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The Body and the Book, England 1350-1600: Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Wellcome Collection

Wellcome Collection and Birkbeck, University of London invite applications for an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award to start in October 2019.

Fact file

  • Qualification type: PhD
  • Length: up to four years full time/seven years part time
  • Location: London
  • Funding for: UK students / EU students
  • AHRC stipend: for the academic year 2019-20, the stipend will be £17,559 including London weighting. This includes an enhanced stipend to cover additional travel costs relating to the project.
  • Hours: full- or part-time
  • Enquiries: please , with the subject line 'CDA Inquiry'.
  • Closing date: Friday 3 May 2019, 12pm


  • How did the relationship between the book and the human body change in the period 1350-1600? The human body and the early book are intimate associates. The codex book is a format designed in relation to the body: the size of the hand that holds the book, the reading distance between hand and eye, and the book’s capacity to be carried on the person. Scholars have long appreciated the awareness that medieval writers on parchment had about the animal skins on which they wrote, linking a rich set of bodily metaphors directly to their material practice. This self-consciousness was ingrained enough to carry over into new print and paper technologies. How did changing book formats impact on conceptualisations of the body, and how did changing ideas about the body manifest themselves materially in books?

Project aims and objectives

  • Considering English materials, this project will investigate material and metaphorical intimacies between body and book across a key period divide, marked by the arrival of print technology, the Reformation and the ‘discovery’ of the New World.
  • This project’s aim is to explore diachronic change in material book production and consumption in relation to the body either side of the English Reformation. It will make new discoveries from Wellcome Collection’s unrivalled holdings of Middle English manuscripts and early printed books relating to health, medicine and the natural world. Although acknowledged sources for histories of medicine, these collections are still under-used in literary, cultural and visual histories.
  • You will be expected to identify a focused research question within this broad area, building on your interests, expertise and prior study. Possible areas for research proposals include:
    • Physical and emotional relationships between body and book: Wellcome Collection has intriguing examples of manuscript formats meant to be attached to the body or containing instructions for bodily rituals or acts. Equally this study could investigate the personal relationships between people and the books relating to the body which they owned, shared or borrowed, as evidenced in inscriptions, annotations and other signs of interaction.
    • Marked body, marked book: Manuscript and printed books materially incorporated attitudes to bodily markings, whether voluntary (cosmetics, tattoos, scarification, painting), inflicted (branding, mutilation, circumcision) or acquired (signs of age, birth marks, scars of illness, other disfigurement). How did representations of these change during the shift to print, or as the several ‘revolutions’ of the 1500s altered the discursive frames in which the body was understood?
    • Body and soul: Bodies in books inform on the health and fortunes of the soul in the late Middle Ages. Ideas about the soul, and the relationship between body and soul, were disputed and disrupted in the sixteenth century. How might defacement and iconoclasm, annotation and tipping mark these shifts? What can the often very mixed contents of early books tell us about the relationship between religious and medical ideas?

Project resources

  • This studentship includes conservation handling training and access to desk space at Wellcome Collection, a taught MPhil programme at Birkbeck (research skills, critical theory, and teaching in higher education) and a rich menu of other research and training events at both. This unique opportunity offers privileged access to unrivalled holdings of Middle English manuscripts and early printed books relating to health, medicine and the natural world. While these materials are acknowledged sources for histories of medicine, their literary and visual qualities are under-explored. 
  • Wellcome Collection has one of the world’s largest collections of Middle English medical manuscripts, with rich literary qualities, such as rhyming verse and translation/adaptation from Latin and European languages. They are complemented by an outstanding collection of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century printed books on, for example, anatomy, surgery, gynaecology and ‘popular’ medicine. The successful candidate will have access to this unrivalled collection, benefit from exceptional holdings of secondary materials, and have privileged access to staff reference files. The candidate will also have specific opportunities to contribute to Wellcome Collection’s wider research development programme, including public engagement opportunities, and to develop professional experience and skills beyond their academic pursuits.
  • Birkbeck is one of the best places in the world to begin a career in early literature and culture. As part of the University of London and CHASE, it is at the heart of vibrant scholarly communities. Birkbeck’s Centre for Medical Humanities, as well as its imminent Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Worlds, makes a ready intellectual home for this project. Geographically the college is surrounded by world-leading libraries, museums and galleries. The postgraduate community is large and students work together to organise events, publish, edit, curate, and contribute to public engagement initiatives, such as Birkbeck’s Arts Week.
  • This award also offers:
    • supervision from world-leading scholars of early literature, medicine and culture
    • extensive research training (including conservation handling, research skills)
    • experience in public engagement and academic knowledge exchange
    • membership of vibrant intellectual communities at Birkbeck and the Wellcome Collection.

Project activities

  • You will be expected to attend at least three supervisions a term (full-time) or two (part-time). These may be with all supervisors or with individual supervisors. 
  • You will participate in the Birkbeck English department’s taught MPhil programme and play an active part in relevant research communities, such as those within the college, the University of London, CHASE and Wellcome Collection. 
  • You will be subject to graduate monitoring at Birkbeck and will undergo an upgrade process, from MPhil to PhD (usually in your second full-time, or third or fourth part-time year). 
  • At Wellcome Collection you will attend supervision panel meetings and conservation handling training. You may also contribute research to relevant Wellcome exhibitions, potentially also organising a public engagement event. 
  • The successful candidate will be expected to organise a two-day academic knowledge exchange event.


  • At Birkbeck, you will be based in the Department of English and Humanities, in the School of Arts. You will receive co-supervision from Dr Isabel Davis and Dr Susan Wiseman, who have international research reputations; their work, together, spans the period 1300-1700.
    • Dr Wiseman has published widely on women, metamorphosis and the material conditions of non-elite life and writing in the early modern period.
    • Dr Davis has a publications record extending from the Middle Ages across the Reformation, specialising in gender and sexual ethics in devotional perspective; her work has also taken on a medical humanities trajectory.
  • At Wellcome Collection, you will be supervised by Dr Elma Brenner, the person most familiar with the relevant Wellcome holdings, and an internationally known scholar of Anglo-French medieval medicine and religion.

Essential skills/attributes

  • A good or excellent result at BA and MA levels in a cognate subject area.
  • Some experience of reading Middle English.
  • A clear and interesting research proposal that fulfils the expectations of this topic.
  • A range of training opportunities are included in this offer which make it possible for candidates to apply from any relevant discipline, although some experience of reading Middle English is required.

Desirable skills/attributes

  • Language skills - higher level Middle English experience; Latin, French or other European languages.
  • Experience of palaeography and codicology and of handling manuscripts and early printed books.

How to apply

Terms and conditions

  • The studentship is subject to RCUK eligibility criteria, and will cover home or EU fees and stipend at RCUK rates. The studentship will provide up to three years' funding for full-time students with the opportunity to extend to a maximum of four years' full-time support. Part-time applications are welcome and will be awarded on an equivalent pro-rata basis.

Birkbeck and Wellcome Collection are committed to equality and diversity: 

  • Birkbeck operates within national schemes such as Athena Swan, the Race Equality Chartermark, Disability Confident, Mindful Employer and the Stonewall Diversity Champions Programme.
  • Wellcome, the parent body of Wellcome Collection, recently made diversity and inclusion one of its priority areas. It is a Stonewall Diversity Champion and a member of the Business Disability Forum and Working Families.