Putting the ‘human’ back into ‘humanities scholar’

Speaking with other scholars of the medieval period, I’ve often felt twinges of guilt as an interloper. I have slunk around the corridors of the Centre for Medieval Studies as a meddler. Other medievalists strike me as inspired creatures: as individuals to whom, at age five, a higher being delivered some lightning-bolt command– ‘THOU MUST RESEARCH THE DEPICTION OF FOOTWEAR IN FIFTEENTH-CENTURY MANUALS FOR YORKSHIRE PARISH PRIESTS’. Of course this is an exaggeration but, still, I regard myself as something of a strange being amongst historians. I have sat silently watching academic friends’ eyes glaze over as they describe their bookworm childhoods: curled up under a duvet with a torch, secretly reading novels into the early hours. It’s almost like they were born to be scholars. I cannot conjure up such memories from my own early days – though I do recall scooping up frogspawn, falling off the backs of horses, playing ‘kerby‘ in the street, and being chastised for misbehaving at church. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly read and was read to, but books do not feature prominently in my childhood or teenage memories. Even now, reading books for pleasure is restricted to lunchtimes and long commutes. I enjoy reading in the bustle of a busy city centre café, but I usually prefer an issue of my favourite newspaper to a novel. My bedside table is often littered by novels that I’ve started and discarded after a few pages. I don’t much enjoy reading or writing poetry. I feel that it is sacrilege to admit all of this. Call the humanities police.

         It’s hard for me to determine whether my lack of bookishness is a cause or a result of my work in academia. Do I avoid reading for pleasure because I read and write for a living? Or am I a steady-headed academic because reading is not my passion, and thus I am able to engage in my work without it becoming self-destructive? These are questions that I’m attempting to answer.

Bodies and Texts: the imprint of a pair of medieval spectacles in a book. Photo by Pete Smith. Harry Ransom Center, http://blog.hrc.utexas.edu/2012/04/17/medieval-spectacles/

Bodies and Texts: the imprint of a pair of medieval spectacles in a book. Photo by Pete Smith. Harry Ransom Center, http://blog.hrc.utexas.edu/2012/04/17/medieval-spectacles/

       My mother is a mental health nurse. As she watched me take my early steps into graduate employment in marketing and PR at age 21, I remember her asking me if I wouldn’t rather pursue a career that involved caring for people. I don’t think she envisioned me going into healthcare myself, but rather that she saw the satisfaction that I got from speaking with and listening to others. In contrast, creating spreadsheets, hitting targets, and writing copy seemed hollow to me. Even as I moved into postgraduate studies, I was not one of those scholars who lived and breathed the Ph.D – I was not hesitant to leave my desk at 5pm on a Friday and head out to the Yorkshire moors with friends. But I did feel that the study of the material text spoke to my personality. As a postgraduate student, I chose my research topic not because I was particularly enthralled by medieval literature, but because when I touched a medieval book it sent shivers down my spine to think that human flesh had made contact with it 600 years before. As a master’s student I was captured by palaeography. Though I was intimidated by the literary texts on our syllabus, I could imagine the fingers of a medieval scribe encircling his quill as he executed the letters before me. As a postdoctoral scholar, I found a thumbprint in a medieval document, where a writer had made a slip of the hand and thus created an enduring record of his physical body. I often think about when, a couple of years ago, a friend showed me the layers of wallpaper that he found in his Victorian house – a material relic of the forgotten generations who have lived there.

      My new project on neurological disorders in medieval scribes sits right at the intersection between the past and the present. Last year, I made a trip to Worcester Cathedral and the archivist brought out a book covered in annotations by the thirteenth-century scribe known as ‘the Tremulous Hand of Worcester’. I’d been working closely with neurologists and other scientists who have specialist interests in movement disorders. And here, I could see the material evidence of how a tremor condition led a medieval person’s muscles to oscillate, his pen to shake, and the nib to create strokes that have a distinctive wave. Since beginning this work, I’ve spoken to a range of people who are personally affected by neurological conditions. People seem enthusiastic about making connections between my project’s historical focus and their everyday lives. Perhaps it’s because I am discovering human stories in the folios of centuries-old manuscripts – and stories are so compelling to us. I’ve applied to do volunteer work with a local dementia organisation, after witnessing first-hand the positive impact that it is making in the city of York. My encounters with these people and organisations have pushed questions about “what motivates me?” to the front of my mind. Am I happy sitting on my own in a library reading, or at my computer writing, or do I really want to get out there and work more directly with the people that I’ve met?

      However, I feel that my research on neurological disorders in historical context has created a forum for the kind of discussions that I want to engage with. By proposing detective work – to uncover lost details about how medieval people experienced neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, I have found that I’ve encouraged people to talk to me. I’ve found myself speaking more fluidly and passionately to students about what I research. I’ve found that by researching historical neurological conditions, I’ve been prompted to join important discussions about the understanding of health today. For example, is it right that depression and anxiety are often referred to as ‘mental illnesses’ – as something so distinct from ‘physical illnesses’? By choosing a topic that is focused on material culture (and thus is visibly the work of human hands) and that intersects with issues of such great relevance to us today, I have found work that truly inspires me. Not all of the wisdom that I need to undertake this project is locatable in books and journal articles — and so I feel less guilty about not being a bookworm.

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