Neuroscience and the Medieval Scribe

I’ve just successfully applied to begin a new postdoctoral project at the University of York. In celebration and preparation, I thought I’d introduce the project and begin with some of my preliminary thoughts.

     I’ll explain how it all happened. Nearing the lowest point of my mid-afternoon slump, I gathered up some print-outs of my latest journal article and headed to a cafe. I had many revisions to do, and a long afternoon in front of me. The place was heaving, with almost every seat filled. A man asked if he could share my table, and we embarked on some silent but companionable work. Something promoted him to ask me what I was doing, and – always relishing the opportunity to talk about anything – I explained that I was using facsimiles of manuscripts to attempt to give a name to an anonymous medieval scribe. He told me that he was a new postdoctoral fellow in the Biology department. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then asked me whether I thought the handwriting of medieval people would witness diseases and disorders. The seeds of an idea were planted.

     I got in touch with an interdisciplinary centre at the University of York, the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorder (C2D2). After much encouragement, inspiration, and practical assistance from the members of staff associated with C2D2, I planned a project that combined historical, biological, and electronics methodologies to investigate neurological disorder in the Middle Ages:

Neurons in cerebral cortex.

Neurons in cerebral cortex.

Tracing Executive Function Impairment in the Handwriting of Medieval Scribes

     There’s no cure for Parkinson’s Disease. One in five hundred people have it. Its symptoms get worse over time. Though they do not cause death in themselves, the symptoms have a colossal impact upon the lives of those affected.  Parkinson’s Disease can affect people through depression, tiredness and pain. Perhaps the most characteristic and well-known symptom of Parkinson’s is motion impairment – tremors and rigid, slow, movement. The investigation and treatment of Parkinson’s Disease is vital and consistently groundbreaking: the Parkinson’s Society UK has invested £60 million so far into working towards a cure. Only last week, there was news that scientists have created genetically modified monkeys using a technique that allows them to cut and paste DNA, which is likely to contribute towards research into Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. Parkinson seems to hit the news almost every week, with new links to causes, potential treatments, and revelations about public figures newly-diagnosed with it. Michael J. Fox was hit by early-onset Parkinson’s Disease, Muhammad Ali has it, and Johnny Cash had Shy-Drager syndrome – a Parkinsonian-type  disorder. Perhaps more importantly though, the instance of Parkinson’s Disease means that each of us is likely to know someone who is affected by it.

     But what about medieval people? In the period before the printing press, handwriting was a profession. Medieval scribes relied upon the regulation and control of cognitive processes – their executive functioning – to make a living. So what happened to professional writers when their visuo-spatial abilities were compromised by neurological disorder like Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease or stroke? There were no pensions or incapacity benefits, so how was their earning potential affected? My project has numerous research questions, but one of the primary aims is to interrogate further the concept of disability in the Middle Ages. In line with one of the primary aims of the growing field of the medical humanities, this project seeks to investigate the expression of bioscience in different social and historical contexts. In doing so, I hope that I will contribute to a fuller understanding of neurological disorder, its symptoms, and its impact on the everyday lives of those who experience it.

John Wildgoose, Wellcome Images

Model of a motor nerve cell. These cells carry messages from the brain or spinal cord to initiate actions. John Wildgoose, Wellcome Images.

     I am embarking on my project on 10th February, working closely with Linne Mooney at the Centre for Medieval Studies, and Stephen Smith of the Electronics department at York. As this is such an exciting project, with the potential to push my research career into new and exciting directions, I expect that The Scribe Unbound will present elements of my methodology and findings as they happen.

P.S. Mysterious Biology postdoc – if you are reading, do get in touch. A thank-you drink is waiting for you!



  1. Wow, that’s amazing – what a serendipitous meeting! I hope you find Biology Postdoc. Good luck with what sounds like a very interesting project!

  2. Reblogged this on Meny Snoweballes and commented:
    This is a brand new project by one of my former PhD colleagues, Debs Thorpe! Debs has always had a really creative approach to her work so I’m not surprised to see her doing an exciting project. Anyone with an interest in medical humanities, check it out.

  3. interesting, forensic palaeography! Instinctively one suspects that once a tremor interfered with your writing, your days of writing were done. And if you were on your uppers …
    One symptom you didn’t mention which would obtain here is micrographia.
    How about musicians?

  4. Oh, I love this project Debs! And incidentally, your statistical inference that readers probably know a sufferer is spot on. My mum has had Parkinson’s Disease for 25 years. In a dull moment you might want to check out my sister’s response to this (through mime and comedy, as she’s an actress:

    1. Kathleen – I’ve just had chance to see your sister’s response – how amazing! I’m really glad you like the project – it has made me feel very inspired. It has potential to go off in so many directions. Thanks for your comment!

  5. This is a very exciting project Debs and a lucky meeting that resulted in it indeed! I am curious for your results and as always love your writing. I just remembered when I was reading your project, a story of a drunkard scribe who was active in Iceland (but not in the Middle Ages). First researchers were puzzled that his writing always deteriorated after a while, until they imagined that he must have cheered up his lonely transcription work by booze… Good Luck!!!

    1. Fantastic! That’s a great story – do you remember the source of it? I think it would make a good anecdote to warn against making assumptions!

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