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Scrutinizing the script of the medieval ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester’

How would we know if a medieval person had a neurological disorder? If we did know, would it be possible to pinpoint the type of condition? What insight can we gain about the practical impact of disorders on medieval life? Fortunately, a physical record survives that provides a reliable window into the health of medieval people—or, at least, those who were able to write.

Handwriting captures the writer’s state of health: it requires fine motor control, as well as highly-developed cognitive abilities in spatial planning, spelling, and grammar. In the period before the fifteenth-century invention of the printing press, all texts had to be written out by hand. Writing could be a profession, or an act of devotion within a religious order. Contrary to popular belief, the medieval life was not universally short and brutal—some medieval scribes lived to be 70, 80, and possibly 90 years old. Thus, medieval writing offers a wealth of insight into the lives of young and old, healthy and unhealthy people.

Historians have long been fascinated by the ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester’. His script was first described in 1878 as “von einer zitternden hand” (“by a shaking/trembling hand”), by the German scholar Julius Zupitza. This thirteenth-century scribe, whose name remains a mystery, was probably a monk at Worcester Cathedral Priory. His handwriting appears in over 20 books, providing us with rich material for our study. However, despite the interest provoked by his distinctive, shaky script, it has never before been analysed by a neurologist. With this in mind, we created an unconventional collaboration: a medieval palaeographer (a researcher of historical handwriting) working with a neurologist with a specialist interest in movement disorders, and began to scrutinize the script.

Image credit: London, British Library, Additional MS 28681, folio 118v
A monk praying at an altar with Christ above. London, British Library, Additional MS 28681, folio 118v. Used with permission.

By tracing the individual contours of the letters on the page, we gleaned information about how a neurological disorder affected the scribe’s hand movements. In addition to examining his tremor-affected strokes, and the size and shape of the letters, we consider the man’s cognitive abilities and potential concurrent symptoms. Through this study, we are now able to suggest a diagnosis for the condition that caused his tremulous writing. Since medieval people wrote with quills, we may compare the medieval script with the writing of a modern-day person with the condition using a calligraphy pen.

So, what can this trembling script tell us about the daily life of a medieval person with a neurological condition? Literary scholar Christine Franzen, an expert on this scribe, had already noticed a point where his tremor was alleviated, possibly by a period of rest. Did the scribe consume alcohol during his rest? The response of some tremor conditions to alcohol is well-attested—a small amount of alcohol can steady the hand. Thus, an alcoholic drink may have offered some relief for the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. This creates an especially vivid connection between past and present—we see, visually, how a person lived with, and worked with, his neurological disorder.

Scholars still know relatively little about neurological health in the medieval period. Much of the evidence has escaped the records, especially that concerning mundane daily life. There remain many puzzles to be solved, too, about the lives of scribes in the Middle Ages. By focusing on this man, we create an important historical perspective on the experience of tremor, and so widen the scope of our modern medical understanding of health.

Featured image: Medieval writing desk. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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