Neurological condition probably caused medieval scribe’s shaky handwriting

Manuscript analysis suggests 13th century writer had essential tremor

Nicene Creed

SHAKY SCRIPT  An anonymous 13th century scribe with an unsteady hand wrote manuscripts including this early Middle English version of the Nicene Creed. Scientists now suspect the writer had a neurological condition called essential tremor.

Bodleian Library/Univ. of Oxford 2015, Ms. Junius 121, Fol. Vi Recto

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Scribes usually have pretty good handwriting. That’s not the case for one prolific 13th century writer known to scholars only as the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. Now scientists suggest the writer suffered from a neurological condition called essential tremor. Neurologist Jane Alty and historical handwriting researcher Deborah Thorpe, both of the University of York in England, made the retrospective diagnosis August 31 in Brain after studying the spidery wiggles that pervade the scribe’s writing. Essential tremor can cause shaking of the hands, head and voice and is distinct from other tremor-causing conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

Here, the anonymous writer’s peculiar script is evident (lighter portion of text) in an early Middle English version of the Nicene Creed, a summary of the Christian faith. Buried in the manuscript are clues that helped the researchers conclude that essential tremor plagued the Tremulous Hand.

nicene creed
The Tremulous Hand of Worcester’s writing appeared in more than 20 books, including the Nicene Creed, a summary of the Christian faith. The writer’s distinctive script is the lighter portion of the text, about a third of the way down the page. Several clues led researchers to diagnose the scribe with essential tremor (see following images). Bodleian Library/Univ. of Oxford 2015, ms. Junius 121, fol. vi recto
1. Wiggles have a consistent size within individual letters. This uniformity rules out other types of tremor, such as dystonic tremors, which can result in small wiggles followed by large, jerky deviations. 2. The writing has the right number of wiggles. Assuming each downward stroke took less than half a second, researchers estimate the writing was marked by six to eight shakes a second. That frequency rules out other tremor diagnoses. 3. The wiggles are oriented in the same direction, toward 8 and 2 on a clockface. In other tremors, this axis changes frequently. Bodleian Library/Univ. of Oxford 2015, ms. Junius 121, fol. vi recto
4. The writing may have improved after rest or alcohol. Hydrating with weak alcohol was common in the Middle Ages, so it’s possible that booze calmed the scribe’s jitters. Essential tremor can ease in response to alcohol, whereas other tremor types such as cerebellar tremors sometimes worsen. Bodleian Library/Univ. of Oxford 2015, ms. Junius 121, fol. vi recto
5. The lines that compose the letters have roughly the same thickness, so the writing pressure appears steady. Variable nib pressure can lead to blotches and width differences in lines, a feature consistent with Parkinson’s and dystonic tremors. Bodleian Library/Univ. of Oxford 2015, ms. Junius 121, fol. vi recto

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