Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Tracing Neurological Disorders in the Handwriting of Medieval Scribes: Using the Past to Inform the Future

Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Tracing Neurological Disorders in the Handwriting of Medieval Scribes: Using the Past to Inform the Future

Article excerpt

A new interdisciplinary project has begun at the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders (C2D2) at the University of York entitled "Tracing Neurodegenerative Disorders in the Handwriting of Medieval Scribes: Using the Past to Inform the Future." This note describes the project, which was introduced at the Early Book Society Conference, Oxford, in June 2015. This research extends beyond a one-year "discipline-hopping internship" at C2D2 (2014-2015) called "Tracing Executive Function Impairment in the Handwriting of Medieval Scribes." (1) The further two-year interdisciplinary program pushes beyond its pilot study into a focus on how historical analysis can enhance our modern understanding of diseases and disorders. In the new study, funded through a C2D2 fellowship, (2) we have the following aims and objectives.

In the era before the invention of the printing presses, handwriting was a profession through which scribes could earn a living, and in a monastic context, the production of handwritten texts was an extended and deliberative act of worship. The initial aim of the project is to establish the practical impact of movement disorders caused by neurological conditions on the lives and work of medieval writers. In order to achieve this, I have set the objectives of establishing the changes in scribes' handwriting as they aged normally; determining what changes may be attributable to neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease, essential tremor, Alzheimer's disease, and stroke; analyzing the practical impact of these distortions on scribes' productivity and the nature of their work; and exploring intersections with non-motor symptoms (for instance, problems with sentence structuring and spelling), and concurrent conditions such as eyesight deterioration and the effects of alcohol consumption. Thus, we hope to enhance our understanding of the lives of the individuals who produced medieval texts, shedding more light on conditions that may, or may not, have terminated or prematurely ended their writing activities.

We shall next explore whether scrutinizing historical handwriting affected by disorder can contribute to modern techniques for medical handwriting analysis. The analysis of distorted handwriting in current clinical medicine and research is well documented. Studies of patients drawing an Archimedean spiral have demonstrated the impact of neurological disorders on the movement of the wrist joints used to produce the shape. Research into the writing of letters and words can shed light not only on motor disorders but also on problems in planning sequential strokes, letters, and words.

The first objective is to compare the nature of medieval and modern handwriting in the context of chronic diseases and disorders, examining distortions visually to establish and compare the impact of movement disorders on the formation of letter strokes. Once these malformations have been identified, the second objective is to train evolutionary algorithms to recognize and classify them. The final objective is to explore the potential for transferable outcomes in the development of medical diagnostic and monitoring equipment. The digital study of medieval disordered handwriting forms an unusual synthesis of disciplinary approaches, which has potential to demonstrate the value of collaboration between the humanities and sciences. The project will make connections between scholars from a range of backgrounds, thus ensuring that its outcomes are communicable within each of its constituent disciplines.

This project forms part of the Intelligent Systems group of the University of York's Electronics Department, which includes several Ph.D. students working on projects relating to computer-aided medical diagnosis and applied evolutionary algorithms. The primary mentor is Stephen Smith, who has experience of digitally assessing pen movements in drawings from patients with a range of neurological conditions. …

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