Photo of Dr Helen Birkett

Dr Helen Birkett

Senior Lecturer


01392 724318

I am a Lecturer in Medieval History with expertise in twelfth-century Britain and Ireland, intellectual and religious culture, medieval monasticism, hagiography, and communication. I joined Exeter's history department in 2011. My main research interests concern monastic literary culture and the construction of texts and narratives in the central Middle Ages. I completed my doctorate under the supervision of Profs Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Christopher Norton at the University of York in 2009 and have since held postdoctoral fellowships at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, Edinburgh. I have published a monograph, The Saints’ Lives of Jocelin of Furness: Hagiography, Patronage and Ecclesiastical Politics, as well as several articles. I am currently working on two projects: the first investigates the transmission of visionary narratives by the Cistercians of Britain and Ireland c.1200; the second explores the concept of news in the Middle Ages.

Research interests

My general field of research concerns religious history in the central Middle Ages, with wider interests in medieval intellectual and cultural history, the interaction of orality and literacy, and the historical contextualisation of narrative texts. My book, The Saints' Lives of Jocelin of Furness, examined the four hagiographical texts written by the Cistercian writer Jocelin of Furness (fl. 1175x1214) for various patrons in Britain and Ireland. My research combined detailed analyses of the composition of Jocelin’s texts with study of their patronage, audience and contemporary contexts. As well as highlighting the work of a significant, but little known, twelfth-century hagiographer, my work provided new insights into the religious and political concerns of ecclesiastical and monastic communities in England, Scotland and Ireland c.1200.

The first of my current research projects builds on this work and combines historical and literary approaches to investigate the creation, shaping and circulation of visionary narratives in late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century Europe. I approach the copying, adaptation and compilation of these narratives as active processes in which mediators deployed accounts to promote certain individual or group ideals. By tracing the evolution of these narratives, my research also examines the processes of formation, selection and preservation that lie behind all historical records.

The second of my current project concerns the ideas of 'news' and 'the present' in the Middle Ages. This research responds to current debates in early modern and modern studies and will challenge, or at least complicate, some of the overly simplistic narratives of change currently dominant.

Research collaborations

As part of my current project on news in the Middle Ages, I am collaborating with the Traveler's Lab group based at Wesleyan University.

Research supervision

I am open to discussing research proposals on any relevant subject given my research expertise. I am especially happy to consider working with candidates with interests in the following areas:

  • Medieval religious, intellectual and cultural history c.1000-1300, particularly in the British Isles
  • The interaction of orality and literacy, and the creation of documents
  • The historical contextualisation of narrative texts, especially hagiography
  • Medieval communication

If you are interested in working with me, please send an e-mail outlining your proposed project along with a CV and a sample of your work.

Research students

I currently co-supervise the following students:

  • Tom Chadwick (constructions of Norman identity)
  • Jessica Desmond (later medieval miserichords)


I teach on a number of undergraduate and postgraduate modules, but the following are most closely related to my research interests:

  • HIH2182A The Re-Birth of Europe? Renaissance and Renewal in the Long Twelfth Century
  • HIH3110/1 The Celtic Frontier: Post Conquest England and her Celtic Neighbours
  • HISM019 Critical Approaches in Medieval Research: Saints, Shrines and Miracles in Medieval Europe

I try to make use of local archival resources in my teaching wherever possible, and have held manuscripts sessions for both undergraduate and postgraduate students at the Exeter Cathedral Library and University of Exeter Special Collections.

Modules taught


I completed an undergraduate degree in History at King's College London before moving north to study for a Masters in Medieval History at the University of York. I stayed at York for my doctoral research under the supervision of Prof. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Prof. Christopher Norton and was awarded a PhD in Medieval Studies in 2009. After this I undertook a four-month internship at Brepols Publishers in Belgium and then re-located to Toronto as a Mellon Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in 2009-10. In 2011 I was granted a six-month fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. In 2011-12 I joined History at Exeter as a temporary member of the teaching staff and was subsequently appointed to the permanent position of Lecturer in Medieval History in 2012. During this time, I was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was awarded the postdoctoral degree of Licence in Mediaeval Studies.