The ‘Tremulous Hand’ is the name given to a 13th-century annotator who made notes in manuscripts that were originally stored in Worcester, probably in the Cathedral Priory. He has this curious name because his notes, or ‘glosses’, are leftward leaning and shaky. He is thought to have suffered from a nerve condition called ‘essential tremor’, which is a type of uncontrollable shaking that mainly affects the hands. Today, the condition is thought to affect around four out of 100 adults over the age of 40.

The career of the Tremulous Hand

Leaving notes in at least 20 manuscripts, both between the lines of text and in the margins, the Tremulous Hand was a prolific annotator. Notably, he annotated manuscripts written in Old English – the language of the Anglo-Saxons – despite the fact that by the 13th century this language was no longer spoken in England. He appears to have had a linguistic historian’s interest in the now unfamiliar language. He wrote some of his glosses in an early form of Middle English, the language which evolved out of Old English. In fact, this form of Middle English is most closely related to that found in the Ancrene Wisse. He also wrote some glosses in Latin. In other places he clarified word division and punctuation, and changed spellings. Sometimes he added a doodle, or nota mark.

The Tremulous Hand had a long career: one estimate suggests that he wrote 50,000 glosses. It is clear from the state of his work, however, that his condition worsened during his lifetime. Later on in his career he seems to have been collecting Old English words, possibly to make a glossary. His work is a perfect metaphor for the way the English language was undergoing change in the 13th century. When his work was first identified by scholars, it was thought that his tremor was the result of old age and a rather poetic picture of the Tremulous Hand emerged in which he was one of the last of a generation able to understand Old English. We now know that this was not the case.

The translations

This manuscript contains a mixture of texts in Old English: some homilies (sermons), a translation of parts of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), three saints’ lives and a letter. The Tremulous Hand’s annotations within these texts translate a range of Old English words. On f. 3v (the sixth image) for example, in shaky glosses written above the lines of text, the annotator has written ‘amore’ [love] above ‘lufan’, ‘celestis’ [heaven] above ‘heofen’, ‘villa’ [town] above ‘tun’, ‘parentes’ [kinsmen] above ‘magas’, ‘abstinentia’ [abstinence, restraint] above ‘for-hæfednes’ and ‘sermone’ [speech,words, conversation] above ‘wordum’. In this case, the letter that looks like a ‘p’ is actually a runic ƿ, wynn, for ‘w’.

These glosses are a visual representation of language change, but they also show us the dual influence of Latin and Old English on Modern English. We can see here the origins of ‘parent’ and ‘abstinence’ in Latin and the origins of ‘town’ and ‘love’ in Old English, as well as the way we often use two different types of word to mean the same thing. So, we use ‘amorous’ as well as ‘love’ and ‘heaven’ as well as ‘celestial’.

The manuscript

This manuscript contains a mixture of texts in Old English – some homilies (sermons), a translation of parts of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), three saints’ lives and a letter. The manuscript may have been made in south-west England, possibly in Crediton, although aspects of the script resemble manuscripts produced in Canterbury. It may have been made for Wulfsige, bishop of Sherborne. In 1731 a terrible fire broke out in the library where the manuscript was being stored and it was burnt. The pages changed shape and split in the heat, which is why they are a strange shape. In the 19th century, the pages were mounted on paper. 

View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.