Dr Helen Birkett

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 will be collaborating with the Traveler's Lab group. I look forward to working with them in Wesleyan during my study leave in autumn 2017.