The Tremulous Hand of Worcester

Interesting post at the OUP blog:

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.

There’s more at the link, but to get the full story you’ll have to consult the latest issue of Brain. I had known about the work of Christine Franzen; Thorpe and Alty seem poised to expand our knowledge of the Tremulous Hand.