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Classics and Autism

Why Classical Myths can Chime with Autistic Experiences

Roman relief (3rd century AD) depicting a sequence of the Labours of Hercules, representing from left to right the Nemean lion, the Lernaean Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar, the Ceryneian Hind, the Stymphalian birds, the Girdle of Hippolyta, the Augean stables, the Cretan Bull and the Mares of Diomedes
Roman relief (3rd century AD) depicting a sequence of the Labours of Hercules

Professor Susan Deacy will be delivering a public lecture via Zoom, with BSL interpretation, on Wednesday 16 February 1pm-2pm. Register HERE

Prof Susan Deacy will talk about her work with young people with autism, using classical mythology and the experiences and perceptions it highlights. This talk is free, online, and open to all.

Prof Deacy is the co-founder of ACCLAIM (Autism Connecting with Classically Inspired Mythology Network), established in 2019, and is Professor of Classics at Roehampton University.

This is a joint lecture between Cultures of Disability (Manchester Met University) and Manchester Classical Association is a volunteer-run association which brings together researchers, teachers, students, pupils and the interested public, to share our enthusiasm for the classical world and its relevance in a 21st century global and diverse world. We host regular public lectures, student workshops, teacher training support sessions and materials, and children’s events and competitions. Many of our talks are recorded on our YouTube channel. Contact: Dr April Pudsey.

Roman relief (3rd century AD) depicting a sequence of the Labours of Hercules, representing from left to right the Nemean lion, the Lernaean Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar, the Ceryneian Hind, the Stymphalian birds, the Girdle of Hippolyta, the Augean stables, the Cretan Bull and the Mares of Diomedes
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Votives in Manchester: International Day of Disabled People 2021

A small clay model of a person is displayed on a person's hand.
©Manchester Histories

Inspired by Emma-Jayne Graham’s lecture on votives in Ancient Rome, Venture Arts developed a workshop with Manchester Histories, on votives which took place at Manchester’s celebration of IDDP21, Dr Graham’s work explores the experience of disability in Rome through the models of body parts which were left at shrines. These body parts often represented impairments that visitors wanted healing, and included arms, legs, feet and ears. At Manchester Central Library, participants were able to create their own clay votives, inspired by their experiences of perceived impairment and disability.

Three people are sitting at a table, modelling clay.  One young black man, one white woman with a mask, one young white man with a mask are all looking at the camera.
© Manchester Histories

To find out more about votives in the Ancient world, you can watch Emma-Jayne’s lecture here. A shorter version is also available at Manchester Central Library with Archives+ on the listening pods.

Venture Arts is an award winning charity, working with artists with learning disabilities. The workshop was funded by Manchester Metropolitan University.

Seven young white people are sitting around a table taking part in a clay modelling workshop.  Everyone is wearing a mask and some are wearing blue plastic aprons.
© Rosamund Oates

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Disability in the Ancient World

Dr Emma-Jayne Graham examines the votives, or models of body parts, made by or for disabled people and explores the experience of disability in the classical world. You can watch her talk here (This version has both BSL interpretation and captions). 

Dr Emma-Jayne Graham is a Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University with expertise in Ancient Rome. She uses archaeological remains to explore ideas about religion and disability in Roman Italy, her most recent book is Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy (2021). As well as exploring classical disability she runs The Votives Project.

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Miraculous Cures and Pilgrimage in Manchester

Dr Kathryn Hurlock (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Dr Hurlock explores the history of pilgrimage and ideas of miraculous cures in 19th and 20th century Manchester. She focuses on the popular pilgrimage site of Holywell in Wales (known as the ‘Lourdes of Wales’) to show how ideas around ‘healing’ and miracles shaped experiences of disabled people.

By Eurapart – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11419115

To listen and watch the lecture (with BSL interpretation and captions) please click here

If you have any experiences of pilgrimage to Holywell Dr Kathryn Hurlock would be delighted to hear from you, and can be contacted at: K.Hurlock@mmu.ac.uk

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Perceptions of Madness


Sarah K. Hitchen, PhD student Manchester Metropolitan University

For many people with schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders, the people who initially identify that something is wrong are not medics, but family members.[1] A quick internet search reveals numerous websites and fact sheets providing information and advice for family and friends who are concerned that a loved one has developed a serious mental illness.[2] We can trace the idea that human beings instinctively recognise mental disorder in others back to the early modern period. In the seventeenth-century, the perceptions of friends and family were as important in identifying mental illness as they are today. An excellent example of this can be found in the autobiographical writings of Oxfordshire gentlewoman, Dionys Fitzherbert (c.1580 – c.1641)

A surgery where all fantasy and follies are purged, https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/298391, CCBY 4.0

Between 1608 and 1610, Dionys described an extended period of significant emotional and psychic distress.  She writes of an hallucination, imagining that ‘Charterhouse Yard … should flow with the matter that came out of my mouth, and did assuredly think all the bed and clothes were as wet with it as might be’.[4] She suffered delusions in which she believed that she was not her parents’ child, but was the long dead-sister of a friend.[5] She encountered suicidal thoughts and at the same time she feared that her family would have her put to death.[6] Her thoughts were confused and fractured. Just like many people who suffer from severe mental illness today, Fitzherbert did not recognise that she was unwell. In fact, she believed that she was suffering from a spiritual affliction.[7] Her family and friends, however, were frightened by her behaviour, and believing her to be mentally ill placed her in the care of doctors.

human beings instinctively recognise mental disorder in others

But how did Fitzherbert’s family know she was mentally ill? After all, as Kate Hodgkin tells us, the seventeenth century was a time during which there was only a fine line between madness and religious despair.[8] It was the family’s perception of Fitzherbert’s behaviour that was key. Knowing her as well as they did, Fitzherbert’s relatives were able to identify her mental illness because they identified Dionys’s thoughts and behaviours as ‘bizarre’. In 1958 psychiatrist H. C. Rumke coined the phrase the ‘praecox feeling’, or the ‘praecox experience’, which referred to ‘a characteristic feeling of bizarreness experienced by a psychiatrist while encountering a person with schizophrenia’. [9] Although never formally made part of diagnosis, Rumke argued that the ‘praecox feeling’ was a central part of the diagnostic experience and this notion was echoed by psychiatrists throughout Europe during the twentieth century.[10] This feeling of bizarreness was also experienced by the non-medically trained. In the 1960’s psychiatrist Wilhelm Mayer-Gross said that the words ‘bizarre’, ‘queer’ and ‘absurd’ were often used to convey ‘the reaction of the non-schizophrenic towards the patient’.[11] Although use of the ‘praecox feeling’, has declined as a diagnostic element, it is still referred to by psychiatrists today, some of whom believe it to be ‘a real determinant of medical decision making in schizophrenia’.[12]

In a Lunatic Asylum, T.Bowes (1735). Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0

Is this the feeling that Dionys Fitzherbert’s relatives experienced? If so the idea that human beings instinctively know when a person is suffering severe psychic distress, and the way that it seemingly transcends space and time provides us with a clear link between perceptions of madness in the past and modern experiences of mental illness.

This research is part of a PhD funded by the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (NWCDTP) 


[1] Kim Runkle, ‘Psychosis: Responding To A Loved One In The Face Of Uncertainty’, Nami.Org, 2019 <https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/June-2019/Psychosis-Responding-to-a-Loved-One-in-the-Face-of-Uncertainty&gt; [Accessed 12 October 2021].

[2] ‘Are You Worried About Someone’s Mental Health? Fact Sheet’, Mindcharity.Co.Uk, 2011 <https://www.mindcharity.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/are_you_worried_about_someones_mental_health_factsheet.pdf&gt; [Accessed 12 October 2021], ‘Living With – Schizophrenia’, Nhs.Uk, 2021 <https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/schizophrenia/living-with/&gt; [Accessed 12 October 2021], ‘Mental Illness – Family And Friends – Better Health Channel, Betterhealth.Vic.Gov.Au, 2019 <https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/mental-illness-family-and-friends&gt; [Accessed 14 October 2021].

[3] Unknown author Le médecin guarissant Phantasie [digital image] <https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/298391&gt; [Accessed 12 October 2021].

[4] David Booy, Personal Disclosures: An Anthology Of Self-Writings From The Seventeenth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. 309.

[5] Booy, Personal Disclosures, p. 310.

[6] Booy, Personal Disclosures, pp. 311-312.

[7] Kate Hodgkin, ‘Fitzherbert, Dionys (C.1580-C.1641)’, ODNB, 2019 <https://doi-org.mmu.idm.oclc.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.112759&gt; [Accessed 15 June 2021].

[8] Katharine Hodgkin, Women, Madness And Sin In Early Modern England: The Autobiographical Writings Of Dionys Fitzherbert (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), p. 58.

[9] Tudi Gozé and others, ‘Reassessing ‘Praecox Feeling’ In Diagnostic Decision Making In Schizophrenia: A Critical Review’, Schizophrenia Bulletin, 45.5 (2018), p. 966.

[10] J. Parnas, ‘A Disappearing Heritage: The Clinical Core Of Schizophrenia’, Schizophrenia Bulletin, 37.6 (2011), p. 1125.

[11] Wilhelm Mayer-Gross, Martin Roth and Eliot Slater, Clinical Psychiatry, 3rd edn (London: Baillière, Tindall & Cassell, 1969), p. 276.

[12] Gozé et al, ‘Reassessing’, p. 966.


Intellectual Disability 1750-2021

Dr Simon Jarrett has spent many years working with people with learning disabilities and autism, and in this talk he explores how the idea of intellectual disability was developed in the 18th-20th centuries. To watch the video with captions and BSL click here

Dr Simon Jarrett is an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, London. Having spent many years working with people with learning difficulties and with autism, he now advises local authorities and the NHS on improving services. In his recent book Those They Called Idiots: The Idea of the Disabled Mind from 1750 to the Present day (2020) he explores emerging ideas of intelligence, race and disability.

He is also the editor of Community Living and welcomes contributions or emails about the magazine.

Disability in Ancient Rome

Dr Emma-Jayne Graham examines the votives, or models of body parts, made by or for disabled people and explores the experience of disability in the classical world. You can watch her talk here (please note this version has captions only, a BSL interpreted version will be uploaded shortly).

Dr Emma-Jayne Graham is a Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University with expertise in Ancient Rome. She uses archaeological remains to explore ideas about religion and disability in Roman Italy, her most recent book is Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy (2021). As well as exploring classical disability she runs The Votives Project.

Hearing Happiness

Our celebrations of UK Disability History Month started with an entertaining and informative talk by Professor Jaipreet Virdi, an award winning activist, writer and historian. Professor Virdi presented compelling arguments about ideas of disability, views of deafness in 20th century America and explored the evolution of hearing aids.

If you missed the event, for a limited period you can watch the pre-recorded lecture here. This includes BSL interpretation and captions.

You can also find out more in Professor Verdi’s book, Hearing Happiness.

Why not see what other events we are running to celebrate UKDHM?

Culture in Quarantine: A Manifesto for 2050

Dr Kai Syng Tan on BBC I-Player

Dr Kai Syng Tan, an artist based at MMU and a member of the ‘Cultures of Disability’ research group was commissioned to produce film for the BBC this summer, as part of the BBC Arts’ Culture In Quarantine initiative, which has brought the arts into people’s homes during lockdown.

Her film, How To Thrive In 2050! 8 Tentacular Workouts For A Tantalising Future! is available on the BBC i-player. It’s a call for action for a more creative, equitable and neuro-fantastic future by a ‘human-octopussy’, and is challenging, funny and inspiring.

Dr Kai Syng Tan is one of twelve D/deaf, neurodivergent and disabled professional artists based in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland who have been commissioned to produce new film and audio works for BBC platforms, many of which explore the experience of living through Covid-19.

Lamia Dabboussy, BBC Head of Arts says: “This batch of commissions from artists across the country showcases the breadth of inspiring work we’ve all missed experiencing over this past lockdown year”

How to Thrive in 2050! 8 Tentacular Workouts For A Tantalising Future! is a brilliant and creative film – congratulations to Dr Kai Syng Tan! For more of her work see her webpage.