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The Tremulous Hand of WorcesterA Study of Old English in the Thirteenth Century$

Christine Franzen

Print publication date: 1991

Print ISBN-13: 9780198117421

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198117421.001.0001

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(p.198) Appendix 2. His Tremble

(p.198) Appendix 2. His Tremble

The Tremulous Hand of Worcester
Oxford University Press

THE scribe’s tremulous writing has usually been attributed to either old age or Parkinson’s disease. The medical experts whom I consulted agreed, however, that both of these causes are very unlikely in his case.1 Dr Loudon examined samples of the scribe’s handwriting and said that the type of tremble was not consistent with either Parkinson’s or old age, both of which would produce erratic and uneven writing, not the very fine, regular tremor which is seen in the glossator’s handwriting. Parkinson’s disease, in particular, is noted for very tiny writing, not the large, sprawling writing characteristic of the M state. Although he cautioned that diagnosing diseases from handwriting is a dubious procedure, Dr Loudon offered ‘congenital tremor’ as a possibility. The progressive lean to the left, the ‘splayed’ look, the failure to join up strokes, and the exaggerated size of the writing are all characteristic of a congenital tremor in the later stages. The tendency of the tremble to appear for the most part in downstrokes is also characteristic. In particular, he noted the variation in the degree of tremble in any given stage; some early samples are very trembly while much later work may be quite steady. With a congenital tremor, the time of day, the emotional state of the scribe, stress, and fatigue could influence the amount of tremulousness in the writing as much as, or more than, his age at the time. Note, for example, the clear break in the middle of the Nicene Creed, discussed under MS G in Chapter 2, where the first few lines are trembly while the rest of the writing is quite steady. Dr Loudon agreed that the amount of leftward lean in the writing is a better indication of the chronology than the amount of tremble. He said that the age at which the tremble would first manifest itself in writing would vary greatly—the scribe could have been quite young, possibly as young as 20, but he may have been considerably older. It is also impossible to say how long it might have taken to degenerate from the neat, upright D state to the very trembly late M stage, perhaps ten years, perhaps less, perhaps much longer. Dr Loudon cautioned that it is, of course, still possible that the scribe was an old man, but this particular type of tremble cannot be used as evidence that he was.

I think that it is very unlikely that the scribe was an old man when he began glossing. The scholars who assumed that he was an old man were also assuming that he glossed from a knowledge of Old English rather than a study of it, but if he had been an old man glossing over a period of years from his memories of the language of his youth, one might expect that the quality of the glossing would degenerate along with his handwriting as his memory began to fade. My study shows that the opposite happened: the glossing improves with time, and a clear (p.199) and deliberate learning process can be demonstrated, implying that the scribe was certainly in control of his mental faculties if not his handwriting.

Margaret Pelling commented on the ailments which the glossator flagged most often in the herbal in Hatton 76: bladder stones and dimness or soreness of eyes. I quote from her letter of 5 December 1985:

…bladder stones and eye problems are standard preoccupations in lay and medical literature of the early modern period and earlier. The incidence of stone was much higher than now for reasons which are not clear. It was an extremely painful condition for which specialist operators existed; at the same time there was an endless search for means to dissolve the stone or reduce the pain without cutting. It was thought to affect people in sedentary occupations, but not exclusively. Women were affected as well as men. Dimness of eyes aroused constant concern. Again there were specialist operators, but an endless variety of recipes and treatments short of more drastic measures [sic]. Factors relating to diet, some infectious diseases, and the intractability of infection itself must have increased the incidence of eye conditions, but it also seems fair to say that, because of the disastrous effects of blindness, people worried about the most minor aberrations of sight. The Worcester monk could be regarded as having common preoccupations which were also of particular concern to his ‘occupational group’.


(1) I am very grateful to Dr Irvine Loudon and Margaret Pelling of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford, for their opinions on these subjects.