Literacy is a measure of being literate, of the ability to read and write. The central activity of the humanities—its shared discipline—literacy has become one of its most powerful and diffuse metaphors, becoming a broadly applied metaphor representing a fluency, a competency, or a skill in manipulating information. The word “literacy” is of recent coinage, being little more than a century old. Reading and writing, or effectively using letters (the word at the root of literacy), are ancient skills, but the word “literacy” likely springs from and reflects the emergence of mass public education at the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, then “literacy” measures personal and demographic development. Literacy is mimetic. It is synesthetic—in some languages, it means hearing sounds (the phonemes) in what is seen (the letters); in others, it means linking a symbol to the thing symbolized. Although a recent word, “literacy” depends upon the emergence of symbolic sign systems in ancient times. Written symbolic systems, by contrast, are relatively recent developments in human history. But they bear a more complicated relationship to the spoken language, being in part a representation of it (and thus a recording of its contents) while also offering a representation of the world, the referent: that is, literacy involves an awareness of the representation of the world. Reading and writing are tied to millennia of changes in technologies of representation. As a term denoting fluidity with letters, literacy has a history and a geography that follow the development and movement of a phonetic alphabetic and subsequent systems of writing. If the alphabet encodes a shift from orality to literacy, HTML encodes a shift from verbal literacy to a kind of numerical literacy not yet theorized.
Disability—whether physical, mental, or sensory—is widely represented in Early Modern literature, and as such it has been attracting attention from 21st-century literary scholars, who apply the theoretical and critical tools of disability studies to Renaissance narratives and literary characters. Literary disability in its various forms can be analyzed in the light of various models of disability, including medical, social, moral, or cultural. This helps in understanding early modern representations and experiences of disability in culture and history and making sense of reactions to disability in the period: including stigma, mockery, proud identification with the disabled identity, or also a desire for it. Physical disabilities in the Renaissance encompass anything from deformity to bodily mutilation to dwarfism or monstrosity, and they are especially prone to be emphasized, explained, or scrutinized in search of their meaning. Sensory disabilities, including blindness, deafness, and mutism, prompt interpretations that connect physical impairment with the character’s inability or surprising ability to understand reality—whether in a pragmatic or spiritual sense. Intellectual and mental disabilities have many ramifications in early modern literature, some of which, such as fools and madmen, are staple types of drama. Intellectual and mental disabilities are often described in medical terms, but literary texts tend to differentiate between them, whether in technical or narrative terms. Foolishness normally turns into comedy, whereas madness is often connected with tragic characters undergoing mental breakdowns. Renaissance disability studies are also concerned with less obvious types of disability: disabilities that were disabilities in the past but not in the 21st century, concealed disabilities, and disabilities that are not actually disabilities but do foster a conversation that excludes the character who does not embody what society regarded as the ideal physical shape. Finally, instances of counterfeited disability and disability attached to concepts rather than people help understand how Renaissance culture often viewed the nonstandard body not only as something to beware of or reject but also as an image of empowerment.