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New Exhibition: “On Speaking Terms: Eight centuries of communication disabilities”

Text by Dr Caroline Jagoe & Dr Deborah Thorpe

Florence Fenwick Miller, An atlas of anatomy, London, 1879. Gall.TT.32.9

Communication is at the heart of who we are as human beings and communication disorders reflect the diversity of our humanity. As the Department of Clinical Speech and Language Studies in Trinity College Dublin celebrates 50 years of educating speech and language therapists in Ireland, this exhibition in the Long Room provides a glimpse into eight centuries of communication disabilities.

The exhibition is the culmination of an interdisciplinary project between Dr Caroline Jagoe (Assistant Professor in Clinical Speech & Language Studies, TCD), Dr Deborah Thorpe (Medievalist) and Margaret Leahy (retired member of staff from Clinical Speech & Language Studies, TCD). Our diverse interests and skills made for a vibrant team and enabled us to undertake a project spanning eight centuries and four languages (Old Irish, Middle English, Latin and English). We were interested in the words and phrases used to describe disorders of communication, the symptoms, experiences, causes and cures. When viewed within the historical and textual context, these words provide a window into how these disorders were problematized, understood and managed.

The idea that moral qualities could be determined from the features of speech appears regularly in medieval and early modern texts. These social constructions would likely have affected how communication disabilities were viewed, just as society’s view on disability today affect those who live with difference. For example, in a fifteenth-century Latin text (De proprietatibus rerum by Bartholomeus Anglicus, first authored two centuries earlier) we read about the properties of a clear voice and its opposite, a ‘trembling voice’ that is ‘hoarse and rough, feeble and dissonant, too heavy or sharp’, which, the author says is ‘blameworthy’.

Yellow Book of Lecan, 14th-15th century. TCD MS 1318

The causes of communication disability recorded across the centuries encompass both the familiar and the surprising. Head injuries, the clamour of battle, convulsions of the ventricles, disturbances in the organs of the voice are amongst some of the causes documented. The symptoms too are sometimes vividly described.

Medieval and early modern books are bursting with remedies for communication disorders, some of which are on view in the exhibition, and its online counterpart. These problems range from sore throats to complete speechlessness. From the healing words of the Virgin Mary to the most pragmatic of herbal remedies, the contents of these texts have much to reveal about how communication disabilities were understood historically.

Highlights from the exhibition include:

Cóir Anmann, ‘The fitness of names’, 16th century. TCD MS 1337

Cóir Anmann ‘The fitness of names’, sixteenth-century Irish manuscript, TCD MS 1337

Cúscraid Mend Macha—Cúscraid the Stammerer of Armagh—was the son of Conor MacNessa, King of Ulster. Cúscraid was a brave Ulster hero who appears several times in the Ulster sagas. Two causes of his stammer are given: one (in Mac Dathó’s Pig, recorded in the Book of Leinster) notes a spear thrown by Cet of Connacht that damages tendons in his throat. The other (seen here in Cóir Anmann or ‘the fitness of names’) notes that ‘Cet wounded Cúscraid through his mouth and cut off the tip of his tongue so that afterwards he stammered’ (‘Gonais Cet intí Cuscraid trena bél gur thesc barr na teangadh de, gomá mend é iar sin’)

Robert Pierce, Bath memoirs, Bristol, 1697. H.nn.1

Robert Pierce, Bath Memoirs, Bristol, 1697, H.nn.1

This book contains the cures that Robert Pierce, a doctor, observed at the spa waters of Bath. On this page, he describes the remarkable case of a woman who suddenly experienced an inability to speak, saying a word other than the one she intended (what we would now term ‘paraphasia’):

A woman was walking to pay a visit to a neighbour and ‘upon a sudden her Speech fail’d her, so that she could not bring out any Words. She spake one Word for another, yet had no Giddiness in her Head, Failing of her Limbs, of either side’.

Sylvester O’Halloran, A New Treatise on the Different Disorders Arising from External Injuries of the Head, Dublin, 1793, OLS L-13-107

Sylvester O’Halloran, A new treatise on the different disorders arising from external injuries of the head, Dublin, 1793. OLS L-13-107

This text is the work of the Catholic surgeon Sylvester O’Halloran, who worked in and around Limerick in the eighteenth century. O’Halloran gives several vivid accounts of individuals who acquire communication disorders following a head injury. Here we read about a chamberlain who was thrown from his horse and hit in the area of the ‘left parietal’ part of the head. He was initially ‘incapable of [providing] any information’ and in a ‘state of insensibility’. Although he made some recovery, he was left, O’Halloran reports, ‘perfectly inoffensive’ but his communication difficulties had a lasting impact on social interaction: ‘he never speaks to any one and his only amusement is gathering bits of sticks, or wood, by the water-side’

A seminar to celebrate the launch of the exhibition will take place on Friday 6th September. This event is free, but registration is required. Register here

The exhibition will be on view in the Old Library until the end of October.

The online version of the exhibition can be accessed here

This project was made possible through funding from the Research Incentive Scheme (Long Room Hub) and the TCD-Wellcome Trust ISSF in Neurohumanities.