On Speaking Terms

A glimpse into eight centuries of contexts, causes and cures for communication disability

An Atlas of Anatomy (1879) by Florence Fenwick MillerThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

Past and present

Communication is at the heart of who we are as human beings and communication disorders reflect the diversity of our humanity. As the Department of Clinical Speech and Language Studies in Trinity College Dublin celebrates 50 years of educating speech and language therapists in Ireland, this exhibition provides a glimpse into eight centuries of communication disabilities. The words and phrases, when viewed within the historical and textual context, provide a window into how these disorders were problematized, understood and managed.

De Proprietatibus rerum domini bartholomei anglici (1488) by Bartholomaeus AnglicusThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

Communication as character

This idea that moral qualities could be determined from the features of speech appears regularly in medieval and early modern texts. These social constructions would likely have affected how communication disabilities were viewed, just as society's view on disability today affect those who live with difference. This Latin text describes the properties of a clear voice and its opposite, a 'trembling voice' that is 'hoarse and rough, feeble and dissonant, too heavy or sharp', which, the author says is 'blameworthy'. 

The Canterbury Tales (1896) by Geoffrey Chaucer illustrated edition with illustrations by Edward Burne-JonesThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

The friar in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is described as having a lisp, which he employs pretentiously. His lisp is described as ‘wanton’, indicating excessive pleasure-seeking and his morally-dubious character

The storye of the most noble and worthy kynge Arthur the which was the fyrst of the worthyes Chrysten and also of his noble and valyaunt knyghtes of the rounde table (1582 [1475]) by Sir Thomas MaloryThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

'She was dombe and had neuer spoken worde'.

The mute maiden of Malory's tales of King Arthur is given the responsibility of summoning Sir Percival to the round table. This gives her a voice, and she says out loud: ‘Aryse Syr Percyvale’.

Coir Anmann The fitness of names (16th Century) by unknownThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

The stammering king of Ulaid

This List of Kings of Ulaid (Ulster), shows the genealogy of Cuscraid Mend Macha, Cuscraid the Stammerer of Armagh. Cuscraid was a brave Ulster hero who appears several times in the Ulster sagas. His stammer is mentioned in his 'nickname' alongside his kingship. This text records one account of how he acquired his stutter. Seen here towards the top left of the folio section shown, the text notes that Cet wounded his mouth, and cut off a bit of his tongue. Cuscraid is described elsewhere in Mac Datho’s Pig as handsome, and wise: “Black hair is on him, and very stammering speech has he. All the folk of the Hostel listen to his counsel. Handsomest of men he is: he wears a shirt and a bright-red mantle, with a brooch of silver therein”. He was appointed King of Ulster following Conor Mac Nessa’s death.

Book of Leinster (12th Century) by unknownThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

This extract (from Mac Datho’s Pig, in the Book of Leinster) notes an alternative account of how Cuscraid came to stutter: a spear thrown by Cet of Connaught damaged tendons in his throat.

Practical Anatomy (1888) by Christopher HeathThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

'Causes' for concern...

Head injuries, the clamour of battle, convulsions of the ventricles, disturbances in the organs of the voice - the causes of communication disabilities recorded across the centuries encompass both the familiar and the surprising. The symptoms too are sometimes vividly described.

Yellow Book of Lecan (14th - 15th Century) by unknownThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

Suibne experienced the Battle of Mag Rath. His terror is clear, and the ‘clamour of conflict’ causes his speech to become faltering. ‘The inlets of hearing were expanded and quickened by the horrors of lunacy; the vigour of his brain in the cavities of his head was destroyed by the clamour of the conflict; his heart shrunk within him with the panic of dismay; his speech became faltering from the giddiness of imbecility'

Advice to the people in general with regard to their health (1766) by Samuel Auguste Tissot translated by John KirkpatrickThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

Tissot addresses symptoms following a bite by a 'mad dog'. Of interest here is that the voice is either hoarse or 'abolished entirely'. He goes on to deny reports that those bitten bark like mad dogs. Swallowing is also mentioned as being possible but 'not without violent difficulty'.

Pharmaceutical writings (15th century) by AnonThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

This 15th-century text uses features of speech as diagnostic. Phlegm ('flewme') in the lungs is associated with hoarseness more at night than in the day, more in winter than summer, more after meat than before it, and more after sleep than before it

A New Treatise on the Different Disorders Arising from External Injuries of the Head (1793) by Sylvester OHalloranThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

This text from 1793 is by O'Halloran, a doctor who was based in Limerick. Here we see the prominence he gave to symptoms relating to communication in terms of the diagnostic relevance.

Exploring Witowski's Movable Atlas showing the Structure and Functions of the Brain (2019)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Here we explore this highly intricate 19th-century moveable ‘atlas' of the brain. We now know that there are complex networks that serve language and communication. This altas includes an area labelled ‘A’ which is listed as ‘centre of movements of the tongue’. It corresponds to part of Broca's area which was identified a just a decade before this was published.

Bath Memoirs (1697) by Robert PierceThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

A highly specific account of symptoms is given in this extract: 'She spake one Word for another' - a symptom that we would call paraphasia today. This presentation occurred with no accompanying 'Giddiness in her Head [or] Failing of her Limbs'.

Pharmaceutical writings (15th century) by Gilbertus AnglicusThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

In one extract from this 15th-century manuscript, Gilbertus Anglicus describes how lethargy is a sickness that makes a man forgetful. Anglicus explains that when the man is called, he will answer ‘only with difficulty’. When he opens his mouth, he may close it only with difficulty.

Medical recipies (15th century) by unknownThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

Healing words...

Medieval and early modern books are bursting with remedies for communication disorders. These problems range from sore throats to complete speechlessness. From the healing words of the Virgin Mary to the most pragmatic of herbal remedies, the contents of these texts have much to reveal about how communication disabilities were understood historically.

Honorius Augustodunensis etc (15th century) by unknownThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

The Virgin Mary was an exemplar healer to medieval people: in this text, she uses her breast milk to cure a monk who has a throat swelling and cannot speak, and is unable to swallow saliva or food.

Compleat treatise of the muscles (1698) by John BrowneThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

Cures relating to problems of the voice occur across a number of the texts featured in this exhibition. This vivid diagram appears in 'Compleat treatise of the muscles' (1698), and shows muscles of the tongue and larynx

Medical recipies (15th century) by unknownThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

The juice of sage and primrose are recommended as a cure for loss of speech in this medieval household remedy collection, jotted down in the back of a literary text.

Primitive Physick (1781) by John WesleyThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

Several centuries later, sage is still being used in remedies for disorders of the mouth and voice. Here, a spoonful of sage juice is one the treatments for hoarseness. Another is unusual in that it is applied to the feet - a mixture of lard and garlic.

Recipe book (18th century) by unknownThe Library of Trinity College Dublin

'For sore throat or Quinsey'.

This Irish recipe book suggests that millipedes can be dried out and made into a powder. Butter is rolled around in this powder before the lump of powdered butter is swallowed.

On speaking terms (2019)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

And so we end this glimpse into the portrayal of communication disabilities across eight centuries. There is a rich history of inquiry into our uniquely human ability to communicate through speech and language, and into ways in which communication difficulties can be 'managed'. The Department of Clinical Speech & Language Studies at Trinity College Dublin celebrates 50 years of continuing that inquiry, working alongside those living with communication disabilities.

Credits: Story

Curators: Dr Caroline Jagoe, Dr Deborah Thorpe & Margaret Leahy
Library liaisons: Lydia Ferguson & Caoimhe Ni Ghormain
Technical curators: Greg Sheaf & Caroline Jagoe
Images: Gill Whelan
Video: Make Perceive (makeperceive.ie)

Funded by the Research Incentive Scheme (Trinity Long Room Hub) and the TCD-Wellcome Trust ISSF in Neurohumanities
Grateful thanks to: Professor Damien McManus for his support with the Irish texts, any errors remain our own; Claire Balaski for her work on the 17th century texts; Nina Baker for her research assistance and Latin expertise.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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