The Medieval Brain: Organiser’s Epilogue

As the caffiene levels begin to settle, and the inbox returns to its normal level of activity, I think it is time to reflect on ‘The Medieval Brain’, a conference that I organised at the University of York over 9th, 10th, and 11th March 2017.

Programme Books

The conference brought together scholars from a range of backgrounds spanning medieval literary studies, history, linguistics, art history, electronic engineering, neurology, hearing-studies, psychiatry and pscyhology, to explore diverse topics relating to the central theme. I’ll spare you a run-down of the titles and contents of the papers given at the conference, as some of that can be gleaned from the conference programme, by searching for #MedievalBrain on Twitter, and by perusing the wonderful Storify summaries made by Jonathan Hsy here (day one), here (day two), and here (day three) – thanks Jonathan!

Instead, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts and feelings about the conference, as well as a few photographs.

Firstly, I’d like to thank the keynote speakers, Corinne Saunders, Carole Rawcliffe, and Jonathan Hsy for leading the conference in the right direction with three stimulating, engagingly-presented, and informative, talks. The presentations were very different, yet spoke to each other and to the conference theme through their focus on medieval mental health, communication, and religious life. Corinne’s talk promoted discussions and debates about retrospective diagnosis and experiences of medieval and modern voice-hearing; Carole’s presentation gave new glimpses of how mental health was preserved, and ill health was remedied, in late-medieval monasteries; and Jonathan’s talk addressed  misconceptions about ‘loss’ and deafness, and spoke instead about deaf ‘gain’.

The 15-20 minute talks given by conference attendees were wide-ranging and some sessions were very diverse. However, there were synergies and talking-points within each session – so many, in fact, that the coffee was often postponed in favour of extended question time! I would like to thank the numerous conference Tweeters for recording many of these talking points, for me to reflect on in tranquility now that the conference is over.

Shahrzad Irannejad, ‘The Brain in Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine’, 9th March

On a personal note, by the time the first keynote ended and good-natured, lively, and challenging questions ensued, I began to form the impression that I’d invited a really good bunch of people. This impression grew and grew as the days went on. The importance of kindness and friendliness can not be over-estimated when it comes to conferences, which can be intimidating and intense. I saw real warmth and congeniality amongst this group that had gathered to talk about medieval brains. I hope everyone else felt the same.

I never felt that, as the organiser, I was taken for granted. On the contrary, I was thanked many times, which made me feel very good. Indeed, when the chair of one session had to change her travel plans, she took it upon herself to swap with the chair of another session – thereby ensuring that I did not have any last minute organisational headaches! Lastly, it was refreshing that the conversations flowed naturally amongst people from very different disciplinary backgrounds. I think it is a sign that interdisciplinary conversations are flourishing and growing stronger within medieval studies, even those that at first sight seem unconventional.

Conference lunches were provided by Divine Dining – the only external catering company approved by the university – and were delicious. Great brain food! An informal conference dinner was enjoyed at the York vegan restaurant El Piano, with 34 people attending – making for a lively event! The manager of front of house at El Piano even gave me a bottle of wine to enjoy at home – even better for reflecting on the conference in tranquility!

Before signing off, I’d like to thank the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders (C2D2), the University of York, and the Wellcome Trust for financial and practical assistance. Huge thanks go to conference assistant Tim Wingard and to Vicki Blud for her intellectual assistance. Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who presented and/or attended the conference for making it such a memorable and friendly event.

-Deborah Thorpe



Final Programme, The Medieval Brain

BL Sloane MS 1977, fo. 2v


Thursday 9th March

9.00–9.30: Registration and Coffee

9.30: Welcome: Deborah Thorpe, University of York

9.45–11.15: Session 1: Language, Sound, Reconstruction

Hannah Bower (University of Oxford): ‘“Similes We Live (or Die) By”: The Use of Similes in Late Medieval English Remedy Collections’

Anja Weingart (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen) and Emiliano Giovannetti (Istituto di Linguistica Computazionale – CNR): ‘From canabo to Cannabis sativa L.: Modelling Diachronic Termino-ontological Resources in the Context of DiTMAO’

Bonnie Millar (NIHR Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit, University of Nottingham): ‘Listening differently: Harmonies and cacophonies of sound, medieval and modern’

Chair: Victoria Blud

11.15–11.45: Refreshments


Session 2: Grey Matters – Structuring the Brain

Fernando Salmón (University of Cantabria): ‘A complexional brain: Medical approaches to brain structure and functioning in the 13th and 14th centuries’

Shahrzad Irannejad (Johannes Gutenberg University): ‘The Brain in Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine’

Cher Casey (University of York): ‘Making Matter of the Mind: reconstructing the medieval cranial anatomy of Cologne’s 11,000 Holy Virgin skull relics’

Chair: Sunny Harrison

13.15–14.00: Lunch

14.00–15.00: Keynote, Corinne Saunders (Durham University): ‘Writing the Inner Life: Voices and Visions in Medieval Literary Texts’

15.00–15.30: Refreshments


Session 3: Emotions

Jamie McKinstry (Durham University): ‘“Heavy Matters!”: Medieval Cognition and the Expression of Sadness’

Philippe Depairon (Université de Montréal): ‘Laughing with Thomas: A Short History of Laughter in the 13th Century’

Alice Jorgensen (Trinity College Dublin): ‘Emotion and thought, emotion and behaviour in the Old English Boethius’

Chair: Juliana Dresvina

Friday 10th March

9.30–11.00: Session 4: Order and Disorder: Physical and Psychological

Rachael Gillibrand (University of Leeds): ‘Extension or Lack?: The Relationship Between Prosthetic Technologies and the Body in the Late Middle Ages’

Christina Hildebrandt (Saint Louis University): ‘Reading William Dunbar’s “My heid did ȝak ȝester nicht” as a Narrative of Impairment’

Mark Ronan (University College Dublin): ‘Behavioral Addictions in Henryson’s Fables’

Sunny Harrison (University of Leeds): ‘Behavioural disorder, control, and occupational health in later medieval horse medicine’

Chair: Jamie McKinstry

11.00–11.30: Refreshments

11.30–12.30: Keynote, Carole Rawcliffe (University of East Anglia): ‘Mental Illness and Mental Health in the Late Medieval Monastery’

12.30–13.30: Lunch

13.30–15.00: Session 5: Cognitive Theory

Juliana Dresvina (University of Oxford): ‘Darwin’s Cathedral, Bowlby’s Cloister:
medieval religiosity as evolutionary adaptivity on the example of attachment theory’

Victoria Blud (University of York): ‘Making Up a Mind: “4E” Cognition in the Middle Ages’

Lauren Rozenberg (University College London): ‘Phantasm and Parchment: a cognitive theoretical approach to images of the French treatise Livre de vie et l’aiguillon d’amour et de dévotion (ca. 1330 – 1340)’

Chair: James Smith

15.00–15.30: Refreshments

15.30–17.00: Session 6: Early Medieval Intellectual Experience

Rose Sawyer (University of Leeds): ‘“Þu ert sciptingr”: Associations between intellectual (dis)ability and the child substitution motif in Old Norse Sources’

Rachael Vause (University of Delaware): ‘Heart, Hand, and Mind: Grasping the Anglo-Saxon Cross’

Christopher Pell (NHS Tayside): ‘Him Bith Sona Sel – Psychiatry in the Anglo-Saxon Leechbooks’

Chair: Veronika Wieser

Saturday 11th March

10.00–11.00: Session 7: Tremulous Hands, Past, Present and Future

Deborah Thorpe, Stephen Smith (University of York), and Jane Alty (Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust/Hull York Medical School): ‘Tremulous Scribes: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Digital Approaches’

11.00–11.30: Refreshments

11.30–12.30: Keynote, Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University): ‘Deaf Gain in the Middle Ages: Language, Cognition, Culture’

12.30–13.30: Lunch

13.30–15.00: Session 8: Experiencing Religion

Hilary Powell (Durham University): ‘Mind wandering and the monastic praxis of meditatio’

James Smith (University of York): ‘Green Space in Medieval Monasticism’

Andrew Fogleman (California State University, Fullerton): ‘“Not Everybody’s Soul is Naturally Disposed to be a Mirror of Visions”: Nicole Oresme, the Brain, and Visionaries in the 14th-Century’

Chair: Rutger Kramer

15.00–15.30: Refreshments

15.30–17.00: Session 9: Treating Holiness and Experiencing Sadness

Klaas Huijbregts and Rutger Kramer: Introduction

Veronika Wieser (Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna): ‘Last Things: Fear of Death and Notions of Salvation in Late Roman Society’

Rutger Kramer (Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna): ‘Alienation and Authority: The Flaws of a Carolingian Saint’

Frances Murray (University of St Andrews): ‘Two Types of Tears: Weeping between Individual, Community and God’

Klaas Huijbregts (GGNet): ‘Sadness Regained: Brain Disease or Emotional Distress – A 21st-Century Perspective on an Ever-Shifting Paradigm’

Chair: Rachael Gillibrand



The Medieval Brain: Announcing the provisional programme

Dear all,

The provisional programme for The Medieval Brain, 9th, 10th, and 11th March (University of York) is now available to download in PDF form, below:


Its likely that one or two things may change (final programme to be distributed in mid-late January), but this programme gives an idea of the structure of the three days.

We are able to extend the invite to a small number of delegates who wish to come along to listen to the talks and attend the social events, but not to give their own talk at the conference. We will allocate these places on a first-come-first-served basis, so please email us at if you’d like to come along.

See you on the 9th March!

Update: after the deadline

Hello all,

The deadline for The Medieval Brain has now passed. I’m thrilled to say that lots of really interesting abstracts have been submitted. Now, the challenge of finding the time to carefully read, select, and organise the abstracts into themed sessions presents itself.

Those who submitted abstracts should expect to hear from the conference organisers by the end of November at the latest. This should give everyone time to book travel and accomodation in advance of March. Did I mention that The Medieval Brain‘s been so popular that it looks like we’ll be running to three days instead of the two that we originally planned…watch this space!

Deborah Thorpe


Call for Papers, The Medieval Brain Conference. University of York, 9th, 10th & 11th March 2017.

As we research aspects of the medieval brain, we encounter complications generated by medieval thought and twenty-first century medicine and neurology alike. Our understanding of modern-day neurology, psychiatry, disability studies, and psychology rests on shifting sands. Not only do we struggle with medieval terminology concerning the brain, but we have to connect it with a constantly-moving target of modern understanding. Though we strive to avoid interpreting the past using presentist terms, it is difficult – or impossible – to work independently of the framework of our own modern understanding. This makes research into the medieval brain and ways of thinking both challenging and exciting. As we strive to know more about specifically medieval experiences, while simultaneously widening our understanding of the brain today, we much negotiate a great deal of complexity.

In this three-day conference, to be held at the University of York on Thursday 9th, Friday 10th and Saturday 11th March 2017* under the auspices of the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders, we will explore the topic of ‘the medieval brain’ in the widest possible sense. The ultimate aim is to provide a forum for discussion, stimulating new collaborations from a multitude of voices on, and approaches to, the theme.

Confirmed keynote speakers:

Carole Rawcliffe (University of East Anglia)

Corinne Saunders (Durham University)

Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University)

This call is for papers to comprise a series of themed sessions of papers and/or roundtables that approach the subject from a range of different, or an interweaving of, disciplines. Potential topics of discussion might include, but are not restricted to:

  • Mental health
  • Neurology
  • The history of emotions
  • Disability and impairment
  • Terminology and the brain
  • Ageing and thinking
  • Retrospective diagnosis and the Middle Ages
  • Interdisciplinary practice and the brain
  • The care of the sick
  • Herbals and medieval medical texts

Research that grapples with terminology, combines unconventional disciplinary approaches, and/or sparks debates around the themes is particularly welcome. We will be encouraging diversity, and welcome speakers from all backgrounds, including those from outside of traditional academia. All efforts will be made to ensure that the conference is made accessible to those who are not able to attend through live-tweeting and through this blog.

Please send abstracts of up to 250 words for independent papers, or expressions of interest for roundtable topics/themed paper panels, by Friday 21st October, to Deborah Thorpe at:

(image credit: Detail of a historiated initial ‘C'(erebrum) of the treatment of a brain disease. BL Royal 6 E VI f. 258v)

*This was originally aimed, and originally advertised as, a two-day workshop. However, due to interest, it was expanded to a three-day conference. So, hooray for brains!