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Dr Deborah Thorpe – Illuminating the Scribes

29 June 2018Dr Deborah Thorpe is a palaeographer engaged in the study of pre-modern writing systems and the deciphering and dating of historical manuscripts - but she has always looked beyond the page to consider the living, breathing scribe who made those marks many hundreds of years ago.

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‘I’m fascinated by the idea that the medieval books that I am able to hold in my hands were touched by living people many hundreds of years ago’. Her particular approach to books and manuscripts is also informed by an unusual combination of her personal experience and other interests: Deborah’s mother is a psychiatric nurse and she herself is interested in medicine and the issues that affect us as we get older, such as social isolation and loneliness. In her previous home of York, she volunteered for the charity Dementia Forward, helping to run the weekly wellbeing café and talking to people affected by dementia, an experience which, she says ‘has hugely impacted not only my research, but also my life outside of academia’.

This background led Deborah to wonder how those long-ago writers of manuscripts, whose work seemed to depend so much on very precise skills, meticulous concentration, and good eyesight, would have coped if health problems compromised those abilities. It was the kernel that grew into the research project she is working on this year at Trinity Long Room Hub, as one of our three Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Fellows for 2017-18.

The research project works across the fields of the digital humanities, electronics and computer science, and promises a wider and more diverse understanding of medieval scribes. By combining paleography with medical understanding of the physical, neurological and psychological factors affecting movement, and how these factors are accessed and monitored in modern clinical practice, Deborah has developed a novel interdisciplinary methodology to investigate the links between physiological ageing processes and the forms and features of historical handwriting.

She is applying this methodology to the work of ageing and elderly scribes in medieval and early modern manuscripts, with a focus on Irish resources. The overarching aim of the project is to better understand the handwriting changes associated with normal physiological ageing, as well as the stylistic developments that occurred as fashions changed, and how scribes were influenced by patrons and other scribes around them.

Deborah developed her interdisciplinary approach to medieval manuscripts when she was a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders at the University of York, working with electronic engineer Professor Stephen Smith on a project to detect and analyse the signs of different movement disorders in both medieval and modern handwriting. Professor Smith introduced Deborah to his collaborator Dr Jane Alty, a consultant neurologist with a specialist interest in movement disorders and a keen interest in history, and they began to work together on the manuscripts of a medieval scribe well-known to palaeographers for the distinctive tremor evident in his work. They wrote about this scribe in an article aimed at a medical audience that was published in Brain journal.

The work of Deborah and her collaborators found a wider audience through a documentary entitled Tremulous Hands produced by Yorkshire film makers Digifish. In making the documentary (which Deborah describes as one of the most rewarding experiences of her career to date), she was also able to strengthen her relationship with two UK-based calligraphers, Susan Hufton and Michael Gullick, whose knowledge and experience of the practicalities of medieval-style writing processes have informed her research.

Deborah was, she says, excited at the prospect of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub, because it offered the opportunity to develop her medical humanities research in a truly interdisciplinary environment - and in a physical space that is dedicated to the humanities. She has been very involved with this year’s Neurohumanities programme of lecture, workshops and seminars, which are designed by a cross-disciplinary committee to connect STEM and humanities researchers for thought, reflection and discussion, as well as to provide a platform for public engagement: ‘Trinity has a growing 'neurohumanities' network, and I have been enjoying conversations with researchers from a variety of connected disciplines.’

In January, Deborah was joined by electronic engineers Professor Stephen Smith (her colleague at the University of York) and Dr Márjory Da Costa-Abreu (DIMAp/UFRN, Brazil) in giving a multi-disciplinary talk that combined historical and digital approaches to investigate clues about neurological diseases and disorders in medieval handwriting. Entitled Neuro-Handwriting Analysis: Where the Medieval and the 21st Century Collide, the talk was a fascinating digital excavation of the lost dynamic features of writing in static samples of medieval writing.

In May Deborah chaired an interdisciplinary panel of distinguished speakers in one of a series of Neurohumanities lunchtime seminars commemorating the 75th anniversary of three groundbreaking public lectures on the theme ‘What is Life?’, given at Trinity in 1943 by Nobel laureate physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Held in the same lecture theatre where Schrödinger spoke, the seminar was on the theme ‘What is Memory?’.

During her year at the Hub, Deborah has attended conferences and has been able to scrutinise manuscript books at the British Library, Cambridge University Library, the Bodleian and Stratford-upon-Avon's Shakespeare Institute library as well as Trinity Library. Given that her medieval manuscript research is very dependent on these primary resources, she says ‘you will usually find me either in a library or staring at digital images of medieval manuscripts on my computer’.

But she enjoys getting away from the screen and the opportunities the Hub offers to talk to other people about her work and theirs: ‘Most of all… I have enjoyed hearing from the graduate fellows and visiting fellows at the weekly coffee mornings. At just before 11am on a Wednesday, you see people begin to creep out of their offices, lured by the promise of coffee and conversation. It's always the highlight of my week.

Deborah has also grown a new audience of appreciative fans for her medieval scribes on Twitter, by regularly tweeting engaging, apposite and often remarkably contemporary-seeming images from their manuscripts.

Dr Thorpe's Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellowship for 2017-18 is in collaboration with the School of Histories and Humanities and the Manuscript, Book and Print Cultures research theme.

Cofunded by the Horizon 2020 Marie Sklowdowska-Curie Actions, this fellowship scheme builds on the Trinity Long Room Hub’s existing Visiting Research Fellowship programme which has hosted over 140 fellows from 25 countries to date. The call for 2019-2020 Fellowships will be launched in August 2018.

More information on forthcoming events at Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute.

Contact: Niamh O'Flynn, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895

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