The Tremulous Hand of Worcester: Unfurling the Medical Mystery of a Medieval Scribe
Handwriting is one of those things most people don’t really give a second thought to today – we live in a world where we are surrounded by text and the vast majority of the time it is printed rather than hand written, and children today are far more likely to receive classes in touch-typing than traditional penmanship.
Before digital word processors became widely available, mechanical type writers such as the Hansen Writing Ball in the 1860s and more recognizable models in the 1910s started to mechanize the writing process on a broad scale.
The Time of Handwritten Text
The fact that printed text was reserved for official publications, books, and newspapers meant that distinctive fonts and script styles were present in hand written text. An example everyone will be familiar with is the Spencerian script which was popular in America in the 19 th Century – both the Coca-Cola and Ford Motors logos are written in this style. The exaggerated loops and swirls which characterize Spencerian script look elaborate today and can make it hard for us to read, but from the mid-19 th century to the mid-1920s Spencerian was the font most people in the USA were taught at school and used in their day to day lives.
A sample of Spencerian script. (Swchuck / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Similarly, distinctive are the fonts used by medieval scribes to produce the elaborate manuscripts of the era. To the uninitiated they may look largely the same, but paleographers (historians who specialize in analyzing and dating ancient writing systems and manuscripts) have divided them into three main categories; Caroline, Pre-Gothic, and Gothic. Something as simple as identifying the style of writing used in a manuscript makes it possible to provide a reasonably accurate date, eliminating the need for expensive scientific tests on the velum it is written on which risks damaging the manuscript.
But there is far more than can be learned from the writing of the past than just the era and country it was written in, and indeed a monk working in the 13 th Century may be able to provide clues which help scientists and doctors looking to advance the field of neurology today .
The Tremulous Hand of Worcester
‘The Tremulous Hand of Worcester’ is the name given by historians to a scribe who made annotations on at least twenty manuscripts, particularly much earlier Old English manuscripts , during the 13 th century. He was a monk who most historians believe was based at the Worcester Priory, as all of the annotations which have been positively attributed to him are connected in some way to Worcester.
His annotations are distinctive in that he had a particular interest in translating much earlier manuscripts, indicating he was likely a linguistic historian. But the choice of subject is not the only thing that makes the work of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester distinctive. All of the notes (known by paleographers as ‘glosses’) he produced are both leftward leaning and shaky, and it is the visible tremor present in his script that gives him his nickname, though ‘hand’ is another word for scribe as opposed to a description of his physical hand.
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Life of St. Chad glossed by the Tremulous Hand. (Sir Statler / Public Domain )
He was an extremely prolific writer, and it is estimated that in the twenty remaining manuscripts he glossed, there are around 50,000 annotations. At first it was thought that his tremor was a sign that he was elderly, and some people built up a picture of an elderly monk working tirelessly to preserve and translate Old English manuscripts before they were lost to time.
It is now known that this was not the case, and an in-depth analysis of his writing proves he was writing over an extended period of time and that his tremor worsened slightly over the years.
Leading Theories Regarding the Tremulous Hand of Worcester
When it was established the Tremulous Hand of Worcester was not just an elderly scribe, the mystery attracted the attention of more than paleographers. Neurologists conducting research into neurodegenerative movement disorders including Parkinson’s felt that the Tremulous Hand would be a valuable source to study.
The foremost question that has been posed is ‘what kind of tremor did he have?’ and in 2015 researchers attempted to answer this by examining several samples of the Tremulous Hand’s work to chart the progress of the tremor over time. They theorized the Tremulous Hand suffered from a condition called essential tremor, and then prepared modern day samples written in calligraphy pen by a person with the same condition to compare with the work of the Tremulous Hand.
In many tremor conditions handwriting is affected in a consistent manner– this means that two people with the same condition will produce a writing sample with similar characteristics even if their writing otherwise looks completely different. This was clear when the modern sample was compared to the work of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester and detailed analysis of the modern samples was able to confirm the hypothesis that the Tremulous Hand’s distinctive style was a result of a neurodegenerative disorder, and to further confirm it was essential tremor.
Uncomfortable Working Conditions
The life of a medieval scribe was hard – they may not have been undertaking backbreaking work in the fields, but they certainly did not have a comfortable job and it could have long term effects on their health.
Some extant depictions of monks working on inscriptions depict eye glasses and staring at the page for long periods would have been detrimental to their vision after extended intervals. Their desks and seats were highly uncomfortable and the scarcity and expense of artificial light in medieval times meant that when the days were long during the summer the scribes would have to get up early and go the bed late, sitting all day at the desks working on their texts – some minor flaws in the writing of other monks was probably a result of wrist cramp caused by writing for excessively long periods. Conversely, in the winter the monks would have been writing in poor lighting conditions putting further strain in their eyes and they often would have worked in frigid conditions which, along with being generally uncomfortable and unpleasant, makes joints stiff and writing more difficult.
Painting ‘The Story of the Recorded Word’ -The Medieval Scribe during the time of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. (Wally Gobetz / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
For these reasons, it is important to take the working conditions of the time into account when studying the work of the scribes like the Tremulous Hand of Worcester to avoid misattributing a flaw in writing to a condition when it could just have been a result of the time of year or even time of day the sample was originally written.
Other Contributing Factors Experienced by the Tremulous Hand of Worcester
Research into the Tremulous Hand quickly became more than just comparing a sample of his writing to a sample written by someone known to have essential tremor. As well as considering the conditions he was working in, the writing equipment the Tremulous Hand had access to played a role in his distinctive writing style.The Tremulous Hand of Worcester would have used a quill to make his annotations, as this was the only writing implement available in medieval England. Today, people with essential tremor find that their tremor can be improved (or worsened) if they use a different size, weight, or grip of pen. Without the option to change the implement, a more accurate picture of how his writing changed over time could be built up as the writing implement would not have been the cause of any changes.
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Traditional historical medieval writing was done with a quill, the instrument used by the Tremulous Hand of Worcester ( Andrea Izzotti / Adobe)
While the changes are fairly subtle, the fluctuations in the severity of the tremor had to be explained. At one point the Tremulous Hand’s tremor seemed to improve. One theory for this is that he must have gone away for a while and rested. Paleographers and neurologists both agree that if this was the case it would be evidence he had essential tremor, which has been shown to improve for a while when the writer has been able to relax or rest and to worsen during times of hard work or stress.
The other theory, which may seem at first to make little sense, is that his writing improved because he had been drinking alcohol . Some forms of essential tremor improve if the person with the condition has been drinking a small amount of alcohol. In modern subjects, having a drink such as half a pint of beer leads to the tremor being almost completely eliminated for as long as the alcohol is in their system.
This seems a more likely explanation for the occasional improvement in the tremor, as it is unlikely a monk would have gone away for an extended time to rest while working on a manuscript, only to come back and pick up exactly where he left off weeks before.
It would also be further confirmation that he did have essential tremor as opposed to something like Parkinson’s Disease or Ataxia, as essential tremor is unusual in its positive response to alcohol – other tremor conditions tend to get far worse when alcohol has been consumed.
Other Tremulous Hands
Because research into the work of the Tremulous Hand was able to reveal a lot about his condition, other medieval scribes have now been studied in greater detail to look for evidence of problems they may have faced with writing.
One example is of a medieval scribe from France, and research has shown that he is likely to have suffered from dystonia, a more severe tremor disorder than essential tremor. While the Tremulous Hand of Worcester had shaky writing, the pressure he exerted onto the page was even and controlled. This was not the case in the work of the French monk, and so paleographers and neurologists were able to work together to find other potential causes, concluding dystonia was the most likely cause.
Another sample of medieval script different from the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. (Jaqeli / Public Domain )
Studying the Tremulous Hand of Worcester is fascinating to historians because it offers an insight into the lives of medieval monks, but for scientists the data the evidence they have gathered from studying his work may be used in a very different way.
New technology is being created to try and help people who suffer from tremor conditions and studying the work of the Tremulous Hand has provided valuable data. This has been added to the algorithm of a program used to help diagnose people with tremor conditions, which helps it to tell the difference between the different kinds of tremor.
For many people with tremor conditions, an early diagnosis makes a huge difference. The medications and treatments which are available to help them can be much more effective when the problem is identified earlier on and having technology that can identify the root cause of the tremor could save valuable time and help them receive the treatment they need as soon as possible.
We may never know who the Tremulous Hand of Worcester really was, but the work he left behind has left a surprising number of clues about who he was as a person. He never wrote about himself, or his condition, and yet we know he was a British monk with an interest in Old English. We know he wrote extensively, over a long period of time, and that his condition deteriorated but could sometimes be improved either by taking a longer rest or through consumption of alcohol. It is amazing to think that this man working hard to transcribe Anglo Saxon texts in a medieval priory would help scientists pioneer new medical techniques 800 years later.
Top image: The Tremulous Hand of Worcester was a medieval scribe in the 13 th Century. Source: cobracz / Adobe.
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Thorpe, D. and Alty, J. 2015. What type of tremor did the ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester’ have? [Online] Available at: https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/10/3123/2468718
University of York. 2017. Tremulous Hands. [Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PxQHmCnQrw
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