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Handwriting provides window into health, new documentary reveals

Posted on 18 January 2017

A new online documentary investigating how the study of handwriting could help improve the lives of people with movement disorders has been launched by a University of York historian.


Dr Deborah Thorpe helped identify the type of tremor a prolific 13th century scribe.

‘Tremulous Hands’ explores how Dr Deborah Thorpe helped identify the type of tremor a prolific 13th century scribe lived with after carrying out forensic analysis of his distinctive handwriting. 

She reveals how the study was carried out and why this type of historical work could help benefit the diagnosis of modern-day neurological disorders.

Known as the Tremulous Hand of Worcester, the medieval writer, thought to have been a monk at Worcester Cathedral, has been the subject of much debate and speculation regarding his condition.

Dr Thorpe’s handwriting analysis revealed that he most likely had a condition called essential tremor - a type of uncontrollable shake or tremble which today affects around four out of 100 adults over the age of 40.

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Teaming up with Dr Jane Alty of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and Dr Stephen Smith, an electronic engineer from the University of York, Dr Thorpe charted the progress of the monk’s condition through his writing and compared it to present handwriting from modern-day individuals with different conditions.

Dr Thorpe, who is currently a Research Fellow in the Department of Electronics, funded by the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders, said: “Handwriting can be incredibly revealing and a very useful tool for examining the past when evidence from the skeletal record is absent.  Writing is a test of our brains, eyes and hands and when something goes wrong in this system it can sometimes be detected in our handwriting.

“Combining historical and neurological expertise has helped us take this research area further than it has been before and provides us with a valuable link between past, present and future movement disorders.

“We wanted to do the documentary to show how the pieces of the puzzle come together to form a picture of the past and how new technologies in this field could give us greater insights into bodily movements today.”


With the support of Dr Jane Alty, Dr Thorpe charted the progress of the monk's condition.

Dr Thorpe and Dr Smith are now taking this research forward by combining digital micro sensors with quills and parchment, to capture the hand movements of calligraphers replicating medieval style writing.

By recovering the dynamic features of historical handwriting, such as the speed and flow of writing, they hope to be able to give more accurate diagnoses for medieval tremor conditions.

Further information:

For more information on the study into the Tremulous Hand of Worcester, the research paper can be accessed in Brain: A Journal of Neurology here: http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/08/31/brain.awv232.article-info

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