits of education. It also depicts “aspirations to have a normal emotional, familial, and social life” (p.149) which was judged very osé for the times (especially for its female characters!)

Chapter 9 discusses the merging of the Haüy’s school with the Quinze-Vingts in 1800. This was in part brought about by his engagement in Theophilanthropy and its fall from favour with the revolutionary government. It also highlights early attempts of individual support (decree of July 22, 1793) – rather than funding hospices (unreliably) providing occupation and lodging.

L'Aveugle Frélon, Antoine-Pierre Mongin, 1914

Chapter 10 focuses on the representations of blind people in the early XIXth century: the identified causes of blindness, how more privileged people presented themselves to receive support from the state, the iconography such as the painting on the right. We learn that the first definition of blindness based on optemetric criteria in France dates from July 3, 1945 (and was met with resistance from those who preferred a functional classification).

Chapter 11 examines literary works published between Year X (1801-1802) and 1830, that have plots centering of blindness.It shows the influence of class on how blindness is perceived: we still find blind beggars, duplicitous characters being mocked. But also blind bourgeois, figures of the elevation of the soul.

We are now at Part V: the century of Louis Braille. Chapter 12 covers the Quinze-Vingt and the school for the blind during the Empire, how living rules became ever stricter, and how manual labor was imposed on Blind Youth in exchange of a poor instruction. (The two were merged until 1815)

A classical building, in U, which hosted the hospice of Quinze-Vingt during the empire.

The two last chapters describe the evolution of the Quinze-Vingt and the national school for the blind after they were separated again. The wish to enforce strict moral behaviors on blind subjects, still largely perceived as having a loose moral, was quite central.Adults at the Quinze-Vingt were ever more disciplined for engaging in any activity associated with begging. The children of the school for the blind were badly treated (and experimented on) by the new director, Guillié. This eventually came to an end, with a new director more concerned with developing pedagogy. This is how Louis Braille will meet Charles Barbier, who had develop a tactile code, and develop the braille alphabet! This is an interesting case-study in the book: Barbier wanted to do away with orthography and develop a universal language – which isn’t without links to the hopes placed in sign language. The code was syllabic. Braille wanted to substitute writing. Braille succeeded.

By the end of the book, the dilemma between education and assistance isn’t resolved. But B/braille has enabled a community of educated blind people to emerge, converse and express themselves. This is how Weygand concludes her book. What happened next?

In 1878, the conference of teachers of the blind (which occurred during the international exhibition in Paris), the assembly voted to promote braille as a universal system. Other religious schools for blind and deaf children opened throughout France. The inclusion of Deaf children in public schools was envisioned in the 1880s, if they were to be taught to speak and not sign (it didn’t happen, for a variety of reasons).

Public special education schools were opened in the XXth century. They still are to this day dependent of the Ministry of Health, and not of education: the dilemma has moved from “assistance or education?” to “medical or educational?

Only one national school for the blind remain, in Paris – the other now are service providers, supporting children in mainstream schools for instance – probably not for long.Blind children (without additional impairments) have been attending mainstream schools since the 1990s. Interestingly, before the legal obligation of mainstreaming, they were much more likely to be welcomed by private catholic schools than public schools.(teachers and directors evoke the duty of charity as the reason behind welcoming blind pupils). Conflicts on the definition of blindness and adequate state answer subsists to this day, distinguishing between children that are ‘only blind’ and those with additional disabilities. Pedagogical disagreements subsists too (see the thesis of Anne-Lise Mithout). This early history is cherished. During my PhD field-work, before agreeing to be interviewed or observed, several participants quizzed me about Haüy.

Mainstreaming has introduced yet other challenges: is education for academic or social purposes? Should pupils or teachers adapt? When teachers agree to have disabled children in their classroom, they don’t particularly adapt their methods. This history of how individual and collective representations of blind children shape their opportunities isn’t over – but this post is.

Further resources

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Emeline Brulé (26 juillet 2019). Reading Notes: the History of Blind People in France. Design and Society. Consulté le 13 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

Une réflexion sur « Reading Notes: the History of Blind People in France »

  1. Ce billet est très intéressant à lire car je suis étudiant en éducation et en français & je suis toujours à la recherche de bons moyens pour comprendre l’histoire du handicap en France. Merci beaucoup d’avoir écrit cet article passionnant.

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