“Sorry, Deborah Thorpe is out of office today. I will respond to your emails upon my return to my desk”
I’ve spent considerable time out of office since I begun my work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Chronic Diseases at York. It’s been a nice change, as medievalists usually spend a lot of time sitting at a desk or in a library. Early last year, I accompanied my mentor on a visit to the NHS hospital in Saltaire, to speak to doctors with knowledge of dementia. I’ve been over to Leeds General Infirmary and met with consultant neurologists there. Most drastically, I took a trip over to San Francisco to get an American perspective on the assessment and treatment of age-related disorders from my mentor’s collaborators there. I met with members of the York Scribes calligraphy group last summer, and they helpfully provided me with some data for my project (and also lunch, cake, and coffee!). Probably the most rewarding ‘out of office experience’ that I’ve had so far was making the journey up to Gateshead to meet the wonderful Henpower group and hear about the work they are doing to combat loneliness in older people. It’s great to get out and about and speak to a variety of people, especially when my project – on ageing and the onset of neurological disorders – is on a topic that affects so many of us.
So, when I was asked to give a talk at York’s contribution to the world-wide ‘Pint of Science‘ festival, which happened this week, I jumped at the opportunity. It was a chance to talk to a diverse group of people about my research, whilst in the informal atmosphere of a local pub, probably holding a pint of beer in my hand. What was not to like about that idea? I was up first talking primarily about scribes and tremor conditions, followed by Matthew Collins with a lively activity-based talk on medieval parchment production. Then Tom McLeish took us on an engaging and fast-paced trip through the work of the thirteenth-century scholar Robert Grosseteste.
My talk looked first at the tribulations of the life of a medieval scribe. In the era before the invention of the printing presses, all written material had to be copied out by hand. I wanted to emphasise the physical work of a medieval writer – not just in the writing of the words, but in the preparation of the parchment, the discomfort of his working environment, and the sheer weight and cumbersome nature of medieval book-making material. For this insight, I am indebted to Derek Pearsall, who has passed on a lot of his knowledge about the difficulties encountered by medieval scribes, and also to a tenth-century scribe called Florentius who wrote this about the scribal ‘craft’:
‘Dorsum incurbat. costas et uentrem frangit. renibus dolorem inmittit et omne corpus fastidium nutrit’
[‘It twists the back. It breaks the ribs and belly. It makes the kidneys ache and fills the whole body with every kind of annoyance’][*]
Since the work of a medieval scribe was already so arduous, it seems almost unfair that some of them were affected by bad eyesight and neurological disorders to boot. But, some of them were, and we can see evidence for this in their handwriting. So, I touched upon the handwriting of a scribe known as the ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester’, who was probably a monk writing at Worcester Cathedral in the thirteenth century. It is fascinating to consider how lifestyle, diet and other environmental conditions affected the onset and progression of conditions that worsen with age. I’m especially interested in the impact of alcohol consumption on the manifestation of tremor in handwriting, and several audience members had good points to raise about beer brewing in a monastic context. ‘Was water safe to drink?’, ‘How much alcohol did medieval people drink, when, and how strong was their drink?’ – these were all questions that arose from my talk.
One of the best aspects about my new project is the questions that it has promoted from both academic and non academic audiences. I’ve found that the most thought-provoking questions have been from individuals who have personal experience of a neurological condition, either through their own health, or the health of their friends or family members. After all, there is only so much that I can learn about the practical impact of ill health from reading articles in neurology journals. In contrast, people who have experience of these conditions can tell me exactly how a tremor impacts upon a person’s daily life.
I was astounded at what I got out of being at the Pint of Science event, and am now resolved to ensure that I take my work out of my office much more often. I hope that the audience members got as much out of being there as us presenters did! I am currently preparing my slides for publication via my blog, but if anyone has any questions or insight arising from my talk, please feel free to contact me directly.
[*] Catherine Brown has written an excellent article on this scribe. See ‘Remember the Hand’, Word and Image 27 (2001): 262-78.