Reading the medieval mind

New research is exploring scribes’ handwriting to reveal what it can tell us about conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease in the Middle Ages
(This news piece was published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine)


Historians regularly use the text of medieval documents to reveal details of society at the time – but, as a pioneering study is exploring, the way in which such text was written may offer clues into the wellbeing of the scribes that composed them.


The research, being carried out by Deborah Thorpe from the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders at the University of York, is exploring how scribes’ handwriting can point to the presence of neurological conditions. Because they were trained to produce exceptionally regular work, even the slightest variation in scribes’ handwriting is noticeable – and the fact that many had careers that spanned decades means that their output may also reveal how such conditions worsened over time.

“There is lots of scope to find out more about medical conditions by looking at handwriting,” Thorpe told BBC History Magazine. “Writing by hand is a demanding activity for the human brain: it requires planning, the ability to remember spelling and grammatical structures, and control over physical movement. This means that any neurological, visual or movement problems can be glaring in the words on the page: we might see the tremors associated with Parkinson’s Disease or the memory problems of dementia, for instance, or evidence of repetitive strain injury or age-related visual impairment.”

A key component in the research is the work of a 13th-century scribe known as ‘The Tremulous Hand of Worcester’, due to a distinctive tremor in his handwritten annotations on an earlier document (see image below). Thorpe has studied how this shaking increased as the scribe aged and he became more affected by his condition. “I’m developing new computer techniques to analyse individual strokes, and discover how historians might be able to pick out the smallest effects of neurological disorders on handwriting,” she says.


Despite their elegant work, the lives of medieval scribes were not always easy. “Their work was arduous, with long hours taking their toll on the body: symptoms included back pain, stomach cramps and tension in the hands,” Thorpe says. “In winter, with nights drawing in, scribes would be doing intricate work in poor lighting, resulting in eye damage. All of this led medieval writers to compare such work with the toils of battle, or the labours of a farmer in the fields.”

Contemporary authors reported scribes experiencing psychological difficulties. A poem that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote to his scribe, Adam, highlights the pressure placed upon him. Chaucer complained that he had to correct Adam’s work, criticising him for his lack of attention to detail and “negligence”.

The 14th-century poet Thomas Hoccleve, meanwhile, wrote about a period of mental illness that he experienced while working as a scribe: he could not sleep, felt an unshakable sense of heaviness and feared he was close to death.

Thorpe is eager to avoid comparisons between medieval attitudes towards neurological conditions and the treatment sufferers receive today. “‘Medieval’ is widely used as a byword for barbarity and a lack of compassion for the vulnerable, when, in fact, medieval society protected those unable to work, such as the sick or elderly,” she says.


“In general, older people were respected as figures of authority whereas, in contrast, I would argue that there is a tendency today to view the elderly as a burden to society. I hope that this research contributes towards a shift in perceptions of older people by uncovering more evidence for their value in medieval communities.”